Security Risks for Eastern Europe in the Trump Era
Many Eastern European (EE) countries consider themselves insecure, stemming from Russian assertiveness, the possibility of a US-Russian “plot” and the inability of Europe to defend itself in the military sphere. These feelings are simultaneously both rational and irrational.
Surely, the situation which had been developing in and around Ukraine since 2014 has destabilized the whole European security architecture. The war is taking place not far away from European borders but directly at the EU’s doorstep. The deepening mistrust in relations between Russia and the West spilled over into their structural contradictions on such issues as conflict management in Syria, military activities in the Baltic Sea, US anti-missile defense etc. Europe is suffering now from an absence of predictability, which was not the case after the demise of the Soviet Union and even during the Cold War with its neorealist strategic culture.
Europe is suffering now from an absence of predictability, which was not the case after the demise of the Soviet Union and even during the Cold War with its neorealist strategic culture.
At the same time, the foreign policy thinking in EE has fallen into the trap of a classical security dilemma – the more security, the better from a zero-sum perspective. EE countries perceive themselves as frontier states which should be supported by Western powers because they allegedly defend not only their own security against threats coming from Russia but also the security of the Western world in general. This logic sets up unrealistic preconditions for any conversation with and on Russia. The Trump Presidency only reinforced these irrational fears. EE sees itself threatened by the possibility of turning into a buffer zone between Russia and the West in which its security would be far from being guaranteed.
Some trends are going unnoticed, at least in the public sphere. Firstly, Trump’s “pro-Russian” stance is a very speculative argument. The new US Administration obviously identified a new set of priorities which belong to the sphere of international trade and internal security. In face of these priorities, the conflict with Russia which by itself threatens even to undermine global security is seen as to some extent artificial (caused, among other things, by the fact that Russia became an object of internal political game in Washington last year) and partially manageable. Concerning Russia, it was argued that despite sanctions the new President would try to provide a new start in US-Russian relations by striking “good deals” with Moscow (like diminishing nuclear arsenals). Only if this trust-building policy brings some positive results, both sides will be able to tackle more serious issues like Ukraine and a dialogue on lifting sanctions could be initiated. So the Trump Administration actually does not claim to seek any “big deal” with Moscow. The aim is rather not to let US-Russian relations to deteriorate further and to restrict the enduring conflict by some confidence-building initiatives.
The current US leadership announced that it would leave sanctions against Russia intact, at least in the beginning. Reinforcement of NATO forces in Eastern Europe is to some extent a part of sanctions policy, so it will also remain valid. During his Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson even argued that, in the context of the conflict in Ukraine, he would have decided to supply Ukraine with defensive arms to provide the Kiev’s control over its national borders. So, Russia will hardly enjoy any special treatment from Washington even after Trump came to power. Moscow will, of course, somehow benefit from restructuring the US foreign policy agenda – away from concentration on “Russian threat”. Nevertheless, at a strategic level, the structural contradictions between Washington and Moscow (like US anti-missile defense) will persist, which will prevent any possible “big deals”.
So, eventual rapprochement between US and Russia under Trump will be very limited in its nature. In this regard, it is interesting to cite key Russian decision-makers like Prime Minister Dmity Medvedev or Secretary of the Security Council Patrushev who argued that it would be an illusion to wait for the easing of anti-Russian sanctions in the foreseeable future. Besides, the majority of Russian analysts expect that the new version of “reset” will only last for about 2 years, sooner rather than later.
The argument about the “Russian threat” should be also taken critically. In the internal politics of Russia, we are observing how the post-Crimean syndrome is almost over. Russian decision-makers are challenged now by economic stagnation and falling incomes of the whole population. These are challenges which are particularly sensitive in advance of the coming presidential elections. There are still no indications that the government will try to counterbalance negative trends in the economy with militarism. Quite the opposite is taking place: the government introduced measures of fiscal austerity which embraced also military spending. It will drop from 4,7 % in 2016 to 2,9 % of GDP in 2019.
It is interesting to cite key Russian decision-makers like Prime Minister Dmity Medvedev or Secretary of the Security Council Patrushev who argued that it would be an illusion to wait for the easing of anti-Russian sanctions in the foreseeable future. Besides, the majority of Russian analysts expect that the new version of “reset” will only last for about 2 years, sooner rather than later.
Internationally, Russia is very much challenged by conflict settlement in Syria. It demands a substantial political, financial and military engagement of Russia in the foreseeable future, which will not permit or advance any adventurism at any other “front”. We should not forget the losses which Russia directly or indirectly sustained from its military operation in Syria and which are not so easily accepted by the Russian public.
While analyzing Russian official or semi-official discourse, we should argue that Moscow is not publicly “playing through” any scenarios of direct fighting with NATO countries (in comparison with Western Think Tanks). In Russian foreign policy thinking, such countries as Poland and Romania belong to the Western “sphere of influence” where Moscow has nothing to look for. In the post-soviet area, the situation differs: here Moscow, is very much present in the internal politics of these countries and has many resources at its disposal to keep its role as a regional power. On the other side, even in the post-soviet space, the Russian real influence is in decline. Russia is slightly beginning to accept these realities. For example, we see how Moscow talks to Chișinău and Tbilisi about “normalization” of relations and how the discourse of Eurasian integration became fully technocratic.
To sum up, neither Russia nor the US want a real confrontation with each other. They are overwhelmed by a plethora of external and internal challenges. At the same time, there is no evidence that any real full-fledged rapprochement between Moscow and Washington is possible – the Kremlin will hardly give up on its objections in key areas of interest and make substantial concessions. And in Washington, the policy on Russia became a politicized topic which could be one of the issues for Trump’s impeachment. Consequently, no substantial changes in US-Russian relations can be identified for now.
To build up a “European army” is also not a solution. The EU countries are overwhelmed with migrants from Middle East and Africa which will further fuel nationalistic agenda and weaken the Union internally. We should not forget about internal political processes in many EE countries where the governments are now substantially challenged by the civil society and opposition. Besides, Germany abstains from real rearmament because it assumes that it will be perceived as a threat, first of all, to Germany’s own neighbors. And Berlin currently prefers to have an explicitly multilateral foreign policy, accepted by EU partners. Besides, the EU Security and Defense Union is still planned as an enhanced cooperation between some Member States (like Germany and France) because many other EU countries do not want to make this area supranational.
That is why the EU countries are trying to put forward the idea of reinstalling structured dialogue on disarmament policy and confidence-building measures in the military sphere between Russia and the West within the OSCE. Germany, supported by another 13 EU states, initiated a declaration calling for progress in this area. Russia replied that it takes the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe for practically dead, but is quite interested in keeping alive the other OSCE regimes created by Vienna Document and Open Skies Treaty. For example, recently Ukraine was allowed to make its own inspections in a Russian south-western region bordering Ukraine. A positive development is also that Austria took over the OSCE Presidency this year and contributes now to the reinvigoration of dialogue with Moscow that Germany used to perform in 2016.
Eastern European countries could join in or simply not to obstruct these efforts. The deepening of confrontation on the European continent will only undermine their security. Rationalism and moderation are very much in demand in today’s turbulent times.