Recent commentary on Europe has been overwhelmingly parochial. When it is not all about financial mechanisms, it is about analyzing the recent history of and relationships within the European Union (EU) itself. The Eurozone’s broken welfare states hover around zero GDP growth, and membership within it may contract at some point. But the economic and political crisis afflicting the EU does not occur in a vacuum. Other, powerful trends, together with the weakening of the EU, will shape 21st-century Europe, and, with it, the United States. We must consider what else is happening in the region and beyond. When we do that, we see that most of us are asking the wrong questions. To ask about the future strategic significance of Europe in isolation from everything that is happening around it is like trying to understand an island’s weather patterns without taking into account its surrounding seas.
rends within Europe proper are mixed. NATO is increasingly infirm. Its member states’ military budgets are declining (from a low base to start with). Russia is attempting to buy financial and infrastructure assets throughout Central and Eastern Europe. New energy pipelines originating in Russia and the Caspian basin are crisscrossing Europe. But Russia is working against the clock here because shale gas discoveries made economically attractive by dint of fracking technology in Poland, Ukraine and the United States threaten to undermine Russia’s natural gas monopoly in Europe within a decade. Meanwhile, the Balkans languish in ethnic divisions, entrenched corruption and underdevelopment, even as Turkey, adjoining the Balkans, is emerging as a principal, mid-level power.
These factors, however, hardly exhaust what matters to the future of Europe. Nor did they ever. As the western protrusion of the Eurasian supercontinent, Europe has been shaped for millennia by demographic, economic and military eruptions from the east and southeast, whether from Magyars, Mongols, Muslim Turks or others. Closer to our own time, forces extrinsic to the peninsula became less powerful, but geopolitics did not. It was the expansive tendencies of Germany in the heart of Europe, coupled with the Russian threat from the east, that led the English geographer Halford Mackinder in 1919 to propose a bulwark of vibrant and independent buffer states in Eastern Europe from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south. In the early 1920s, the Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski followed up with his vision of the Intermarum (“between the seas”), a belt of fortified states from the Baltic Sea south to the Black Sea—from Finland to Romania—in order to prevent future wars and stabilize Europe.
We are now in one sense back to the problem Mackinder and Pilsudski faced but never solved: how to manage German, Russian and, lately, Turkish power as they mingle and impinge on Europe as a whole. To say that a Fourth Reich is imminent, or that Russia will virtually reconstitute the Warsaw Pact, or that neo-Ottoman Turks are about to march again on Vienna would be an obviously wild exaggeration. The Cold War is over and will not return. Something far more subtle is in the works.
he map of Europe is stretching but fraying at the same time. Europe as a civilizational concept will not end on the Bug or the Prut rivers, which divide Poland and Romania from the former Soviet Union; it will extend all the way to Moscow and the Caucasus. Yet at the same time, the idea of a politically united Europe with a cohesive economic and foreign policy, able to act as a counterweight to Russia, the United States and China—and, as a consequence, to promote its more or less settled moral and legal norms—is increasingly suspect. Several Europes will emerge, intertwined and overlapping, that will recall former empires but will not really fit within any particular set of fixed borders. To see why and how this will transpire, let’s examine what is happening on the geographic edges of the European Union.
Since the debt crisis began several years ago, the EU has had less financial bandwidth or political energy to aggressively draw countries like Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova into its fold in exchange for social and economic reforms. Bulgaria, for example, might be a member of the EU but members of its government recently opted not to join the Eurozone. This was just before Bulgaria made a deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom to host a section of a natural gas pipeline. In other words, throughout Pilsudski’s Intermarum and beyond, the magnetic attraction of the EU is weaker today than it was in the 1990s and the decade following. And while the EU’s drawing power in the east wanes, Russia has around $1 trillion in energy revenues and currency reserves to build bridges toward Central Europe.
Russia has been seeking to acquire infrastructure assets at the end of its energy supply chain in Europe. In Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Slovakia and Italy, Russia is buying shares in electricity grids, oil refineries and natural gas transportation groups. Throughout Central and Eastern Europe banks are failing, and the Russians have been interested in purchasing some of them at bargain prices. Then there are the crime syndicates in Central and Eastern Europe, in which Russia continues to play a role, helped by poorly institutionalized governments, particularly in the Balkans.
