Eastern Europe is one of the most active and complex geopolitical areas in the world. The regional and global ramifications of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine provide the most recent validation of this observation. The article proposes an outline of a framework though which to understand the current geopolitical dynamics of the region. Eastern Europe is divided into three parts, of which the first two are essential:
- Northern Eastern European Area (NEEA) composed of: Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland,
- Southern Eastern European Area (SEEA): Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, FYROM, Hungary, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia,
- Eurasian Eastern European Area (EEEA): Belarus.
The proposed NEEA – SEEA divide is based on following factors: the pattern of rivalry between great powers, the relationship with Russia, and the vulnerability of intra-regional geopolitical structures. Based on this criteria, the areas are described as follows:
- NEEA: (a) a bilateral, intense, permanent and direct pattern of great power rivalry, (b) the Russian factor is dominant, but external to the region, (c) a relatively low vulnerability of geopolitical structure,
- SEEA: (a) a complex, multilateral, varied and indirect pattern of great power rivalry, (b) the Russian factor has limited importance, but can be internal to the region, (c) a relatively high vulnerability of geopolitical structure.
Attentive readers should have by now realised that two important countries have been omitted. The Czech Republic and Ukraine constitute special cases in the context of the proposed framework and will be discussed in more detail below.
The inclusion of Finland in the NEEA also merits an additional explanation. The country does not exactly belong to Eastern Europe based on strict geographic criteria. However, its spatial proximity to NEEA and direct, significant politico-economic exposure to Russia combined with many similar historical experiences suggest that it is more sensible to include rather than omit Finland from the proposed model. Though, admittedly, the country should not be treated as an organic part of the NEEA.
Factor 1 - Pattern of great power rivalry
The great power rivalry in NEEA forms a clear, well-defined pattern based on a bilateral relationship. Currently, the character of interaction is antagonistic and the two nodes are represented by Russia and the United States. The position of the largest European powers does not overlap with America’s, yet remains sufficiently close and aligned to modify the bilateral pattern. A more complex triangular geometry could emerge if Germany were to form a third geopolitical node by becoming sufficiently non-aligned towards both Russia and the United States. This, however, is unlikely to happen as long as the European Union and NATO exist as viable political institutions. For the time being, Berlin is both not able, but also not willing to fully engage in NEEA in a way which could entail challenging the interests of both Moscow and Washington.
Another aspect of great power rivalry in the NEEA is its intensity and permanence, which in turn is a function of the high geopolitical significance of the area. The region represents a gateway for both conquest and trade between East and West. If seen through the lens of classic geopolitics, it separates the heartland power (Russia) from the key powers of European Rimland (France, Germany), making it an important area for both. Precisely because of that, the region is also vital for the Maritime Powers (US, UK). With time, and depending on the global situation, it may also feature more prominently in the foreign policy of China. Significant changes in the region’s stability, political alignment or military potential have immediate and direct repercussions for the balance of power between key geopolitical actors. Therefore, the NEEA remains tightly integrated into the framework of great power relations.
The SEEA experiences a different dynamic. Certainly the region is also affected by the bilateral rivalry. However, its impact differs in terms of scope, intensity and permanence. The area has a more peripheral geopolitical location in comparison with NEEA, which makes it relatively less important in the strategic calculus of great powers. In addition, its inherently higher level of instability makes it a more difficult terrain for geopolitical actors to operate in. Initiatives aiming at domination of the area are potentially very costly, as control and stabilisation requires a significant outlay of resources. The fact that the region still remains, more than 25 years after the Cold War, a significant region outside of the EU and NATO is case in point. Lack of dominant bipolar great power overlay opens up some space for other actors to get involved, within certain limits, without immediately challenging head-on the interests of Russia or the United States.
Thus, if the confrontation in NEEA resembles “trench warfare” of two large armies facing each other along a well-defined frontline, the SEEA is more similar to “guerrilla warfare” with a complex battlespace, multiple belligerents and more fluid geometry of alliances.
Factor 2 – Russia
The question of the Russian factor as a driver of the NEEA-SEEA divide is closely related to the issue of great power rivalry described above. For the NEEA countries, Russia is the key, and effectively the only, national security issue. No other regional or transnational risk factor comes close in terms of both importance and permanence. Given the negative historical experience, internal stability and strong political alignment with the West, the NEEA remains very difficult for Russia to penetrate from the inside. Its soft power remains very limited, effectively extending only to some parts of the Russian minority living in the area. Thus, Moscow is mainly left with coercive and, to a much lesser extent, compensatory instruments for furthering its political objectives.
The SEEA, on the other hand, offers a more promising geopolitical environment. Though there are countries which are less open to Russian influence, such as Romania, Moscow can establish a more or less permanent foothold in some states. On average, Russia is rarely considered a significant and permanent threat to the national security of SEEA countries. Some states worry more about the actions of their neighbours than about Moscow’s foreign policy designs. Unlike in the NEEA, Russia can also exercise a fair degree of soft power based on ethnic, historical and religious affinity. The relatively higher internal instabilityof the region (in comparison to the NEEA) creates additional cracks through which Russia can hope to spread its influence in the region.
Thus, while NEEA remains rather impervious to Russian penetration, the SEEA is much less hermetic, allowing Moscow to exert its influence not only from outside but also from within.
Factor 3 – Vulnerability of regional geopolitical structure
The third factor driving these regions is related to the level of fragility of the geopolitical structure in each region. The NEEA can be considered relatively solid and stable. It could be broken by a blow from the outside, but is unlikely to crumble from within. The area is also very well integrated into the key political institutions of the West. All five countries belong to the EU and Schengen Area, four are Eurozone and NATO members. There are no major antagonisms existing between the NEEA countries. The area is also relatively unexposed to most threatening transnational risks such as terrorism or mass-migration.
