1) The Visegrad 4: Eastern Europe as a Major Player
2) The Re-Emergent Russian Bloc
3) Baltic Solidarity to an Emerging Russia
4) The EU Periphery: "Core" EU's Albatross
5) The Atlantics: A Return to Arms-Length Continental Management
Our series on the "Blocanization of Europe" continues with an exploration of the factors behind the rise of Russia over the past decade, and what implications it will have for the continent.
As we discussed in our last post, Russia faced imminent marginalization in 2004, as NATO planned to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into its alliance. A Western-led push into Ukraine had formented the Orange Revolution and the election of a pro-Western Yuschenko. Georgia's strongly pro-Western government was knocking at the gates of NATO and the EU. The US had successfully coaxed Europe into accepting the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania into the EU in a fell swoop. Russia appeared to have an insurmountable united front poised against it.
This united front dissolved over the next 4 years. Some of it was due to Western distraction in the Middle East and complacency over Russia; some of it was the rift between the US and Europe over the Iraq war. But credit must be given to the Russian leadership, which successfully took advantage of every mistake the West made in order to shatter the united front:
-The carefully-timed invasion of Georgia highlighted Gerogia's vulnerability and the inability of NATO to come to its aide, and also turned popular support against the pro-Western elements that enraged Russia.
-Russia has engaged Iran and assisted its nuclear programme, enabling it to grow more assertive in the Middle East and largely upset Western plans for a hastier withdrawal from the region.
-Russia's intelligence forces engaged in a full-court press (both clandestine and propaganda operations) in Latvia and Ukraine, shaking Western support and mobilizing pro-Russian citizenry to become a more powerful political force.
-Russia threatened Germany and France with interruptions in oil & gas supplies, causing (in part) both countries to back off their bid for Ukraine and Georgia to enter NATO, thus kaibashing the entire attempt.
With NATO's plans successfully disrupted, Russia has been able to focus on two major geopolitical goals:
1) Solidifying its gas & oil supply dominance in Europe
2) Expanding its influence back towards the former Soviet states
Central Asia built strong ties with Russia during the Soviet Union, and they remain. The only major competitor for their support is China, which is a much more inward-looking nation.
Backlashes against the pro-NATO governments in Ukraine and Georgia have put these two states closer to the Russian bloc. Ukraine's ouster of the pro-Western government has eased ties with Russia and opened up stronger economic channels between the two countries. Russia's warm-water navy base near Sevastopol will remain in Russia's control. Moldova is currently a toss-up.
Russia has begun throwing its weight around as its power has grown. It has used Iran and Afghanistan to distract and frustrate the US, and shaken up confidence in the governments of Estonia and Latvia (while driving the Baltics closer together in defense--more on that later).
Furthermore, Russia is taking advantage of the EU's disharmony to build economic ties with key "Core" EU members--particularly Germany and France. Russia's vast natural resources and low-cost labor pool poses a great opportunity for the Core EU's largest (but slow) economies to start growing again and begin to bounce back from the weight of the falling EU Periphery.
What all of this means is that Russia is becoming a global player. Its base is sound (internal threats to the Putin regime are shaky at best), and it will continue to grow economically. It is rebuilding its military--in particular, its power-projection capabilities. It will grow to challenge the US on the global stage.
The thing that will make Russia different from the US--and the thing that will ultimately give the US a key advantage--is that Russia will spawn stronger and stronger alliances against it. The Visegrad 4 and the Baltic Bloc exist primarily to protect themselves from Russian domination. The US/UK will keep its power checked on the continent: their key interest is making sure no major power controls the resources and military of Europe. China will oppose Russia if it grows too strong.
The US, on the other hand, has scattered opposition at best. Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Libya form the bulk of Anti-US governments (and Russia is stuck supporting these unsavory regimes)--besides Iran, they are largely irrelevant (or are becoming less relevant quickly). If Russia can pull Ukraine into its bloc for good, it will become a relatively significant ally, but it is unlikely to grow beyond that.
But at the same time, Russia will prove a highly disruptive force in Europe, and will test the loyalty and priorities of the US/UK onthe global stage. To a great extent, Russia will be the primary driver behind the major geopolitical changes in Europe into the forseeable future.