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Feb 26, 2014 | 00:11 GMT

4 mins read

After Ukraine, the West Makes Its Move for the Russian Periphery

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The West wants to parlay the success of supporting Ukraine's anti-government protesters into a broader, region-wide campaign. In fact, the United States has already started to court other key countries in Russia's periphery.

A Georgian delegation is currently visiting Washington, and the country's prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry this week. The delegation will also meet with various nongovernmental organizations that promote Western values in former Soviet states. Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca is scheduled to visit the White House for a meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on March 3. High on the agenda of both visits are the countries' prospects for Western integration — in other words, how to bring them closer to the United States and the European Union and further from Russia.

The Ukraine uprising exemplifies the current competition between the West and Russia. The protests began when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich rejected key EU integration deals at an Eastern Partnership summit in late November. Ukrainians who supported those deals spoke out against the president, paving the way for the EuroMaidan movement that eventually led to Yanukovich's downfall. The United States and several EU countries supported these protests, and now they are trying to capitalize on what momentum they may have helped create.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

Unsurprisingly, the United States immediately turned its attention toward Georgia and Moldova. Both countries have expressed interest in building closer ties to the West, and the two recently initialed the very EU integration deals that Yanukovich rejected. And despite their small size, both countries occupy strategic positions on the periphery between Europe and Russia.

However, rhetoric is one thing, execution is another. The West has called for closer integration with such countries for some time. The Eastern Partnership program, which put forth the association and free trade agreements with these countries, was launched back in 2009 — long after Washington began advocating for Georgia's accession to NATO. But little has actually been accomplished in bringing these countries formally closer to the European Union and NATO. So the question is: Are things different now that Yanukovich has been removed?

The answer to that question must include Russia, which has opposed Western integration enthusiastically. In fact, it has repeatedly stymied peripheral countries' efforts to become members of Western institutions, thanks in part to its appreciable economic, energy and political leverage in these countries. Moreover, Russia has a military presence in Georgia's breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in Moldova's breakaway republic of Transdniestria. All these levers undermine the Western alignment sought by peripheral countries.

Ukraine's Periphery

Ukraine's Periphery

The events in Ukraine have proven that Russia has not been able to dictate events in a country it deems vital to its strategic interests. However, despite Russia's inability to prevent Yanukovich's downfall, it is far from clear that a new government in Ukraine will be able to definitively align itself with the West. The various Ukrainian political groups trying to succeed Yanukovich have already begun to squabble, and Russia still has the ability to influence Ukraine through financial and energy ties and through its military presence in Crimea, regardless of who governs in Kiev.

Russia's influence notwithstanding, the United States and the European Union will have a difficult time integrating these countries with the West. The European Union's own economic and political problems prevent the bloc from absorbing weak, poor Eastern states. The United States is preoccupied with Iran and Syria, and therefore has been careful not to challenge Russia directly, given Moscow's importance to Tehran and Damascus. Until the Ukrainian protests, neither the United States nor the European Union were willing to dole out the financial assistance and military support needed to bring these countries into the West's camp.

It is notable that the European Union and the United States are now more interested. For its part, Russia is dreading the day when Washington actually has the bandwidth to re-engage the region seriously. But even so, there are a number of other priorities on Washington's list right now, and there are limits to its involvement with these countries for the near future.

Ultimately, it all comes down to constraints and timing. While the timing may be ripe for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to move closer to the West, the constraints on all involved are simply too large to produce a comprehensive realignment. Despite the recent upheaval and the action still to come, the most likely outcome is an eventual standoff between Russia and the West.

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