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Last year, after a series of meetings at all levels among official Kyiv, Washington, and Moscow, talks about the possibility of a big deal between the West and Russia regarding the conflict in the Donbas and connected issues resumed. If a deal is unavoidable, then, in my opinion, it should serve not to impose a new imperial division on the world but to remedy in the long term the contagious disease stemming from Eastern Europe.

Eastern Europe today is a region of internal and international conflicts. Ukraine is not only at war with Russia-backed separatists, it is also suffering from significant internal political and criminal insecurity. A recent wave of protests in Russia and Belarus shows that even these authoritarian regimes are unstable. The rule of superconservatives in Hungary and Poland does not add to peace in the region. There are also growing tensions between the nationalist institutions of Ukraine, Hungary, and Poland. The political dynamics within and among the countries of the region lead to more conflicts and fewer chances for peace in the region, and in all of Europe.

In this context a new “big deal” among the key geopolitical players to restore the international order and reduce international tensions between the United States and the EU, on one side, and Russia, on the other, is more than welcome. However, the aims and limits of the deal must be clear to all parties.

 Leaders in Washington, Moscow, and Brussels often refer to a “new Cold War” to describe their relations. Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev now warns about a new arms race in Europe.

Over a quarter of a century ago, the postcommunist and post-Soviet nations began their democratic transition. It was the result of another big deal for Europe: new nations were to choose their own future without any pressure from external players and outside any geopolitical camps. However, twenty-five years later this region once again has witnessed the creation of a militarized front line with the possibility of affecting peace not only in Europe but also in the Near and Far East. NATO and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) look at each other with the growing suspicion. Leaders in Washington, Moscow, and Brussels often refer to a “new Cold War” to describe their relations. Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev now warns about a new arms race in Europe. Today, hopes for peace in Eastern Europe are much lower than they were in 1989–1991, and talks of a new big deal are more a symptom of disorientation than they are signs of a grounded prospect.

The deterioration of the international order, democratic development, and internal stability in postcommunist Europe is connected to four key factors.

First of all, Eastern European countries are squeezed between two regional unions, the EU and the Eurasian Union (EaU). For about five years (2008–2013), the EU and EaU developed in a “soft” way, envisaging some sort of cooperation between the two parts of greater Europe, from Dublin to Vladivostok. Nonetheless, in 2013 both geopolitical projects hardened and changed their perspectives vis-à-vis each other. The first consequences of this new inflexibility were seen in Ukraine, whose aspiration both to associate with the EU and to remain in a free trade zone with Russia provoked internal conflict in November 2013–February 2014, followed by an external military intervention by Russia. Ukraine has lost control over Crimea and the eastern Donbas, while the entire region was shaken by the secessionist movements of the Russian Spring. As of today, both geopolitical unions have reached an unprecedented level of hostility.

Second, this geopolitical cleavage is enforced by the development of an authoritarian regime in Russia. After the return of Vladimir Putin to power in the Kremlin in 2012, Russian authorities introduced a number of antidemocratic legal acts, subdued the mass media, and created an effective global propaganda network. Today the State Duma has evolved into a source of authoritarian and ultra-conservative legal initiatives that have decreased citizens’ and minorities’ rights. Russian mass media function as a tool for government control over the hearts and minds of its citizens. A global network of pro-Russian media and local agents has considerably limited the capacity of Western governments and their civil societies to react in timely fashion to Russia’s violations of international law and order. These developments in the Russian Federation have made the EaU a coalition of authoritarian rulers supporting each other’s regimes against external and internal rivals.

Third, simultaneously with the two above processes, Eastern Europe has been losing its regional interstate channels of communication and conflict resolution. Existing formats of conflict resolution communication (including the Council of Europe and its pan-European networks, the UN, the governing bodies of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe with its networks, the NATO-Russia Council, and many others) have proved to be ineffective in preventing, managing, or limiting the growing conflicts in the region. This organizational vacuum has made the “Ukrainian crisis” a very long-lasting process, daily more damaging for the future peoples of Ukraine, Russia, and all of Eastern Europe

A fourth factor has also been critical for the deterioration of stability, international order, and democratic development in Eastern Europe: the rise of identity politics. The role of politicized ethnic identity has made Eastern Europe twice a Bloodlands in the century just past: during the years of the Russian revolution and the fall of the Habsburg Empire (1917–1924), and during World War II and the ethnic cleansing and deportations that followed (1939–1948). Once again, Eastern European leaders have politicized ethnic identities to create antiliberal, often authoritarian regimes, as exemplified by the nationalist mobilization recently undertaken by leaders Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and Recep Erdoğan in Turkey. By June 2017 there had emerged an “authoritarian belt” in Europe’s east.

The propagation of these far-right movements can be seen throughout all of Europe, but they are especially prominent in the politics of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries. As a consequence of this growing strength, minorities—most important among them the Russophones—have become significantly alienated from the conservative governments. This development in turn has created greater opportunities for the new pro-Kremlin secessionist movements and increased Moscow’s strategic impact in the entire region.

In light of all four factors, Eastern Europe’s prospects appear gloomy. The ongoing Donbas war in eastern Ukraine has no clear resolution. It has slowly developed into a mechanism feeding meanings into Russian and Ukrainian politics.