By contrast, the structure of the SEEA is more fractured and unstable. It may be subject to destabilisation even in the absence of significant external shocks. The area remains only partially integrated in the politico-institutional tissue of the West. Of the thirteen countries, only six are EU Members States, of which just three belong to the Schengen Area and two to the Eurozone. Seven countries have joined NATO.
Intra-regional ethnic, national and religious fault-lines play a significant role in shaping the geopolitical structure of the area. Unlike in the NEEA, which is driven almost exclusively by great power rivalry, the SEEA is more of a patchwork of global, regional and local factors, with each level capable, depending on circumstances, of temporarily affecting geopolitical processes in the area.
Two issues of instability are forming in the SEEA. One is located in the Western Balkans along the Albania-Bosnia-FYROM-Kosovo-Serbia axis. The other has emerged along the Russia-Ukraine-Transnistria-Moldova axis, but can easily expand to include Hungary and Romania.
The internal instability potential of the SEEA is further enhanced by negative changes occurring in its neighbourhood and the increasing impact of transnational threats. The economic crisis in Greece and political tensions in Turkey increase the vulnerability of the southern neighbourhood. The region is also exposed to activities of global jihadist groups and inflows of mass-migration.
The Czech Republic and Ukraine, the missing pieces of the puzzle
Two countries have not been explicitly included in the NEEA-SEEA framework. The Czech Republic has been considered a special case because of a favourable geopolitical position which makes it less exposed to great power rivalry and Russia, while being at the same time relatively insulated from the intra-regional dynamics of the SEEA. Arguably, the Slavkov Initiative based on developing cooperation with Austria can be seen as symptomatic in context of Prague’s position outside of the NEEA and SEEA.
Another key missing element of the framework is Ukraine. The country presents a geopolitical conundrum as it lies at the edges of the NEEA, SEEA and EEEA. The country remained within the gravitational field of the EEEA during most of the post-Cold War, yet its integration remained incomplete. The events of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan in 2014 have dislodged Ukraine from its orbit, but failed to anchor it to a new one.
As a result, Ukraine finds itself in geopolitical limbo as neither of the great powers is strong enough to achieve a dominant position at the moment. Russia understands that the western part of the country is effectively lost due to its strong nationalistic identity. The West limits its engagement in the conflict to avoid open confrontation with Russia while providing support which is valuable but insufficient to secure Ukraine’s geopolitical integration with Europe. At the same time, Kyiv has even fewer resources than before to conduct an effective foreign and internal policy.
High external pressures combined with declining resources result in internal fractures. The most recent shootout with Right Sector militants in Mukacheve is very symptomatic in this respect. If unfavourable trends persist, Ukraine may face implosion resulting in a de facto political and possibly territorial disintegration. In a negative scenario, this could lead not only to further territorial losses to pro-Russian separatists, but also to the emergence of areas where the power is effectively in the hands of local oligarchs and warlords. This could potentially result in the shifting the crisis’ centre of gravity to the south-western part of the country with a vector of instability directed towards the SEEA.
If the NEEA-SEEA dynamics becomes sufficiently strong, Eastern Europe could effectively cease to exist as a viable geopolitical concept. The NEEA would resemble a Cold War environment, highly militarised, internally stable, but with tense equilibrium underpinned by the risk of a major military confrontation. The SEEA, in turn, would effectively become a zone of chronic instability, one in which the great and regional powers would actively compete both head-on and indirectly through the skilful use of local antagonisms, yet fail to achieve a dominant position.
A potentially escalating antagonism between Russia and the United States would integrate the NEEA, but disintegrate the SEEA. Growing pressure from Russia would bring NEEA countries geopolitically closer together, potentially leading to Finland's membership in NATO. Meanwhile, great power rivalry in the SEEA would result in both creating new and exacerbating existing fractures leading to its further destabilisation.
The internal vulnerability of the SEEA would make it a good environment to pursue geopolitical strategies with negative rather than positive objectives. The area favours actions aiming at disruption and destabilisation rather than ones aimingatstabalisation and integration. Thus, any strategic pan-regional initiative undertaken by Europeans, Americans or Russians might be difficult to accomplish as it would be prone to disruption. The troubles of developing major pipeline projects, such as the Western Nabucco and the Russian South Stream pipeline, can serve as an illustration of this principle.
The dynamics of the NEEA–SEEA divide will lead to increasing geopolitical separation as each area will be increasingly driven by its own internal dynamics. This will naturally result in the shattering of existing links between North and South. Symptoms of this process can be seen already in visible fractures within the Visegrad Group which includes countries from both the NEEA and SEEA.
The outline of the divide is neither static nor deterministic. It may be modified by changes in the global situation or if sufficient geopolitical force is applied. In fact, an already growing US military presence extending from the Baltics and Poland to Ukraine and Romania could effectively expand the NEEA southward by creating a geostrategic bridge connecting the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea.
Eastern Europe is a fascinating geopolitical puzzle: complex, dynamic and important. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the tenets of the analysis above, it is hoped that nobody questions the urgency of active, bold and long-term thinking about the future of the region. Otherwise, the fate of Eastern Europe could once again be decided elsewhere.
Adam Klus is an investment professional and a PhD student at the University of Eastern Finland. His research interests focus on geopolitics and political risk analysis. He can be followed on Twitter @KlusAdam.