In the European borderlands — an area between Russia and Western Europe covering parts of the former Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires — small countries have traditionally balanced between Russia and European powers. Competition for influence in the region has increased since the fall of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's government in 2014.
Central Europe's Role in Containing Russia
Central Europe's importance to the West is in part a result of its geographic location. Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria — along with the Baltic states and Turkey — form NATO's eastern border and are close to Russian armed forces. Poland borders both the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Russia's closest military ally, Belarus. Moreover, Romania and Bulgaria are situated on the Black Sea coast, near Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
During the Cold War, NATO pre-positioned forces near its eastern borders — in West Germany, Italy and Turkey — to protect its member states and encircle Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the former members of the Soviet bloc joined NATO. Since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine following the fall of the Yanukovich government, NATO's new easternmost members have sought a greater alliance presence to counter Russia. NATO's response has been a rotation of a modest number of forces throughout Central Europe and the predeployment of equipment, including armored vehicles, in countries such as Poland. This response has not fully reassured some Central European governments, which are lobbying for a more permanent NATO commitment. However, many NATO members, especially in Western Europe, oppose a greater permanent presence in Central Europe, both because of fears of stoking Russian military aggression and concerns over the financial cost of such an operation. Because a greater NATO presence in the region remains unlikely, Western leaders are working to reassure their allies in Central Europe that the alliance is committed to their security.
Western leaders are also holding talks with Central European leaders to lobby for unity on Russian sanctions. As Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany continue negotiations over the implementation of the September Minsk agreements in eastern Ukraine, U.S., German and British leaders are eager to ensure that one of their key means of influencing the Kremlin — sanctions — is still credible. U.S.-imposed sanctions carry little weight without parallel European sanctions. The current EU sanctions on Russia expire in mid-2015, and — just as their initial imposition did — any extension will require the consent of all EU members. Central European governments are divided on the issue: Some countries, such as Poland, advocate the continuation of sanctions, while others, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, generally prefer the idea of easing sanctions. During their visits to Central Europe, U.S., British and German leaders likely are emphasizing building unanimity regarding the criteria Russia would need to meet for sanctions to be eased.
Economic Interests in the Region
Western leaders are using their meetings with Central European decision-makers to promote Western investment in strategic economic sectors, both to aid Western corporations and to reduce Russia's economic influence in the region. Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary import most of their natural gas supplies and all of their nuclear fuel from Russia. Poland and Romania depend less on Russia for their energy security. Romania imports only about 20 percent of its natural gas from Russia and is taking steps to make its investment climate friendlier to Western energy companies by instituting a new system for royalties. Poland, which currently depends on Russia to meet 60 percent of its natural gas demand, will open its new liquefied natural gas terminal at Swinoujscie in mid-2015, with a capacity of 5 billion cubic meters per year.
Talks with Central European leaders thus will include discussions about Western firms' role in boosting investment and helping these countries move away from Russia, especially in the energy sector. In Hungary and Bulgaria, talks will focus on the potential alternatives to the now-canceled Russia-led South Stream project, as well as on ongoing plans for U.S.-based Westinghouse to construct a new 1,000-megawatt AP1000 reactor at Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear power plant. Likewise, talks in Romania likely will center on increasing the role of Western firms in current and future energy projects.
This diplomatic offensive in Central Europe is taking place just as Russia is embarking upon its own diplomatic efforts to woo Central European leaders. Czech President Milos Zeman has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Prague in late January, and Putin is expected to visit Hungary in March. These diplomatic overtures come at a time of increasing political and economic constraints for Russia. As oil prices continue to fall and the Central Bank of Russia struggles to support the value of the ruble, the Kremlin is considering bailouts for some of the country's major banks and corporations as well as wide-ranging budget cuts. In this environment, Russia's ability to offer Central European countries financial and economic incentives is limited, enabling Western leaders to wield greater influence in the region, at least for now.