The Ukrainian crisis continued to intensify Thursday, with the Crimean parliament voting to join Russia and moving a planned referendum on the issue up by two weeks to March 16. That same day, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite warned that Russian moves in Crimea could be a sign of further Russian intentions not only in Ukraine, but also in Moldova, the Baltic states and Poland. Such developments seem to indicate that much of the borderlands between Europe and Russia are once again in play. In reality, they always have been.
The end of the Cold War redrew the political lines of Europe. The Soviet Union collapsed, leaving 15 newly independent states in Eurasia. The Warsaw Pact ceased to exist, and so the former Soviet satellite states in Central Europe no longer were under Moscow's military and economic umbrella. With the West riding high on its victory, the European Union and NATO then began a process of eastward enlargement. Over the next 15 years, many of the states from the former Soviet bloc were integrated into the Western alliance structure. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. The rest of Central Europe and the Baltic states joined the European Union and NATO between 2004 and 2007.
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The push for Western integration did not stop there. Ukraine and Georgia both experienced color revolutions in the mid-2000s that ushered in Western-friendly governments. These governments then formally sought to gain EU and NATO membership, with the West starting to support their long-term orientation toward these blocs in much the same way they did with Central Europe and the Baltics a decade earlier.
This deeper push into the Russian periphery did not succeed. By then, Russia was no longer the weak and chaotic state of the 1990s and early 2000s. It had consolidated internally and recovered economically on the back of high energy prices. Russia was thus in a position to respond to these moves, which it did in the form of occasional natural gas cutoffs to Ukraine and the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. The war not only showed that Russia was able to defeat Georgia militarily in a matter of days, but also that notions that the West would offer Georgia military support were illusory. The war also served as a message from Moscow to the rest of the former Soviet periphery that it would not tolerate any serious efforts toward further Western integration.
Moscow used the next five years to push back against Western gains on the Russian periphery. During this period, it was the European Union and the United States that were distracted, the former with its own political and economic crisis and the latter with its commitments in the Middle East. A relatively unburdened Russia took full advantage of this window of opportunity.
Meanwhile, pro-Western governments in Ukraine and Georgia were voted out in favor of administrations more friendly — or at least more pragmatic — toward Moscow. Russia strengthened its influence in other states courted by the West, such as Belarus and Armenia. It also boosted its own rival economic and security blocs like the Customs Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization to counter EU and NATO expansion.
But while the West may have been down in the competition over the borderlands during this time, it wasn't out. Efforts at EU integration of the countries on Russia's periphery continued, albeit more slowly and indirectly. These efforts included free-trade and association agreements meant to strengthen ties between the Russian periphery and the European Union without involving actual membership.
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's rejection of such deals led to the Western-backed demonstrations in Kiev that culminated in his overthrow. This not only led to the current standoff between Russia and the West over the fate of Ukraine, it has also thrown other countries in the periphery, like Georgia and Moldova, back into the center of the tug-of-war over their orientation once again. The standoff has been a source of concern to those already under the EU and NATO economic and security umbrella, including Poland and the Baltics. These countries fear they, too, could fall back into the increasingly intense Western-Russian competition for influence in the Russian periphery.
The West's efforts in Ukraine are therefore merely the latest chapter in the competition between Russia and the West that has taken various forms since the end of the Cold War. The Western counterpunch over Ukraine is a major message to Moscow: Russia cannot take its position and influence in the borderland states for granted. But as it has shown in Crimea and via efforts to extend Russian citizenship to ethnic Russians and Russian speakers throughout the former Soviet Union, Moscow is not without its own levers, and the European Union and the United States still have their own constraints to serious engagement in the Russian periphery.
Looking ahead, the West and Russia eventually might reach an understanding over Ukraine that results in that country's Finlandization, as suggested by Henry Kissinger in an op-ed for The Washington Post. In this case, Ukraine, along with the rest of the borderland states, would be integrated exclusively neither with the West nor with Russia. Instead, they could be integrated with the West economically while confined to certain foreign policy and defense policy limits to reassure Moscow. The other and more likely possibility is that neither Russia nor the West will recognize the neutrality of the borderland states. In this case, the competition over this perennially contested region would continue, shifting according to the strengths and weaknesses of the dueling sides.