As recent years have seen heightened geopolitical instability and conflict throughout the globe, it has increasingly become clear that the post-Cold War world order is unraveling. As revanchist powers assert their dominance over their claimed spheres of influence, the ability of the United States to maintain the international status quo has increasingly come under question. Many foreign policy analysts believe that the Unipolar system grounded upon American global hegemony has gradually ceded to a Multipolar distribution of power that sees the globe’s division into multiple spheres of influence. While many have welcomed this shift as ushering in the democratization of geopolitical power, recent events should cause deep reflection on the implications of global Multipolarity. In their quest to redistribute the international balance of power and establish their legitimacy as leaders on the global stage, Moscow and Beijing have increasingly tested Washington’s willingness to defend the sovereignty of their allies and partners threatened by their imperial foreign policy.
As Moscow seeks to reassert its dominant position over its former hegemony in East-Central Europe, the implications of the emerging world order are playing out in real-time. Since the Kremlin’s forced annexation of Crimea and support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine in 2014, the nations of East-Central Europe have had to contend with increased regional instability and uncertainty. With the ongoing Polish-Belarusian border crisis and buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, the Kremlin has shown that it seeks to boldly re-establish its undisputed hegemony over the post-Soviet space. The EU’s and NATO’s East-Central European members, most notably Poland and the Baltics, have not felt their sovereignty as threatened since the end of the Cold War.
Thirty years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, much of East-Central Europe has undergone a radical transformation. Freed from the shackles of socialism and foreign domination, Poland, the Baltics, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and other nations in the region boast rapidly developing economies, booming culture, and robust national identities. This success was largely enabled by the integration of these countries within multilateral security and economic organizations such as NATO and the EU. East-Central European countries, particularly Poland, have also cultivated a close relationship with the United States. Due to these alliances, the historically turbulent region has enjoyed an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity, enabling it to reach its fullest potential.
While East-Central Europe has been revamping its defensive capabilities since the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the past year has presented the most pressing geopolitical challenges to stability in the broader region since the end of the Cold War. If 2008 and 2014 had shown that Moscow was not averse to resolving territorial conflicts in its former hegemony with military force, 2020 and 2021 have revealed the extent to which Moscow is willing to pressure the region’s NATO and EU member states through the implementation of hybrid warfare and energy monopolization.
The Nord Stream 2 controversy and the orchestrated migrant crisis along the Polish border have also highlighted significant divisions within the EU and NATO alliance that the Kremlin can potentially exploit. Germany’s collaboration with Moscow on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has shown that left to their own devices, western members of the EU cannot be expected to take the interests of their East-Central European members into account in their national policy. Divisions between the western and eastern halves of the EU were also visible as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron engaged in talks with Lukashenko and Putin over the migrant crisis without the participation of the nations directly affected by the crisis. Polish and Lithuanian politicians, and even Belarusian opposition leaders, protested against this exclusionary mediation, which they claim grants undeserved legitimization to the Lukashenko regime and sidelines the interests of East-Central European countries.
As Washington finds itself absorbed with internal politics and increasingly forced to face the rising threat of China in the Pacific, its willingness to act as an assertive mediator in East-Central Europe is questionable. While the United States does have troops deployed in Poland and remains consistent in its opposition to Moscow’s encroachments in the region, the Biden administrations waiving of Nord Stream 2 sanctions earlier this year have brought into question the level to which Washington will prioritize the interests of its East-Central European allies in its EU policy.
For Moscow, the aggravation of divisions within NATO and the EU is a cornerstone of its foreign policy. By weakening the unity of multilateral organizations, the Kremlin also compromises the unipolar influence of the United States, granting it greater flexibility in its operations in what Putin has dubbed the “near abroad.” The past year has illustrated the effectiveness of this strategy and has also revealed how it invariably exposes East-Central European countries to a heightened risk of Russian economic and military pressure.
One for all and All for One
The mounting challenges facing the region are but a resurgence of threats that have met the peoples living within the vast and easily exposed landmasses of East-Central Europe throughout the millennia. Historically a confluence of diverse cultures and competing civilizations, the vast spaces between the rivers Vistula and Dniepr have seen the rise and fall of the empires, kingdoms, and states which defined the last thousand years of its history, from principalities of Kievan Rus, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Vulnerable to the machinations of great powers from the east and west, between the 18th and 17th centuries, these lands were absorbed into the domains of imperial states, which suppressed national sovereignty and identities. The deepest scars were left during the 20th century, as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union inflicted ethnic cleansing and genocide on the local populations. After the war, East-Central Europe would be locked behind the iron curtain, enduring the stagnation and demoralization of communist regimes and Kremlin control.
While the region’s location at a crossroads of history and culture has proven daunting, it has also served as an opportunity. While often seen as the thorny borderland between east and west in Europe, the Baltic and Black Seas lands should not be disregarded as a stepping stone for great powers. It is a distinct civilizational zone in its own right, defined by its incredible cultural, ethnic, and confessional diversity and nevertheless united by shared experiences, values, and challenges. History has shown that only in unison can the nations of East-Central Europe safeguard their sovereignty from imposing entities that seek to treat them as the peripheral outposts of their empires. While the realization of a common purpose between the diverse peoples of East-Central Europe has been tragically stifled by foreign interference and ethnic and confession divisions, the present day provides a unique opportunity for the peoples of the region to take the reigns of their future in their own hands.
The Three Seas Initiative aims to bolster the economy and energy independence of the region by encouraging fostering cooperation between the states that exist within the vast expanse between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas. Established in 2016 by the Presidents of Poland and Croatia, the Three Seas Initiative has expanded to include 13 East-Central European EU member states and has been endorsed by the region’s western allies and the United States. In recent years the states of the region have heightened cooperation in energy, the economy, technology, and military security. In the face of Moscow’s monopolization of Europe’s gas supply, the region’s nations have also sought to find alternate energy sources and increase the interconnectivity of their energy sectors. By reversing the pathways of the region’s pipelines, East-Central Europe is also symbolically shedding the vestiges of its subjugation to the Kremlin.
While the Three Seas Initiative facilitates relations between the EU and NATO member nations in the region, it also holds significant importance for Ukraine, which is not integrated into the western economic and security structure. Ukraine’s pro-western revolution and its firm stand against Putin’s aggression have led to the rise of a strong and vibrant national awakening in which Kyiv can imagine its future independent of Moscow. Ukraine, which is especially vulnerable in the aftermath of Nord Stream 2 and with the buildup of Russian troops along its eastern borders, must not be abandoned by the west. While the United States has declared itself a strong supporter of Ukrainian sovereignty, Washington must be reminded of the critical importance of Ukraine by its East-Central European NATO partners.
When Poland and the Baltics integrated into the EU and NATO, they became oriented towards the west, leaving Ukraine and Belarus firmly within the orbit of Moscow. In the current crisis, the EU member states of the region, led by Poland, have recognized their responsibility towards Ukraine and advocated for its inclusion in NATO. While American and western European policymakers might hesitate to antagonize Russia with such a move, East-Central European states must make their voices heard and highlight that the Kremlin’s revanchist goals in the region will not be quieted through appeasement. It is essential that the citizens of East-Central Europe, including those of Ukraine and Belarus, have a say in shaping their destiny. The countries of the region have a responsibility to remind the powers of both west and east that their lands will not be partitioned arbitrarily for the sake of global consensus.
By PAC Intern Eliseo Nesci