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How to make Eastern Europe’s gray zone less gray?

The United States’ Baltic and Adriatic Charters could become templates for embedding Ukraine and Georgia, as well as possibly Moldova and Azerbaijan, into a provisional multilateral security network. Despite certain caveats, a US-GUAM Charter would be a small but symbolically significant step forward in making Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus more secure.

March 6, 2019 - Andreas Umland Iryna Vereshchuk - Articles and Commentary

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo welcomes Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, to the State Department in Washington, D.C., September 13, 2018 Photo: Ron Przysucha (cc) State Department

It is remarkable how strongly some international organisations’ coverage of the East-Central European and South Caucasian post-Soviet spaces has come to correlate with the territorial integrity of the states within those regions. Two large blocs are confronting each other in Eastern Europe: NATO as well as the EU, on the side, and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) as well as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), both Moscow-dominated, on the other. Today, exactly those four countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova (GUAM) – which are not members of either of these two coalitions do not fully control their territories. In contrast, NATO and EU members with large Russian minorities and restrictive citizenship laws, such as Estonia and Latvia, have fully preserved their internationally recognised borders; the same is true for most of the CSTO and EEU member countries, such as Belarus and Armenia, despite the fact that they are individually weak in the economic sense.

In Azerbaijan’s Nagorno Karabakh, Moldova’s Transnistria, Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as Ukraine’s Donets Basin (Donbas), six unrecognised pseudo-states were created with direct (or indirect, in the case of Karabakh) support from the Kremlin. Crimea has been simply annexed by Russia. In Moscow’s reading, the Ukrainian peninsula has, since March 2014, become an ordinary region within the Russian Federation. This interpretation has since been rejected in, among other international statements, several documents of the UN, OSCE and Council of Europe – organisations of which Russia or/and the Soviet Union has been/was a full member for many years.

The many inconsequential alliances of Eastern Europe

The prospects of further eastern enlargement of the EU and NATO happening in the near future are dim. The UN, OSCE and Council of Europe have, despite statements in support of Ukraine and Georgia, demonstrated their unsuitability for resolving the fundamental security problem besetting the gray zone of Eastern Europe. This indicates that the GUAM region will remain a source of instability for years to come.

That is in spite of the fact that there have been various multilateral frameworks specifically designed to increase cooperation and stability in East-Central Europe and the Southern Caucasus during the last two decades. Among them are the:


Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development (known as GUAM), which extends to Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova and was instituted in 2001;

• Community of Democratic Choice (CDC), assembled in 2005;

• Black Sea Synergy (BSS), started in 2007;

• EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP), which includes Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and was established in 2009;

• Bucharest Nine (B9), which gathers Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria and was launched in 2015;

• Three Seas Initiative (3SI), which includes Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia and was set up in 2016.

Despite numerous efforts, most of these frameworks (particularly GUAM, CDC and BSS) have proven to be either too weak or too short-lived to make the region substantively more secure. Others, such as the B9 and 3SI, are relatively dynamic and strong, yet do not include any of the most vulnerable gray zone countries. In fact, the latter two projects deliberately excluded the four GUAM states from their outsets.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership program, to be sure, led to the conclusion of impressive Association Agreements with three of the four gray zone countries – Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova – in 2014. These exceptionally large treaties, moreover, include articles addressing issues of security and defence. Yet, the EU (with the partial exception of Poland, Great Britain and Lithuania) did not follow up on filling these formulations with any notable substance beyond general financial and technical support as well as some timid sanctions against Russia related to the annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Donbas. Since the three agreements’ full ratification by all of the EU member states and by the European Parliament in 2014, Tbilisi, Kyiv and Chisinau have benefitted from only very limited military support from Brussels.

Worse, several EU member states have started to slowly rebuild, in one way or another, their economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow after the introduction of sanctions in reaction to Russia’s attacks on Ukraine beginning in 2014. The most egregious such attempt is the so-called Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, via the Baltic Sea. The Kremlin designed this project specifically to eliminate Moscow’s remaining partial dependence on the Ukrainian gas transportation system and to thereby free its hands for future escalation.

The United States as Eastern Europe’s indispensable nation

The embarrassing story of abortive Eastern European security institution-building endeavours over the last quarter of a century illustrates the need for the United States to finally get involved. Washington’s engagement has been and remains crucial not only for the political stability of Western Europe, but also for Eastern Europe. This has been amply demonstrated by the Baltic and Adriatic Charters signed by the US with various post-communist countries in 1998 and 2003, respectively. These charters were designed to prepare the transitioning nations for future NATO membership. After Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia allied with the US via the Baltic Charter, they successfully entered NATO in 2004.

Additionally, the Adriatic Charter has done (what would have been regarded twenty years ago as) wonders in the Western Balkans. In 2009 Croatia, a state that had not existed two decades earlier, and Albania, which had once been one of Europe’s most gruesome communist dictatorships, became NATO members. In 2017 Montenegro – which had been bombed by NATO warplanes less than twenty years before – became NATO’s 29th member country. Currently Macedonia’s, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s, accession to NATO is being prepared. Serbia, to be sure, is only a candidate for membership in the EU and not for NATO; likewise it is only an observer, and not a full signatory, to the Adriatic Charter. Yet it appears not unlikely that Serbia will eventually too apply for NATO membership should it gain admission into the EU and all other Balkan states have become full members of the alliance.