And then there is Greece, which, it might be recalled, barely avoided capture by the Warsaw Pact at the end of World War II. Were Greece to ever leave the Eurozone or in any way to become further estranged from the European Union, we should expect to see the Russian navy regularly calling on Greek ports in years to come, especially if the Russians lose their naval base in Tartus in Syria. By virtue of its Orthodox Christianity, Russia maintains a close historical relationship with other Orthodox countries such as Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. The Warsaw Pact and Comecon may have disappeared, but geography and the history and culture that emanate from the region demand that Russia remain a primary factor at Europe’s back door.
Yet for Russia the frustrations equal the opportunities. Take the Baltic States. Stalin occupied them in 1940 and then reoccupied them in 1944 following the German retreat. In 2004, 13 years after the Soviet Union’s demise, they became members of NATO. (They are also members of the EU, and Estonia is in the Eurozone.) This makes a reoccupation by the Russians virtually impossible, and Vladimir Putin knows it. Even if, for the sake of argument, one posits that Washington might not in every circumstance order fellow-NATO countries to come to the aid of the Baltic States following a Russian military provocation or outright invasion, the Kremlin can never be sure of that. Moreover, any such Russian reaching in the Baltics would make the Nordic and Baltic countries instant allies of neighboring Poland, a big state that is in turn aligned closely with Washington.
Thus Moscow, despite a massive land force close to the frontiers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, is stymied. Russia can spy on these countries. It can build up troop numbers near their borders and use Kaliningrad for these and other purposes. It can run intelligence operations inside them, use their Russian minorities against them, interfere with their elections, and make inroads into their economies. But it cannot fundamentally undermine their sovereignty. These countries, moreover, cannot be Finlandized, because their NATO membership provides a firm, pro-Western foreign policy orientation.
Not even the substantial Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia (25 and 30 percent respectively) are a solid basis for Kremlin interference, since these ethnic Russians are drawn to their Estonian and Latvian habitations for reasons of economic self-interest; the quality of life is simply so much better in the Baltic States than in Russia. Lithuania, with a relatively small number of Russian speakers, is in a particularly strong position, without much of a border with Russia, inserted between anti-Russian Poland, Belarus and the Kaliningrad zone. The future may be glimpsed by the liquefied natural gas terminals planned by Lithuania and Estonia (and Poland too), which would allow them to convert gas imported from overseas for domestic use, reducing or potentially eliminating their dependence on energy from Russia. Germany and Russia may compete fiercely for influence in the Baltic States. If so, it would not be for the first time. But the functional alliance of these small countries with the United States, Poland and Sweden (which owns some of their banks) makes them a solid northern base for Pilsudski’s Intermarum.
Of course Poland, with its size, demographic heft and thriving economy, looms large on the geopolitical map of Central-Eastern Europe. Unlike most of the rest of Europe, Poland has been increasing its defense budget and modernizing its military, with an emphasis on missile defense. While a pipeline currently delivers Russian natural gas to Poland, another Russian pipeline (North Stream) delivers natural gas to Germany and the Low Countries via the Baltic Sea, thus bypassing Poland. In other words, Poland is dependent on Russian energy, even as Russia does not need Poland to reach customers in Western Europe. Poland is responding by attempting to develop its own shale gas reserves, making it an energy producer in its own right, and by building a liquefied natural gas terminal on the Baltic in order to import gas from overseas rather than from Russia.1 At the end of the day, with all of this maneuvering, and with both the EU and NATO weakening, Poland’s final line of defense must be American military power. Western elites may inhabit a world of globalization, but for the Poles 19th-century-style geopolitics remains relevant, further complicated and fortified by the battle over energy routes.
To the east of Poland and to the south of the Baltic States lies Belarus, which remains firmly in Russia’s camp—so much so that it, along with Kazakhstan, forms a small customs union with Russia. Under dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus has endured as the most communist in political style of all the former Soviet republics. Belarus’s energy sector is dominated by Moscow. It has an agreement with the Kremlin whereby Russia can deploy a rapid reaction force on its territory in a crisis scenario. And Lukashenko has gained prestige by serving as a middleman for Russian arms deliveries and other aid to countries such as Cuba and Venezuela.
