More than a generation has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which precipitated the end of communism in Europe and heralded the birth of new democracies in the place of hapless authoritarian regimes. These geopolitical transformations led many at the time to believe that the continent would finally witness an era of peace and stability such as it had never hitherto known. In the summer of 1989, a few months before the destruction of the Wall, Francis Fukuyama famously penned an essay entitled The End of History? in which he – like so many others at the time – hailed the triumph of Western liberal democracy with gusto that recalled Chamberlain’s naïve declaration of “peace in our time” on the eve of the Second World War.
For Europeans, the outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars in 1991 shattered the brief sense of optimism that had accompanied the dissolution of the Soviet empire. Nevertheless, Western Europe took important steps to bring the former ‘enemy states’ of the Warsaw Pact into the fold of the pro-democracy, free market European neighbourhood. The 1990s were thus a turning point for the inception of friendly relations between Western and Eastern European countries, with many former Soviet satellite states embarking on the road to NATO and EU membership during this time. The early post-Cold War years were also ostensibly seen as a turning point in relations between Russia and the West; at Yeltsin’s funeral in 2007, his strides towards political rapprochement and cooperation were remembered as central elements in the perceived normalization of ties between the two sides.
Fast forward to 2015, and one might be forgiven for thinking that the world has returned to the darkest days of the Cold War. The ongoing military conflict in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which erupted in the aftermath of popular protests that toppled Moscow ally President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, has plunged relations between Russia and the West into a Cold War style deep-freeze. This deterioration of ties has accordingly been accompanied by a significant increase in aggressive Russian military posturing towards Europe.
Since March 2014, Russian fighter jets have flown over a hundred hostile manoeuvres near the borders of neighbouring countries, forcing Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Poland (among others) to scramble their own planes in response. Russia’s military activities have also been mixed with bombastic rhetoric from its leaders, such as an alleged comment by President Putin in which he purportedly boasted to Ukraine’s Poroshenko that Russian troops could occupy Baltic capitals with two days’ notice. This bravado has become commonplace since the inception of armed hostilities in Ukraine; recently, the Russian Ambassador to Denmark warned that Danish ships could be targeted by nuclear missiles if the country joins the NATO missile shield.
The Scandinavian and Baltic nations have come to view Russia as a very real and immediate threat as a result of such events. Finland and Sweden, which are not members of NATO, have moved to cement ties with the alliance and will partake in a 12-day NATO military drill called Arctic Challenge beginning on May 25th. Separately, Lithuania published a manual for its citizens on how to survive a foreign invasion this past January. Meanwhile, Latvia has been using its position as the rotating president of the Council of the European Union since January to focus international attention on Baltic concerns about Russian geopolitical designs on the region and to shore up support for economic sanctions against Moscow.
The 4th Eastern Partnership Summit, which will be held in Riga on May 21-22, will present a vital opportunity for the EU to cultivate closer ties with its eastern partners. As part of its efforts to counteract Russian influence on the periphery of the European neighbourhood, the EU launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative in May 2009 with a view to boosting ties with several strategically important ex-Soviet states, namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The EaP seeks to supportdemocracy and the rule of law, economic integration and convergence with EU policies, energy security, and contacts between people. The initiative was originally conceived of by Poland and planned in cooperation with Sweden, two EU nations which have become increasingly alarmed by Russian military activities on (and occasionally inside) their borders.
The conflict in Ukraine has made Russia’s non-EU neighbours wary of its intentions and has created room for the EU to support the aspirations of these countries in charting a course towards membership in the European neighbourhood through programs such as the Eastern Partnership initiative. Even Moscow’s erstwhile ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – long known in Eurocrat circles as the “Last Dictator of Europe” – has progressively warmed to the EU while successively falling from the Kremlin’s graces. On a recent visit to Tbilisi, Lukashenko expressed support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, a clear swipe at the Russian annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while in an unprecedented turn of events he skipped the May 9th Victory Day parade in Moscow.
The EU’s move to solidify its relationships with Russia’s neighbours through the Eastern Partnership initiative sends a clear message to Moscow that Brussels supports the emergence of liberal democracies on Russia’s borders which are free of economic, political, and military pressure from the Kremlin. Not unexpectedly, Russian leaders have reacted furiously to the notion that neighbouring states such as Georgia and Ukraine may one day join Western institutions such as the EU and NATO. In turn, the annexations of Crimea, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, as well as Moscow’s support for armed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and Georgia, demonstrate that Russia will do whatever is necessary to prevent such a scenario from unfolding.
Otto Faludi is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Freedom Observatory and concurrently holds the positions of President and Chief Executive Officer at Ethics Without Borders, a registered Canadian not-for-profit corporation dedicated to educating emerging leaders in ethical and socially responsible governance.
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This article is a cross-post from our partners at The Freedom Observatory