COVID-19 not to spare Eastern Europe from great power competition
Despite official pleasantries on overcoming COVID-19 together, the pandemic still has not instilled a spirit of good faith co-operation between global actors. The crisis, to the contrary, has accelerated, exacerbated, and laid bare rivalrous trends that pre-dated its existence. While there is little reason to hope that the countries of Eastern Europe will be spared from this competition of great powers, the changes will be less profound than it might first seem. Europe, Russia, China and the United States will, in particular, be the outside players to watch.
The European Commission has set forth its geopolitical aspirations. Marshalling solidarity and consolidating a coherent EU foreign policy was a challenge even before COVID-19. Now faced with the financial strain of salvaging its own healthcare systems and economies, the EU will need to make do with fewer financial resources and institutional capacity in its outside engagement. In making these decisions, the EU is especially aware that its relevance and global ambition will be judged by how effectively it can address needs in its own neighbourhood. With the EU inclined to focus southward, the Eastern neighbourhood is not currently in pole position for attention.
Policy towards the Western Balkans brings more consensus and clarity. While there is still disagreement on the process of enlargement to the region, the agenda is backed by influential voices in the EU. On the eastern front, Europe has already abandoned its end-of-history thinking about the scale of transformation it can deliver. It has also learned that economic, democratic and security progress is neither linear nor irreversible. While recognising the value of strategic patience, the EU seems to be at a loss for novel ideas. Incremental updates to the Eastern Partnership agenda are laudable but hardly sufficient in light of the scale of the challenge at hand.
The EU’s own east-west divide is not helping the situation. Exasperated by democratic backsliding in Central Europe, the opinion that the enlargement to the region was a mistake is not uncommon among western members. Having lost some of their lustre, Central Europeans are currently not in the best position to sway others towards adopting their policy goals and ambitions. Any perceptions of an EU solidarity deficit in a post-COVID-19 world will compound this effect. The southern members of the EU had already prioritised issues to the south and harboured fewer concerns about Russia. If solidarity is not forthcoming on the economic downturn ahead, there will be less incentive for these southern EU countries to convey more empathy and invest time and resources in the East.
Russia seized the crisis as an opportunity to project an amicable image to Europe by sending aid to Italy and other countries. But it has been grappling with containing the spread of the virus at home. The toll inflicted by the global drop in oil prices will only exacerbate the challenge the country faces in reviving its economy. Growing Chinese assertiveness in the region will not help ameliorate the situation either. With the global economy in freefall, China is likely to emerge in better shape than Europe or Russia. With its global ambitions incorporated into domestic thinking, China will have fewer qualms, compared to Europe, about pursuing outside investment opportunities. It is entirely plausible that Chinese-backed loans could be the only option on the market. Often with few strings attached in the short-term, governments facing economies ravaged by the crisis might have little alternative regardless of the notorious length of strings attached over the long-term.
Russia, for its part, is committed to supplying oil to China and is likely to turn to China’s more affordable and trusted computer hardware over western offers in order to develop its digital infrastructure. The Chinese footprint on the region, and on Russia, will be immense. Emmanuel Macron has already attempted to use this China factor as bait for Putin to improve relations with Europe. While it is not unthinkable that Russia might want to improve relations with the EU, Putin’s regime is unlikely to change. Nor are there convincing signs of a distinctively new foreign policy in Russia. With mutual trust long gone, even the health crisis has been interwoven into the geopolitical agenda and become characterised by habitual EU and US recriminations on disinformation, interference and manipulation.
In the past, Putin has relied on foreign policy manoeuvres to boost his domestic political standing against a poorly performing economy. And, moreover, Crimea and Georgia helped achieve desired ratings. Another foreign policy move cannot be ruled out given that domestic support has reached its pre-Crimea lows. While Russia is not likely to halt investments in its military forces and aspirations, a continued US commitment to underwriting security guarantees in Eastern Europe is less certain. This is not a new COVID-19 development but rather is part of a long discussed pivot away from Europe. Despite talk of European strategic autonomy, Europe has not yet demonstrated that it has the capacity to project security. And regardless of the scale of US commitment, the idea of investing more into security guarantees in Eastern Europe remains inimical to many European countries. This leaves a situation where Russia is likely to stay put, China creeps further and deeper in, and the US risks providing a greater vacuum to fill.
Although interests and goals will continue to diverge, all actors in the region will have reasons to extend co-operation. Relying on as much help as it can get from the US and other partners, the EU has the greatest capacity – but also interest – in channelling a meaningful dialogue in the region. But to optimally secure the shared benefits that could be accrued from Russia’s potential openness to new approaches and Chinese investment and business interests, the EU needs to invest in resources to protect economies devastated by COVID-19, renew its effort to solve protracted conflicts in the region, develop its own defence and security capabilities and support the resilience of countries in the region. This will not prove to be cheap or politically convenient. But European leaders are currently enjoying record high level approvals at home. They should seize this window of opportunity to include the Eastern neighbourhood into the agenda for the benefit of geopolitical and economic interests of Europe and the region alike.
Alena Kudzko is the director of the GLOBSEC policy institute.
This text is part of a special expert survey titled “Geopolitics and coronavirus” co-financed through an agreement with the Eastern Europe Department at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.