Forsaken Territories? The Emergence of Europe’s Grey Zone and Western Policy

Written by | Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

John E. Herbst (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik)

The disintegration of the Soviet Union meant a significant geopolitical change and the end of the bipolar world order that was a typical feature of the Cold War. Its demise gave a rise to a “grey zone” in Europe, comprised of those countries that found themselves wedged between the Western and Russian spheres of influence. The Baltic States gradually managed to achieve membership in NATO and the EU, thus becoming full-fledged members of the Western community. However, the same cannot be said about Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the three Caucasus countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. These states still remain areas in which the West and Russia are competing for influence. Which policy are both actors implementing in these regions and what steps should the West take now?      

Although Russian President Boris Yeltsin sought to settle relations between the Kremlin and the West ever since taking his office, Moscow has never given up on the idea of creating a Eurasian political and economic community under its leadership. This vision materialized with the founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which has, however, fallen short of expectations and has not become a counterweight to the Union. Russia does not hesitate to ensure its influence in the region by using military force and as it turned out, for example, via military aid to the separatist Transnistria that lead to a de facto separation from Moldova, the Russian involvement in the 2008 conflict in Georgia or through the annexation of Crimea and subsequent direct involvement of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

The Western community, in contrast, seeks to strengthen relations with the above-mentioned countries and assist them in the implementation of important political and economic reforms. Despite all the efforts of Western countries, especially Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova remain very vulnerable to Russia. The West should therefore help them overcome their weaknesses, which Moscow uses to maintain its influence in the region.

The West should, for example, focus on the assistance in the reform of the dysfunctional banking system that creates a fertile ground for corruption and money laundering. Another point should be enhanced economic cooperation that would allow the countries to become less dependent on Moscow. Cooperation in the energy sector is yet another important area – the EU needs to build a strong Energy Union that will extend beyond its borders. The implementation of EU energy policy together with financial assistance and the modernization of the energy sector are particularly important for Ukraine and Moldova.

 (The study can be downloaded here:

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