Already in 2008 Georgia and Ukraine officially applied to begin NATO’s Membership Action Plan. While these applications were rejected, in their Bucharest Summit Declaration of April 3rd, 2008, the then-26 member countries released a statement in which they welcomed “Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO” and agreed “that these countries will become members of NATO,” at some point. The still ambivalent status of Georgia and Ukraine as official future members of NATO emerged from the fact that they were given no concrete roadmap or timeline for entering the Alliance.
Arguably, this ambivalence was one of the determinants of Moscow’s occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 as well as of Crimea and the eastern Donbas in 2014. Russia’s expansions, in turn, have increased wariness within the Alliance about further enlargement and created an accession deadlock for Ukraine and Georgia. The lesson from the various stories of post-communist states is that political ambiguity and institutional indetermination breed instability and stalemate, whereas resolute engagement and organisational structuring increase security and foster progress.

Towards a US charter with the GUAM group

The US partly learned its lesson from earlier successes with its charters in the Baltic and Balkan regions, and from the disaster of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war. It signed bilateral Strategic Partnership Charters with Ukraine in December 2008 and with Georgia in January 2009. The two charters announced that the parties will support the integration of Ukraine and Georgia into European and Euro-Atlantic structures, increase their involvement in security cooperation and prepare them for NATO membership candidacy. The two documents, however, did not send much of a signal to Russia. They remained largely unknown within even the publics of their three signatory states.

Against such a background, it appears that the GUAM group would benefit from an expansion of Washington’s current two bilateral charters into a larger quasi-alliance, in both practical and symbolic terms. A new multilateral charter would link the US more demonstratively than hitherto with the EU’s three associated eastern partners Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – and perhaps with Azerbaijan as well. Such a provisional semi-coalition could become a consequential upgrade for the GUAM group first formed in 2001, and give an impulse to deeper cooperation between them. It could be modelled on, or even go beyond, the Baltic and Adriatic Charters.

Ideas like this have been previously voiced a number of times. For instance, at the 2009 meeting of foreign ministers of the Adriatic and Baltic countries as well as of the US in Riga, the Lithuanian FM Vygaudas Ušackas called for continuing NATO enlargement. Ušackas suggested holding meetings of Balkan, Baltic and US department heads and ministers that would also include representatives from Ukraine and Georgia. Ušackas noted that as Ukraine and Georgia aspire to NATO membership, they “could make use of our experience in the conduct of military, political and economic reforms.”

To be sure, a new multilateral US charter for Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus will not offer nearly as much protection to GUAM as Article 5 of the Washington Treaty provides for NATO’s members. US assurances in such a document would probably even remain significantly below those given bilaterally by Washington to such countries as South Korea or Israel. Still, a US-GUAM Charter could provide elementary organisational structure to Eastern Europe’s gray zone during the interregnum, until these countries eventually become members of the EU, NATO or/and other relevant international institutions that embed them more deeply into the international system. Even a very cautiously formulated American charter for the GUAM countries would have considerable symbolic power, increase Eastern European security and raise the stakes of further escalation in the current post-Soviet gray zone for Moscow.

Three caveats apply. First, the US would hardly (and should not) promise to help the four countries in reconquering their lost territories. The eventual recovery of the separatist regions are major topics in Ukrainian, Moldovan, Georgian and Azeri domestic discourse and are subjects of constant patriotic outbidding. Thus, Washington should make it clear from the outset that a return of the altogether seven seceded territories under GUAM’s control would not be the function of such a charter. In arguing so, reference could be made to Washington’s close pre-2008 cooperation with Tbilisi yet inability and unwillingness to interfere militarily in the five-day-long August war between Russia and Georgia.

Second, Azerbaijan has no announced ambition to join NATO or the EU while Moldova has, in its currently valid 1994 Constitution, defined itself as a permanently bloc-free country. Thus, the charter should leave the question of future entry of its signatory states into NATO and EU open – or even entirely ignore the issue. Oddly, Moldova and Azerbaijan each maintain exceptionally close political, economic and ethno-linguistic links to a large NATO member country: Romania and Turkey, respectively. Georgia and Ukraine, in contrast, have no comparably close relations to any western country. (Poland’s once-close relations to Ukraine have deteriorated during the last years because of historical memory issues.) Moreover, in 2010, Azerbaijan agreed to a mutual aid treaty with Turkey that at least formally provides Baku with far-reaching security assurances from a full NATO member country.

Finally, unlike Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, Azerbaijan enjoys no large Association Agreement with the EU; in fact it is not even an electoral democracy. The charter would thus have to be careful in formulating its political standards. Support for Azerbaijan could be seen as contradictory to the general foreign policy goals of the US. Yet, one should not forget that such inconsistencies are not unusual in western geopolitical engagements. For instance, since 2009, Azerbaijan has been fully included in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program and benefits from Brussels’s financial support. The NATO member countries Poland, Hungary and especially Turkey have recently suffered from significant setbacks in their political development which put into question their classification as proper liberal democracies.

In spite of caveats like these, a US-GUAM Charter following the examples of the Baltic and Adriatic Charters would be a small but symbolically significant step forward in making Eastern Europe more secure. It would usefully parallel and demonstratively support the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy, in general, and Eastern Partnership program, in particular. While not yet providing a comprehensive solution to the fragile security situation in East-Central Europe and the Southern Caucasus, it would help to gradually make Europe’s post-Soviet gray zone less gray.

Iryna Vereshchuk is the president of Kyiv’s International Centre for Black Sea-Baltic Studies and Consensus Practices which unites several former heads of state and government from various European post-communist countries.

Andreas Umland is a senior non-resident fellow at the Centre for European Security of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, principal researcher of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and general editor of the ibidem-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” distributed by Columbia University Press.

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