Eastern European countries – namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – are often seen as a geopolitical battleground between Europe and Russia. However, picturing this as a solely West-East struggle would be very oblivious to the fact that it is rather a tension between self-interested elites and societies that are maturing and increasingly demanding the rule of law and accountability. However, these day-to-day domestic tensions have become intertwined with geopolitics in ways that are unique to Europe and potentially very dangerous.
This combination of various factors presents the European Union with policy dilemmas that cannot be sorted out quickly. Yet, these challenges need to be thoroughly managed in order to avoid possibly dangerous escalations and to keep the door open for positive developments in the future, especially in light of revisionist moves by Russia. The potential for escalation is magnified by Russia’s policymaking, which makes these countries prone to paranoia. This is further underlined by the fact that the Kremlin understands that it still is politically, economically, and militarily weaker than the combined strength of the West, whereby it tries to compensate for these weaknesses by being willing to take on more risk.
The European Union is aware of the gravity of this rather very complex geopolitical setting but it is yet unsure how to respond to it and nor are there many options. The EU cannot win the conflict, it cannot transcend it and it cannot give in either, so the only option is to manage this challenge. When the clash between Russia’s and Europe’s worldview became evident in 2014, the first instinct of some EU member countries was to transcend it. However, it soon became apparent that cooperation between Europe and its eastern neighborhood is only possible on limited trade issues and it cannot become a big political breakthrough.
What Europe really needs to do right now is to pursue a normative conversation with Russia but this proves to be difficult right now especially as the United States under Donald Trump is seen as deviating from the Western-led order. While Europe is much more engaged in that order, its own future is being questioned, although an imminent EU collapse is no longer seen as a viable scenario following the French presidential elections. But for the Kremlin to accept and accommodate the EU’s version of the normative order, Brussels needs to showcase much more staying power – and also the power to shape the world and its normative rules.
Europe also needs to overcome the many crises it is facing and restore its position of a beacon and role model for others, which would certainly improve the future prospects for the countries in the bloc’s eastern neighborhood and influence Moscow’s geopolitical calculations. However, such a comeback is unlikely to happen by a directive or an executive order. It will probably happen through a chaotic, bumpy and time-consuming path. This means that the best future strategy is to manage eastern neighborhood with care by avoiding escalations and leaving the door open to positive change.
‘How the EU Needs to Manage Relations With Its Eastern Neighborhood’ – Task Force White Paper by Kadri Liik – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.