For the Kremlin, it is a small, victorious war legitimizing the current regime. Putin has enjoyed a popular support level above 80 percent since the annexation of Crimea. The Donbas war is portrayed as a just war for the rights of people subdued by its “fascist authorities.” In a short-term perspective, even the international sanctions against Russia have given Putin’s regime some sheen: the national pride of Russians feeds the Kremlin’s unprecedented ratings.

For Kiev, this war of small disasters provides the ruling groups with reasons to monopolize power, to be above criticism, and to arrogate considerable income. Despite the substantial democratic impetus of the Euromaidan and the West’s support, in 2016 most of the Ukrainian centers of power were put under the control of one oligarchic clan. As a result, the intensity of reforms has dropped to a minimum, civil society and mass media have come under stricter government control, and public critics of these antidemocratic processes—labeled “traitors in a time of war”—are being persecuted by security services, vigilante groups, and state prosecutors.

Both countries today, Russia and Ukraine, are ruled by governments and groups of elites that benefit from war.

Both countries today, Russia and Ukraine, are ruled by governments and groups of elites that benefit from war. In fact, there are no champions of peace in Eastern Europe today.

Furthermore, today five out of six countries participating in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) do not fully control their territories. Instead, the ENP region has six de facto states with a population of over four million. Four of these de facto states have actually evolved into something much more stable, becoming de facto nations with their own national identities, political cultures, and hostile views toward the international order. They are and will remain an inspiration for successful militarized secessionist models in Europe. This network of unrecognized states is a strategic obstacle to any future peace-building initiative in the region.

A region with a population of more than 200 million, Eastern and Central Europe constitute one of the fastest militarizing territories in the world. Despite economic difficulties, the military budgets of the postcommunist states have been growing since 2014. Simultaneously, the military presence of Russian troops on the western border and NATO troops on the eastern flank has considerably enlarged in recent years. At the same time, judging by the rhetoric and the decisions of the Eastern European nations’ leaders, the elites’ hostility has reached its greatest pitch since the Cold War.

The future of Eastern Europe is also shaped in part by the decline of a common European perspective. Since the early 1990s the democratic transformation of all societies in the region was spearheaded by the hope of joining the EU as an equal member. Such was the hope not only of the “accession” countries but also of Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. “Europeanization” was a major common term for modernization, democratization, and socioeconomic progress for postcommunist populations and elites. There was also a long-lived strategic ambiguity between Brussels and Kiev, for example: the EU was keen not to clarify the absence of a membership perspective for Kiev, while Ukraine’s government agreed to abstain from documenting its hopes for membership. However, after a series of recent crises in the EU and the April 2016 referendum results in the Netherlands, the governments of the member states broke with this tradition in December 2016 when Ukraine’s EU membership perspective was articulately denied. For the excluded Ukrainian and other post-Soviet elites, it was a denial of their strategic and still unfulfilled choice. From that point of view there has been a deficit of vision for the peaceful, democratic, and socioeconomic progress of the entire region.

The Eastern Europe of today is a source of risks to peace and order for the entire European continent. It is critical to mitigate the risks and to prevent any new big war in Europe. To thwart that big war, a new deal must fulfill the new big aim, achieving a stable peace grounded in well-established conflict-preventing regional institutions.

A lasting and stable peace must be ensured in Eastern Europe just as it is in its western counterpart. This new international deal must take into account the past and current tendencies of Eastern European societies. So it is not about just freezing the Donbas war and revising the annexation of Crimean. The deal should aim at using models tested in Western Europe to avoid any future war in Eastern Europe.

Thus the big deal for Europe must address the following priorities:

  1. It should create regional peace-building and conflict prevention mechanisms that accord with the goals and interests of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, NATO, CSTO, and other international organizations. The militarization of the region should be balanced by the installation of conflict prevention channels of communication and dispute resolution.
  2. It must involve the ruling and nonextremist opposition groups of all countries of the region (whichever geopolitical camp they belong to) in a stable communication network. Even though the current security concerns are legitimate on all sides, the peace issue must return to the top of the regional and national political agenda.
  3. The deal should also address issues associated with unrecognized states. They and their maternal states should receive a new impetus for reconciliation and reintegration.
  4. Ethnic, ethnolingual, cultural, religious, and other minorities should receive more support and defense within the framework of the deal. The Kremlin should lose its monopoly on defending Russophone populations in Eastern European societies.
  5. Eastern Europe is a region of very humble socioeconomic success in a time of transition. The deal must envisage a possibility for economic development at the local level and an increase in interstate trade. It should build on the trust of the local populations, emphasizing that liberal democracy does not imply poverty and reduced social safety.

There is a need for a deal envisaging really big aims for Eastern Europe, not just another frozen conflict in the Donbas with a gray zone constituted by Crimea. The challenges of our time and region demand ambitious long-term strategies, not just small sporadic steps toward appeasing an aggressor or freezing a conflict that can easily be defrosted.

About the Author

Mykhailo Minakov

Mykhailo Minakov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Focus Ukraine Blog
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more