Policymakers often miss the full significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter of a century ago. This monumental event not only symbolized the collapse of communism but also heralded the national liberation of the Central and East European (CEE) states from Moscow’s control. But while the nightmare of communism is fading from memory, the struggle to maintain state independence continues, especially among countries that remain vulnerable to the Kremlin’s meddling influences.
The foreign imposition of communist systems stifled economic progress and spawned negative political, institutional, and social legacies with which many countries are still struggling. But in contrast to Germany’s response to its destructive wartime occupation, Russia has never apologized or paid compensation to the victim nations who were forcibly separated from the process of European development. Instead, officials in Moscow are rewriting the history of Soviet occupation as a progressive era.
Russia’s spokesmen also claim that the Cold War ended in a stalemate, rather than admitting that the failed Soviet system disintegrated from within. They contend that NATO and the EU captured the CEE states when Russia was weakest, instead of conceding that these countries were determined to join both institutions as protection against future empire-building by the Kremlin.
Moscow’s distorted notions are now offered to justify the Kremlin’s historical and territorial revisionism. Europeans and Americans must therefore remain vigilant in defending the real historical meaning of 1989-90—especially the independence and integrity of states that now find themselves under sustained assault from Moscow.
Russia’s revisionism targets specific neighbors for direct territorial acquisition or enforced federalization in the attempted construction of a “Russian World.” Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are subject to violence, partition, economic warfare, and disinformation campaigns because they have decided to follow the European path of development and not the inferior “Eurasian” version.
Belarus and Armenia are Moscow’s only close European allies, primarily because of their economic and military dependence. However, both governments remain suspicious about Putin’s objectives and the consequences of his international adventures. Energy-rich but geopolitically isolated Azerbaijan is especially concerned about its future, given that Armenia occupies a fifth of its territory with Moscow’s backing. The Kremlin, moreover, may decide to sever Baku’s energy links with Europe to further undermine Azerbaijan’s independence.
In order to preclude broad regional opposition, Russia is also attempting to construct a contiguous belt of neutral or supportive states across Central Europe that were once Soviet satellites. These endeavors have borne some fruit by encouraging nationalist politicians while provoking and expanding rifts among the “Visegrad Four” and among the Balkan countries.
The Visegrad initiative, in pursuit of a cohesive CEE foreign policy, is now moribund, given the reluctance of three members (Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) to apply more rigorous sanctions against Russia for its attack on Ukraine. Russian business investment and energy dependence corrodes institutions and corrupts politicians. Meanwhile, the progress of several Balkan states into NATO and the European Union has been sabotaged by Moscow to prevent further Western institutional enlargement. The Kremlin has focused on Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in particular by playing on ethno-nationalist and revisionist sentiments.
Moscow’s Ukrainian escapade has hastened the emergence of two categories of states in Europe’s East, in terms of their relations with Russia: the resistors and the supplicants. The most stalwart opponents of Putin’s expansionism have been Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Understandably, the three Baltic states are guarding their territory and sovereignty from persistent irredentist pressures from Moscow. Poland is also building up its defenses against regular threats from Russia and the consequences of the Ukrainian war. And Romania is preparing for a potential spillover of conflict from Moldova if that country is further destabilized by Moscow’s subversion.
In the western Balkans, Albania and Kosova will always remain bastions of pro-Americanism and resistance to Russia’s inroads. Montenegro has suffered the economic consequences of predatory Russian state investment and has become a staunch NATO contender despite warnings from the Kremlin. Croatia and Macedonia are now contested states: in the former Moscow seeks inroads through energy and business deals and in the latter through nationalism and ethnic division.
In contrast to the resistors, several supplicant states have become increasingly dependent on Russia, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. However, the political scene is not uniform, as divisions between governments and Presidents have been evident in Slovakia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, while the new center-right Bulgarian government views Putin’s regime with much greater suspicion than its Socialist predecessor.
By suddenly abandoning the South Stream natural gas pipeline, the Kremlin may damage political ties with several partners. Hungary and Serbia expended substantial political capital by supporting the pipeline’s construction despite violations of EU anti-monopoly regulations. Nonetheless, the Kremlin has other levers of political and financial influence and can capitalize on ethnic disputes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia to thwart EU and NATO enlargement.
Moscow’s backing for nationalism, ultra-conservatism, and Euroskepticism throughout the continent is a profitable method to undermine the EU from within. A fifth of EU parliamentarians oppose further EU expansion and vote against resolutions critical of Moscow. Among these are assorted nationalists from CEE who view Putin as a defender of traditional values. Paradoxically, these deputies are ultimately undermining the independence of their own countries by supporting a regime that views the sovereignty of neighbors as a transient phenomenon.