Lukashenko’s legitimacy has rested on his ability to preserve a reasonable standard of living, sparing the country from the hardships of authoritarianism as well as the rigors of oligarchic capitalism. Similar to Russia linguistically and without natural geographical borders between the two countries, Belarus (at least under Lukashenko) stands little chance of joining the Baltic States and Poland as part of an anti-Russian belt just to the east of Central Europe.
The strategic heart of post-Cold War Europe is now Ukraine, where in the 1990s and on into the next decade the West toyed with the notion of expanding NATO, particularly during the democratic-trending Orange Revolution of 2004. Europe has been rudely awoken from these dreams as crime, corruption, political instability and semi-chaotic conditions in parts of the countryside have provided an opening for Russia. At the same time, the debt crisis has diminished the number of carrots the EU can offer Ukrainian leaders. Perhaps in a sign of the future, two years ago Russia negotiated a 42-year extension of the lease on its Black Sea naval base in Ukraine at Sevastopol. Russia also wants to purchase Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, though officials in Kiev have adamantly resisted thus far. Ukraine has successfully straddled the diplomatic line between Russia and the West without giving in to either, but if Western power wanes, that posture may become to awkward to maintain.
The West believes Putin wants autocracy in the Ukraine because he is anti-democratic in principle. The deeper truth is that Putin covets Ukraine’s geographical space as a buffer against Western intrusion, and he knows that a pro-Russian, virtual satellite regime in Kiev is more likely under autocratic conditions than democratic ones. Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is utterly normal given Russia’s history and geography. With the Black Sea to the south and former Eastern European satellite states to the west, an independent Ukraine keeps Russia to a significant degree out of Europe. But if Russia could envelop Kiev both politically and economically, it would add 46 million people to its own Western-oriented demography and would suddenly challenge Europe, even as it would be better integrated into it. The original Russian state of 9th-century Kievan Rus was located in Ukraine; never underestimate the Kremlin’s emotional and historical need to bring Ukraine back into the fold.
And therefore never underestimate the need for Russia to keep the West out of Romanian-speaking Moldova, between Romania and Ukraine. Moldova’s poverty and institutional weakness make it a poor cousin to Romania proper, even as Romania proper and the rest of the Balkans are still far from socially and economically stable themselves.
Farther afield in the Caucasus, the Russians neutralized Georgia—a prospective NATO member—by an invasion of the country in 2008. An election in December 2012 then brought to power in Tbilisi the pro-Russian business magnate, Bidzina Ivanishvili. A common theme running through all these developments in Europe’s eastern borderlands is the energy and constancy of Putin’s Russia in trying to carve out new or revived spheres of influence, even as the EU loses some of its ability to project power beyond its own frontiers, and even as the United States is increasingly occupied in the Greater Middle East and the Pacific Basin.
Meanwhile, the Balkans remain what they were in the 1990s, a zone of underdevelopment and ethnic tension. The passion for war may be burnt out, but large parts of this mountainous peninsula are economically and institutionally going nowhere. Unemployment levels range from 20 to 50 percent in places. As EU influence wanes, trade and tourism with Turkey are booming, even as the Islamist Turkish government forges deeper ties with local Muslims. Nevertheless, Russia remains the main source for foreign investment in Serbia and Bosnia. The “cornerstone” of Russia’s growing influence in the peninsula will be the South Stream natural gas pipeline, which will transport energy from Russia across the Black Sea and up through the Balkans to Central Europe, with branch lines to Greece and Italy.
No country has been a more interesting bellwether in this trend than Hungary, on the fault line between Central Europe and the Balkans. Between 2007 and 2011, Hungary actively aligned itself within EU councils against Russia’s aggressive strategy for regional energy dominance. But as EU economic power continues to wane, Hungary has recalculated its alliances and is now cooperating with Russia to be the terminus for South Stream. The pipeline will bypass Ukraine, thus weakening further Kiev’s leverage on Moscow. The Balkans’ best hope to avoid a Russian embrace may not be the EU, but the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, designed by energy-rich Azerbaijan to compete with South Stream.
