Re: Russia enters the Ukraine
To those manning the barricades, the Ukrainian crisis was about justice, democracy, and an end to corruption. But to the rest of the world, it is about the border between Europe and Russia. It’s still too early to say for certain where that border will be, but as this unfolds we are seeing another important development: The eastern leg of Europe is taking shape.
Until recently, Europe has been very much a Westerners’ club. Former Communist nations were allowed to join in 2004, but their influence was small. The European Parliament and Commission are in Brussels. The top jobs went mainly to the founding members of the Union, with some others, like Britain also given a look-in.
It seemed likely that Poland and other newcomers would act more like Britain—sticking to the outskirts of the EU, securing opt-outs and never getting fully involved in the endeavor.
But in the tussle over Ukraine, Poland in particular has emerged as a serious European power—if not equal to Germany, then on the same level as France, Italy, Spain and other members of the old guard.
Other Eastern nations have proven to be enthusiastic Europeans. Slovakia and Slovenia quickly joined Europe’s currency, the euro. Latvia and Estonia both signed up even after seeing the mess of the Greek bailouts, exposing the common currency’s fundamental flaws. The Czech Republic also indicated that it would adopt the euro within the next few years. Poland’s current government wants to join.
Eastern Europe’s pivot—its drive to be at the heart of Europe—has been a gradual but very important shift in world events.
A Europe with two legs—one in the east, one in the west. For years, only the western leg has been prominent. But the eastern one is now growing in power.
The Rise of Poland
In this Ukrainian crisis, no European voice has been louder than Poland’s. As violence escalated on the streets of Kiev and the bodies began piling up, it was Poland and Germany that sent their foreign ministers in to forge a deal and end the bloodshed.
Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski and Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier came up with an agreement and got all the leaders sitting around the table to sign it. It was ultimately rejected by the protesters on the street, but it was still a partial diplomatic success. The negotiations showed that “Poland, for years dismissed as a poor relation in the European Union, has a place at the top table of European decision-makers, enjoying the confidence of EU powerhouse Germany, especially over policy in the East,” Reuters wrote.
“The events in Kiev offer clues about the future shape of the European Union, and the shifting balance of power that has seen ‘old Europe,’ notably EU co-founder France, lose ground to the faster-growing states that joined the bloc after 2004,” it continued.
Poland, Reuters wrote, has created “a special role” for itself “as Europe’s go-to people for anything related to the bloc’s eastern neighbors.”
Europe is impressed. Reuters quoted a couple of anonymous senior sources praising Sikorski’s efforts. The EU was humiliated in Ukraine; its soft power was made to look impotent in the face of threats from Russia. Sikorski’s diplomacy allowed it to save some face.
“Whatever role Sikorski’s appeal played in ending the killing, Poland’s diplomatic credentials have been burnished and could be cemented in a coming round of appointments to senior jobs in Brussels,” noted Reuters.
Sikorski is a serious contender to become the EU’s next foreign minister or the head of nato. Polish President Donald Tusk is in the running to replace Jose Manuel Barroso as president of the European Commission. He’s not necessarily the frontrunner, but just a few years ago no one from Poland would have even been considered for any of these posts.
Pushed by Russia, Abandoned by America
This enthusiasm for Europe was not inevitable. For years, central and Eastern Europe instead threw in their lot with the U.S. and Britain. Their support for the Iraq War, for example, was striking. While France and Germany sat it out, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Moldova, Georgia and others all sent troops—some in substantial numbers. They hoped that by being dependable partners for America, they could expect the same in return.
They soon became disillusioned.
“Before 2011, Sikorski and other leading Polish politicians were frank about their belief that the European Union is merely an economic pact and that only their alliance with the U.S. could guarantee geopolitical security,” political scientist Michal Kuz wrote. “This was the view of other cee [Central and Eastern European] states as well.”
Russia was again becoming a threat, first cutting off Ukraine’s gas, then invading Georgia. But as Russia advanced, America did not. Much of central and Eastern Europe signed up to nato, but the alliance doesn’t maintain a significant presence there. Eastern Europe put its hope in America’s missile shield—an opportunity for America to demonstrate its commitment to the region, and to prove that if push came to shove, Eastern Europe could trust Washington to stand up to Russia. But America scaled it back.
“After the U.S.’s decision to relocate the missile shield, the Atlanticist rhetoric that used to mark Sikorski’s speeches disappeared from them,” continued Kuz. “In response to U.S. fickleness, he and Tusk shifted Poland’s diplomatic tone.”
Central and Eastern Europe decided that America was so undependable that they were better off throwing themselves into the European project—trying to make the arrangement more than just an economic agreement.
Sikorski himself was transformed from the region’s most prominent transatlanticist to its top European. He saw that only German leadership could transform the economic alliance into something more meaningful and powerful. Sikorski’s most famous speech is probably his November 2011 call for Germany to “lead” Europe. “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity,” he announced.
A New Push
The Ukraine crisis is providing plenty of motivation for Eastern Europe to further unite. After Vladimir Putin invaded the Crimea, before the West had even noticed what was going on, Eastern Europe was shaken. Estonia has called on its National Defense Council to increase its military spending.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius invoked article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty—where nato members must meet if “the territorial integrity, political independence or security” of a nato member is at risk. This provision has only been invoked four times before.
Poland’s prime minister said that the “world stands on the brink of conflict.”
Meanwhile America’s response has simply been weak.
Poland has been a leading voice calling for a combined European military. After the Crimea, that call will become even louder.
Europe is the last hope for this part of the world. These nations can’t defend themselves against Russia. They don’t believe the U.S. will. So now they will try harder than ever to get Europe to take defense seriously.