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Central Europe between the American-Russian clash of interests

21.12.2016 | By Leszek Sykulski

The old Cold War (1947–1989) was not just a confrontation between Western capitalist democracy and Soviet state socialism. In its essence, it was also a struggle between the American empire controlling Rimland and the Russian empire, which dominated strategically important parts of Eurasia (Heartland). The end of ideological confrontation and major social differences would not overcome the major geopolitical contradictions. Post-Soviet Russia was tolerated as long as it was desperately weak and submissive, and the Western powers seemed unchallenged. However, such a situation would not last forever.

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, called for “Europe as a Common Home”, but this was not perceived as a serious proposal. Later, the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, tried to fully integrate his country by joining NATO and making a direct alliance with Washington. Vladimir Putin, who succeeded him in office, repeated similar efforts more than once, supporting them by a number of unilateral concessions to Washington, which never achieved any positive results. The third Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, followed the same path, announcing a “modernization alliance” with the developed economies of the West and calling for new and more stable European security architecture in his speeches to German political, parliamentary and civic leaders in Berlin on June 5, 2008, and at the World Policy Conference in Evian, France, on October 8, 2008.

The present Ukrainian crisis is complex and it could have numerous causes, but the most important reason for its severity and the difficulty of finding a solution acceptable to all sides can be found in the contradictory geopolitical interests of Russia and the West on a global scale and in the central part of Europe as well. Vladimir Putin is aiming at protecting Russia’s national interests in its direct neighborhood, to secure the country’s access to the warm waters of the Black Sea, and to protect the rights of the Russian speakers in the eastern and southern Ukraine. Washington’s goals are to contain Russia and to prevent it from strengthening its international position, to breathe new life into NATO (which is its major global military instrument), and probably also to strengthen its position on the global energy market. In its essence, this local crisis might now boil down to a confrontation between American and Russian imperial aspirations.

The origins of the Ukraine crisis must be traced back to the situation in the Middle East in 2012-2013 i.e. the developing of the “Arab Spring” and the civil war in Syria. Although these events did not seem to be directly related to Ukraine’s problems, they consequently involved Moscow and Washington in a complex struggle, the results of which have influenced both the international status of Russia and the shape of the whole international system. As an outcome of the Ukrainian crisis, America’s position in Europe has become stronger than ever before, and it not only enables Washington to punish Moscow for its involvement in Syria and the Middle East, but also has greatly increased US control over Western and Central Europe.

The whole crisis in Ukraine was instigated by the ruling elite of the US in reaction to Moscow’s involvement in the Middle East. It’s aim was to prevent Russia from regaining its status as a great power. Another specific reason was the Washington’s wish to disrupt Europe’s economic relations with Russia and to prevent the establishment of any kind of ‘Greater Europe’ from the Atlantic to the Pacific, something that people had started to talk about. The outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis was very timely for that reason and made the American pet project of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in Europe more acceptable.

The new factor in the post-Cold War period, although not directly related to the Ukrainian crisis, was the unanticipated quick rise of China to the rank of great power, and in the foreseeable future, the peer and rival of the USA.

Although Russia’s annexation of Crimea might have been seen as the violation of some commonly accepted international legal principles, just like the separation of Kosovo from Serbia that was supported by the West (and which Moscow at the time strongly opposed), the Russian move was a reaction to the coup in Kiev on February 21, 2014, and was considered by the Russian leaders and the majority of the Russian population as an indispensable step in assuring the security of the nation.

Both the origins of the Ukrainian crisis and the present critical situation in the country resulted from covert or open Western interventions. Moscow, as almost always, was only able to react to them. Its reactions might have been clumsy or ineffective, but overall they have still been remarkably mild and cautious. One can only imagine the American or even the Chinese reaction to similar acts of destabilization in their geopolitically vital neighborhood.

In my opinion, although the post-Cold War international system has, since its very beginning, contained the seeds of major challenges, its further decline and the present critical situation have also been caused by other factors, not all of which have originated in the system itself. In the cases of both Syria and Ukraine, the international system does not operate exactly the same way as before, and some new factors have begun to have an impact on the course of events.

The first and most visible is the resurgence of post-Soviet Russia as an active political player and its major open conflict with the American superpower. Many observers did not anticipate this. The second, though not so visible, new factor of the post-Cold War era was a relative weakening of America’s global hegemony due to economic problems in the US, the rise of new developing countries, and the not-quite-successful military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Consequently, the US started to perceive the expansion of European-Russian economic ties as a threat to their leadership. There are several major factors which make the present Russian-Western conflict, focused in Ukraine, quite different from all previous historically similar confrontations and make it very important for the geopolitical future of the Central European region.

The first and probably the most important factor is the fact that the US, which wants to preserve its power as a global hegemon, is able to almost completely control both Western and Central (post-socialist) Europe, imposing not only its foreign policy directions but also shaping the political and economic domestic developments and cultural values of the old continent. One consequence of that is the clear decline of the old European powers and their lack of political initiative and independence.

The second factor has to do with a number of historic breakdowns that led to the decline of Russia. The fundamental thing for the US is that Russia is challenging the US leadership and the world order that the US leads. The Ukrainian crisis in its present form was possible only because of Moscow’s weakness. At the same time it is only one stage in the long battle for Russia.

The third factor that has become more visible is the growing role and influence of China and some other non-Western, mainly Asian, powers on international developments also in Europe. I think that Moscow would not probably have been able to survive the confrontation with Washington and the EU without the political and economic support of Beijing and some other non-Western nations, especially the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s members.

From the point of view of Russian and perhaps also European and even global interests, the present situation might be even worse than during the former Cold War period (1947–1989). It demonstrates how weak Russian Federation is, in comparison to the Soviet Union as well as the American political and ideological hegemony over all Europe. In 2003, before the second American war against Iraq, the situation was still different, and both French and German politicians led a vigorous opposition against it. There were demonstrations against the war in most European cities, and the largest of them took place in London, England.

During the last decade many things have changed:

  • The collapse of the Euro and the impact of the global economic crisis which, though it started in the US, was more painfully felt in Europe;

  • The return of France to NATO and the American fold;

  • The growing influence of some Eastern European states which were once part of the Soviet bloc, but have been admitted to the European Union and NATO; this “New Europe” has become very hostile to Moscow and pro-American;
  • Last but not least the progressing Americanization of the old continent made it far less independent and probably more a part of a semi-global empire.

Though some of the European nations, such as Germany, and to the lesser extent France, Italy, and the Czech Republic, are reluctant to follow Washington’s line on the Ukrainian crisis and its new Cold War with Russia, they now have neither the strength nor the courage to stand up to the only existing superpower. Although public opinion in Europe is divided and German business people want to avoid further conflicts with Moscow, this seems to have little political impact.