The key insight about southeastern Europe in the quarter-century following the collapse of the Berlin Wall is that it has reverted to the geography of the second half of the 19th century. Slovenia and Croatia, both Catholic and both part of the old Habsburg Empire, have returned to the bosom of Central Europe in terms of political orientation and economic and social development, following their dalliance inside Yugoslavia for much of the 20th century; the rest of the Balkans has once again become a contested zone between Europe, Russia and Turkey—with Russia and Turkey ascendant for the moment. The Near East used to begin in the Balkans. That is again becoming the case.
Further consigning the Balkans to an intermediate zone between Europe and the Near East has been the formation of the Visegrad Group. This is a an assemblage of four countries—Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia (since 1993) and Hungary—whose leaders initialed a pact in 1991 in the Hungarian castle town of Visegrad. It was there, not totally coincidentally, where the sovereigns of Hungary, Poland and Bohemia met in 1335 to establish a commercial alliance.
The Visegrad Group combines the former Warsaw Pact satellite states lying just to the north of the Balkans, which have performed better economically than their southern Balkan neighbors since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The Visegrad Group represents former Prussian and Habsburg Central Europe, which has now created a formal division between itself and the former Ottoman Turkish Balkans. In 2011, two decades after its formation, the Visegrad countries established a “battlegroup” under the command of Poland and integrated into the EU. Clearly, these countries fear the confluence of a weakening NATO, a weakening EU and a resurgent Russia. So it isn’t just Poland that recognizes the return of old-fashioned geopolitics to Europe.
As already noted, Russia is racing the clock. Much of its influence in Central and East Europe rests on natural gas exports to those countries. But the United States has the world’s largest deposits of shale gas. In consequence, there are decisions now being made in Texas corporate boardrooms that will affect the geopolitical destiny of Europe. Should U.S. energy giants ever decide to build liquefied natural gas terminals on the Gulf Coast to prepare shale gas for transport overseas to Europe in a decade, Russian influence on the Continent would be in jeopardy.
But even if this is the case, the geopolitical outcome could be convoluted. Reduced energy revenues to the Kremlin could catalyze political reform in a post-Putin era. A reformed and more democratic Russia could be a more authentically dynamic Russia, giving it over time more influence in Central-Eastern Europe, not less. Russia is very big and right next door to Europe. Then again, a truly democratic Russia could be a somewhat chaotic Russia, one which might well turn inward for a long time.
ur vision of the future is both informed and warped by our experience of the past. Because Europe has usually been divided into imperial and quasi-imperial regions, we assume it must also be in the future. But tomorrow’s regions and city-states will be linked with one another by financial markets and electronic communications as never before. Europe has no future separate from that of North America, East Asia and even Africa.
This is why the future is so frustratingly hard to map out. What we should not assume any time soon, however, is a united Europe—let alone one 27 countries strong. That was an ahistorical vision propagated by elites in Brussels who tried to wish away real developmental differences between the Balkans, the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe. The EU and NATO both sought to keep the Germans down and the Russians out. In the end they could do neither for very long. Europe will go forward as an unwieldy giant, with multiple centers of power. Berlin will again compose one strong attractive node, but Moscow will still stand on its eastern flank. Real stability might only be achieved with a secure and prosperous Intermarum. Such a happy outcome remains possible because, despite the EU’s feeble state, Russia remains frustrated in its attempt to carve out a new buffer zone on Europe’s borderland. Indeed, Russia’s energy position in Eastern and Central Europe is weakening day by day. That’s the real, very much under-reported story arising out of the three-year-old European debt crisis: Russia, its energy pipelines notwithstanding, remains the dog that has yet to bark. (Witness Russia’s defeat in the Cyprus bank crisis.)
Finally, Europe’s future, as already suggested, depends on factors farther afield. A serious Transatlantic free trade zone could be a global game-changer, especially if it leads to a greater institutional alignment of labor markets, legal frameworks and co-production and servicing arrangements. A perpetually destabilized North Africa and Sahel could truncate the reach of Europe’s economic relationships and export violence into Europe proper. Europe’s potential to be the site for key transshipment points, including for routes made newly available in the Arctic, is also relevant.
We do not know what the future will bring for Europe. We do know that its future will be determined by more than just what happens inside its own borders.
1See Andrew Michta, “Shale Storm”, The American Interest (January/February 2012).