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From bridge to battlefield: re-emergence of Central and Eastern Europe as centre of struggle for power

After efforts to integrate Russia into the liberal order eventually failed, Central and Eastern Europe is being transformed into an arena of confrontation.

February 13, 2023 - Jozef Hrabina - Articles and Commentary

Kirill Makarov / Shutterstock

In his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger regards Central Europe as an epicentre of major wars on the continent. With Russia’s war in Ukraine and the push for rearmament in the region, Kissinger’s words are becoming a warning for leaders that decades of peace do not make Central Europe a war-free utopia.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has served as a bridge between the former Soviet Union’s European satellites and greater Eurasia. Whether as a conduit for energy, rail traffic, cultural values or political dialogue, Central Europe was a useful ally in taming the newly formed Russian Federation that inherited one-quarter of the Earth’s landmass, immense natural resources and a nuclear arsenal capable of erasing all of humanity. With the annexation of Crimea and the recent full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the last hopes for a unified European space have failed.

Although the region is directly influenced by war, the Russia-West dyad is not the only level at which great power competition is raging in CEE. The region is emerging as a frontline in this competition. Its landscape is being remade by the rise of tech competition with China, the weaponisation of economic interdependence in global trade, the militarisation of national budgets and informational warfare.

The new reality portrays a stark picture of great power competition between NATO/EU allies and Russia/Belarus, with Central and Eastern Europe on the frontline. This situation is nothing new for this region: the Thirty Years’ War erupted here, Napoleon sought to take advantage of a fragmented Central Europe, World War I started in the Balkans, Hitler took advantage of Nazi Germany’s weaker eastern neighbours, and Stalin knew that building a Soviet Empire required seizing Central and Eastern Europe before the Allies did.

A comfortable bandwagon

Nevertheless, most of the region belongs to the US-led NATO, which for the past several decades guaranteed that a chaotic power struggle would not re-emerge on the Old Continent. As efforts to integrate Russia into the liberal order failed, inter-state conflict and great power competition returned to Europe.

Smaller nations in Central Europe have never played a great role in the struggle for power of European empires or revisionist actors. The region’s smaller states were destined to ride the bandwagon of the most powerful state of the time. Such is the case of the first Slovak state led by Nazi collaborators who refused to follow the Czechs’ fate, thus becoming a Nazi protectorate. Put simply, one could either join the Nazi side by force or by choice — the result was always the same.

Even the region’s larger nations, such as Poland, were subjected to partition and witnessed many terrors carried out by the major powers. For this reason, Poland today leads rearmament efforts in Central Europe, while others from Lithuania through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary to Romania follow Poland’s lead with defence purchases which are setting historical records. Almost all Central and Eastern European nations are contributing to the region’s common defence. It is a sign that the times of free riding on the comfortable bandwagon are over. It is time to prepare for the turbulent times we live in, as defined by the Zeitenwende.

Beware of perils

Despite its necessity, it is important to recognise that the current arms race invites inter-state competition, and with the region armed to the teeth, military competition becomes more likely. This phenomenon can become a spiral of armament and can result in zero-sum thinking on all sides.

Though zero-sum competition is a rather extreme case, we are already witnessing negative developments between the region’s arguably most important actors — Germany and Poland. The two countries engage in political confrontation on multiple fronts, such as blaming each other for the summer 2022 Oder environmental catastrophe, Poland’s demands for WWII reparations from Germany, or the leadership of Poland’s ruling PiS party blaming German politicians for stalling Poland’s COVID recovery funds. 

We are currently witnessing internal balancing — a set of domestic policies, such as intense rearmament, improving the international situation of a particular actor. It is a form of balancing that does not introduce policies openly challenging the external competitor, yet these policies indirectly influence the international status quo as the relative power of individual actors’ changes. Such policies are clearly visible in Poland’s armament, well-composed long-term energy strategy, and its strengthening of north-south connections through organisations such as the Three Seas Initiative. 

These unfolding trends can become a reason to worry in the future, yet it is too soon to claim that the two actors will engage in direct or even violent competition for leadership in Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time, there is a strong pacifying force in the form of the US presence, although this presence might be limited by an increasingly assertive China in the Asia-Pacific region.

The balance of threats in 2023

Regardless of potential dyads in a rearmed Central Europe, the short- to medium-term balance of threats is clearly dominated by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Therefore, Central Europe’s fortification should remain a priority for NATO’s eastern flank.

Moreover, the rearmament of the region is a challenge on its own, because Europe lacks the capacity to support significantly increased military-industrial production. European rearmament is thus not a viable short-term policy, even though the weapons are needed now. The CEE countries, and the Visegrad Four members in particular, were renowned for their military-industrial complexes in the past. Keeping this in mind, the current Zeitwende could mean not only a shifting approach to security but also a revival of the military industries of those countries.

In contrast to the US’s isolationism under Donald Trump, the superpower is likely to stay involved in Central and Eastern Europe for the foreseeable future, not least illustrated by the recent signing of defence cooperation agreements with multiple countries in the region. However, the ongoing war in Ukraine and China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region will likely determine the degree of US involvement. As far as potential internal dyads are concerned, the US presence in the region currently acts as a strong pacifying force, maintaining the existing balance of power.

Clearly the world is changing, and that change has been affecting Eastern Europe for several years now, which means that CEE geopolitical realities are being transformed also. The region will surely not serve as a bridge between Europe and Russia in the near future, as Russia has decided to burn all such bridges down. Most likely it will act as a fortress, and hopefully not as the battlefield that Kissinger’s submission would suggest.

Jozef Hrabina is a lifelong student of international relations and is a former chief analyst at the Council of Slovak Exporters. Studying international relations on both academic and commercial levels, his research focuses on strategic security, great power relations in the 21st Century, multipolar systems stability, Eurasian geopolitics, geoeconomics and the nexus between geopolitics and trade. Hrabina writes op-eds for New Eastern Europe and also publishes academic studies with outlets such as Comparative Strategy and Defence Horizon. He recently established his own consultancy, GeopoLytics, dealing with geopolitical, macroeconomic and political risk intelligence. 

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