Dec 9, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

6 mins read

Picking Up Where the West Leaves Off

Picking Up Where the West Leaves Off
(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Shifting European and U.S. politics will weaken the West's support for states along Russia's periphery, or at least give that impression.
  • As Western countries become more divided and Russia's position strengthens, Eurasian countries will band together and increase their cooperation with one another.
  • Ukraine and Georgia will be particularly energetic in their pursuit of regional integration as they look to their neighbors for strength and protection. 

This year has rattled Western politics to their core. The Brexit vote laid bare the deep rifts crisscrossing the Continent, while far-right and anti-establishment parties across Europe have gained momentum. Across the Atlantic, the United States witnessed a similar political upheaval in the surprise November election of Donald Trump as the country's next president. With several more votes scheduled for 2017 in many of the European Union's biggest member states, including France, Germany and now perhaps Italy, next year is shaping up to be just as turbulent as the last.

The effects of these sweeping changes will ripple beyond the United States and Europe. Russia, in particular, could have a chance to gain the upper hand in its tense standoff with the West, which has been ongoing since Ukraine's Euromaidan uprising in 2014. Not only will the upcoming transitions in the United States and Europe weaken the West's resolve to maintain its sanctions against Russia, but they will also shift the West's attention inward to its own divisions. This may give Moscow room to strengthen its influence among the nations in its periphery.

The states that lie between Russia and Europe will no doubt feel the impact of the political upsets occurring outside their borders. Countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union have watched the changes underway with growing unease, and they are likely re-evaluating their stances toward the competing giants looming on their eastern and western flanks. All of them, from those in Eastern Europe to those in the Caucasus, will have to prepare for a new geopolitical environment in which Russia may no longer be able to be ignored and the West may no longer be able to be counted on.

An Eastern European Union?

As these countries reassess their situations, they will likely turn to each other for help. Ukraine will be particularly important to watch: For the past three years, it has relied on the West's backing in its spat with Russia over the eastern region of Donbas. But now, as the European Union fragments and as the incoming U.S. administration weighs its commitment to NATO allies and its collaboration with the Kremlin, Ukraine cannot be sure that Western economic, political and defense aid will continue.

And so it will look to its neighbors as an insurance policy in the event that NATO and the United States scale back their military presence in Central and Eastern Europe. Neither Poland nor the Baltic states are in a position to fully replace EU or NATO forces, but they could form a supplemental alliance of sorts with Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine has already begun to ramp up its joint training and military exercises with Poland and Lithuania, and it will probably continue to do so in the coming year.

Mutual defense may not be the only thing Ukraine seeks from its neighbors. Poland and the Baltic states have made great strides in diversifying their energy portfolios away from Russian natural gas by building liquefied natural gas import terminals and pipeline interconnectors throughout the region. Ukraine, which is also working to reduce its dependence on Russian energy by reversing natural gas flows from Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, will likely try to join their burgeoning energy network in the years ahead. After all, greater energy connectivity with Poland and the Baltics — including a planned pipeline linking Ukraine and Poland with a capacity of 5 billion cubic meters that will be complete by 2020 — could give Kiev more opportunities for energy diversification.

Cooperation in the Caucasus

The nascent Ukrainian bloc is not the only one of its kind. Like Ukraine, Georgia has become concerned by the potential withdrawal of Western aid. Tbilisi is currently engaged in a dispute with Moscow over the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and it has tried to integrate more closely with the European Union and NATO. Both organizations, however, have repeatedly put off Tbilisi's requests for membership plans. As their focus turns inward in the years ahead, Georgia's aspirations for deeper integration with Europe will be put in even greater jeopardy.

Georgia, too, will respond to the West's distraction by cozying up to two of its key neighbors and allies, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Tbilisi has already forged sturdy economic and energy ties with Baku and Ankara that will likely grow stronger in the coming years. Georgia serves as a vital transit state for oil and natural gas flowing from Azerbaijan to Turkey through the South Caucasus Pipeline, and construction is underway on the Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic pipelines. The two projects will bring an extra 16 bcm of natural gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz II field to Turkish and European markets by 2018 and 2020, respectively. Along with the pipelines will come new transportation links, with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway scheduled for completion in 2017.

The three countries, meanwhile, have also begun to expand their defense cooperation. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey now hold trilateral military exercises that will probably increase in scope and frequency next year. Georgia's chief of staff of the armed forces has already announced that the biggest exercises the three nations have ever held will take place in summer 2017.

The Ukrainian and Georgian blocs will undoubtedly encounter many challenges in the months ahead. Turkey's reluctance to directly challenge Russia will heavily influence the political dynamics of the Caucasus, while volatility in Ukraine could hamper Kiev's efforts to form a Baltic alliance. At the same time, Europe and NATO will by no means halt their activities in the region. But as the West becomes a more reluctant partner to the Eurasian states on Russia's doorstep, they will have little choice but to lean on each other for support.

Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky

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