By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
We know who the losers are in the eurozone's financial crisis: Greece and the other countries of the periphery. We also know that Germany is emerging from the crisis as the leader of Europe, more important than the Brussels-based European Union. Even if Berlin has to make concessions, the German capital is the focal point for decisions more than any other place. And that's an indication of power. Yet, the media has not told us about the specter lurking in the background that may, at least in the short term, try to be the overall geopolitical beneficiary of the crisis in Europe: Russia.
Europe's problem is that it has little spare cash. Russia's problem is that Europe's relative dependence on it for energy may dissipate in coming years, as supplies begin to come from elsewhere, including North America. Consequently, Russia is trying to create strong buffers in Central and Eastern Europe. Russia is not quite winning, but it is trying to take advantage of Europe's financial upheaval wherever it can.
NATO is increasingly infirm. Military budgets in all but a few member states are decreasing. The Cold War Atlanticist orientation of NATO, with its clarifying focus on Central Europe, has evolved into an amorphous global vision, with no real focus and poor results — witness the NATO quagmire in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, France has supported military coalitions in places close to Europe but not strictly of interest to NATO, such as Libya. Then there are the former Warsaw Pact states of Central and Eastern Europe, such as Poland and Romania, which are only interested in NATO because it provides a vehicle for the U.S. military to defend them against a resurgent Russia.
The Central and Eastern Europeans do, in fact, have cause to be paranoid. The Russians have increased their troop presence near Estonia by tens of thousands, mainly in the Western Military District by the St. Petersburg region. The Russians have an agreement with Belarus, next door to Poland, to rapidly deploy troops inside that country should it become necessary in a wartime scenario. (Russia also economically dominates the Belarusian state.) The Russians have deployed S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems in Kaliningrad in the former East Prussia — again, next door to Poland — and have plans to deploy the new, offensive Iskander missile system there within the next year.
Through the first decade of the 21st century, NATO easily contained Russia militarily, while the European Union did so economically. But since 2010, when the Greek debt crisis ignited a general EU crisis, the European Union has been less effective at performing this function. Bluntly put, the European Union does not have enough funds to throw at its eastern periphery, and Russia does — because of a $600 billion surplus from energy sales and another reportedly $500 billion in reserves.
Russia has been buying and seeking to buy assets at the end of the energy supply chain in Europe. This will give it more leverage over the foreign policies of individual European states. For example, in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria and Slovakia, the Russians have been acquiring stakes in electricity grids, oil refineries and natural gas transport groups. (Of course, Russia still has to attract critical investment for its modernization and privatization programs, and that means Europeans have to help out, giving them leverage over Russia.)
Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, banks are falling apart, and the Russians are interested in purchasing several of them at reduced prices (though they will still have to subsidize them). Again, Russia is probing, but it may in the end come up short in terms of usable influence. Concomitantly, Russia continues to play a deep role in Central and Eastern European crime syndicates, which, because of poorly institutionalized governments in a region like the Balkans, enjoy real political clout. Russia also has the means to bail out financially strapped Central and Eastern European governments through breaks on natural gas prices. And in the face of a crisis-ridden European Union, which is less able than in the past to provide economic aid to its neighbors in Eastern Europe, Russia is now in negotiations over natural gas fees with Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and other governments. It is worth mentioning, though, that Russia's advantage here is short term, since an influx of liquefied natural gas will force down the price Russia charges for energy.
As for the Baltics, Russia has the goal to establish enforced buffers in at least two of the three states there. Latvia is internally fragile and compromised by a large, Russian-speaking minority. Estonia is easier to isolate, sandwiched between Latvia and Russia itself. Lithuania is the most serious state with which Russia faces difficulties. Lithuania has a relatively small number of Russian speakers, has borders mainly with anti-Russian Poland and Belarus and has talented, often levelheaded diplomats.
The slow-but-steady Russian encroachment on the Baltic states and Russia's former Warsaw Pact allies, a process through which Moscow seeks over time to repeal the results of the Kremlin's defeat in the Cold War, is a prologue to Russia's current power play for Ukraine. In part because of the debt crisis, but more so because of Ukraine's domestic issues, dreams of a few years back for NATO to expand to Ukraine have nearly vanished. Ukraine evinces severe political instability, something that the European Union cannot begin to cope with and that, for a linguistically and culturally friendly Russia, constitutes an opportunity. Russia, which in 2010 negotiated a 42-year extension of the lease on a Black Sea naval base in the Crimea, now wants to purchase Ukraine's energy infrastructure.
Ukraine is the pivot state that in and of itself transforms Russia. Abutting the Black Sea to the south and former Eastern European satellites to the west, Ukraine's independence keeps Russia to a large extent out of Europe. With Greek and Roman Catholics in the western part of Ukraine and Eastern Orthodox in the east, western Ukraine is a breeding ground for Ukrainian nationalism while the east favors closer relations with Russia. In other words, Ukraine's religious geography illustrates the country's role as a borderland between Central and Eastern Europe. Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in The Grand Chessboard (1997) that without Ukraine, Russia can still be an empire, but a "predominantly Asian" one, drawn further into conflicts with Caucasian and Central Asian states. But if Ukraine could be brought back under Russian domination, Russia would add 46 million people to its own western-oriented demography and suddenly would challenge Europe, even as it integrated into it.
Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron's vision of a Europe extending to the Urals may be realized, but not quite under the idealistic conditions he imagines. A Europe with Russia integral to it could well be a sprawling geographical configuration, united in commerce but with significant areas of it in danger of becoming partly "Finlandized" by a quasi-democratic, nationalistic power with sharp elbows, led by Vladimir Putin.
The Europe that is taking shape is one with Germany in the lead and Russia hovering — ever more influential — to its immediate east. The question Cameron should be asking is not whether Europe will spread to the Urals — for that might turn out to be a mixed blessing — but whether Europe will be compromised by a German-Russian condominium. Historically, Germany has been a conflicted power, oriented toward both a freer Atlantic Europe to the west and a more autocratic, land-bound Europe to the east. Were an economically dominant Germany to turn east toward Moscow — if not in a formal alliance, but in something subtler — that might compromise the West's victory in the Cold War.
Europe is very much in play. Its future as an economic, political and moral powerhouse is not written in advance — as was smugly assumed a few years ago. The EU debt crisis is only the beginning of the story, with geopolitical aftershocks that will only become apparent over time.