How to Make Eastern Europe’s Gray Zone Less Gray

How to Make Eastern Europe’s Gray Zone Less Gray

. 8 min read

Iryna Vereshchuk and Andreas Umland. Originally published in the HIR Winter 2019 Issue.

IRYNA VERESHCHUK is President of Kyiv’s International Centre for Black Sea-Baltic Studies and Consensus Practices which unites several former heads of state and government from various European post-communist countries.
ANDREAS UMLAND is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and General Editor of the ibidem-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” distributed by Columbia University Press.

Post-communist Eastern Europe has, since the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, seen one of the most remarkable transformations in world history. Apart from more or less deep domestic transitions in all of the former parts of the outer and inner Soviet empire, several new countries have emerged in East-Central Europe and the Southern Caucasus – the latter a region that is now often also seen as belonging to Europe rather than Asia. Some of the numerous new republics have retained their ties to Moscow. Most have cut their connections with Russia down to ordinary trade and diplomatic relations and instead joined the West. Still others – namely Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan – so far remain in a gray zone between the Western and Russian spheres of influence.

It is remarkable how strongly some international organizations’ coverage of the East-Central European and South Caucasian post-Soviet space has come to correlate with the region’s states’ territorial integrity. Two large blocs are confronting each other in Eastern Europe: NATO as well as the EU, on one hand, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as well as Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), both Moscow-dominated, on the other. Today, exactly those four countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (GUAM) – which are not members of either of these two coalitions – do not fully control their territories. In contrast, such NATO and EU members with large Russian minorities and restrictive citizenship laws, as Estonia and Latvia, on one hand, or such, by themselves, economically weak CSTO and EEU member countries, as Belarus and Armenia, on the other hand, have fully preserved their internationally recognized borders.

In Azerbaijan’s Nagorno Karabakh, Moldova’s Transnistria, Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as Ukraine’s Donets Basin (Donbas), on the contrary, six unrecognized pseudo-states were created, with direct, or, in the case of Karabakh, indirect support from the Kremlin. Crimea has been simply annexed by Russia. In Moscow’s reading, the Ukrainian peninsula has, since March 2014, become an ordinary region within the Russian Federation. This interpretation has since been rejected in, among other international statements, several documents of the UN, OSCE and Council of Europe – organizations of which Russia and the Soviet Union have been full members for many years.

The Many Inconsequential Alliances of Eastern Europe

The prospects of a further eastern enlargement in the near future of the EU and NATO are dim. The UN, OSCE and Council of Europe have, despite clear statements in support of Ukraine and Georgia, demonstrated their unsuitability for resolving the Eastern European gray zone’s fundamental security problem. This indicates that the GUAM region will remain a source of instability for years to come.

That is in spite of the fact that there have been various multilateral frameworks specifically designed to increase cooperation and stability, in East-Central Europe and the Southern Caucasus, during the last two decades. Among them are the:

Yet, these fora or structures were either, as in the case of GUAM, CDC or BSS, too weak or short-lived to make the region substantively more secure. Or they were relatively dynamic and strong, yet do not include, as in the case of the B9 and 3SI, any of the most vulnerable gray zone countries. In fact, the latter two projects deliberately excluded, from the outset, the four GUAM states.

The European Union’s Eastern Partnership led to the conclusion of impressive Association Agreements with three of the four gray zone countries, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, in 2014. These exceptionally large treaties, moreover, include articles addressing issues of security and defense. Yet, the EU – with the partial exception of its members Poland, Great Britain and Lithuania – did not follow up on filling these formulations with any notable substance beyond general financial and technical support. Since the three Agreements’ full ratification by all of the Union’s member states and by the European Parliament in 2014, Tbilisi, Kyiv and Chisinau have benefitted from only very limited military support from Brussels.

Worse, several EU member states have started to slowly rebuild, in one way or another, their economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow, after the introduction of sanctions in reaction to Russia’s attack on Ukraine since 2014. The most egregious such attempt is the currently build so-called Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline via the Baltic Sea. The Kremlin designed this project specifically to eliminate Moscow’s remaining partial dependence on the Ukrainian gas transportation system, and to thereby free its hands for future escalation.

The US as Eastern Europe’s Indispensable Nation

The embarrassing story of both trans and Eastern European institution-building over the last quarter of a century illustrates the need for the US to finally get involved. Not only for Western but also East European political stability, an engagement of Washington was and remains crucial. This has been amply illustrated by the Baltic and Adriatic Charters, signed by the United States with various post-communist countries in 1998 and 2003 respectively, and designed to prepare them for future NATO membership. After their allying with the US within the Baltic Charter, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia successfully entered NATO in 2004.

In the Western Balkans too, the United States’ Adriatic Charter has done – what would have been regarded twenty years ago as – wonders. In 2009, Croatia, a state that had not existed two decades earlier, and Albania, which had once been one of Europe’s most gruesome communist dictatorships, became NATO members. In 2017, Montenegro – which had been bombed by NATO war planes, less than twenty years before – became NATO’s 29th member country. Currently, Macedonia’s as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession to NATO is being prepared. Serbia, to be sure, is only a candidate for membership in the EU, and not a full signatory but only an observer of the Adriatic Charter. Yet, it appears not unlikely that Serbia too will eventually apply for NATO membership, once it has entered the EU, and all other Balkan states have become full members of the alliance.

Already in 2008, Georgia and Ukraine officially applied for starting NATO’s Membership Action Plan. While these applications were rejected in the Bucharest Summit Declaration of April 3rd, 2008, the then 26 member countries welcomed “Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” The ambivalent status of Georgia and Ukraine as official future members of NATO, yet without roadmaps for entering the Alliance, was among the determinants of Moscow’s occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 as well as of Crimea and the eastern Donbass in 2014. Russia’s expansions, in turn, have increased wariness within the Alliance about further enlargement, and created an accession deadlock for Ukraine and Georgia. The lesson from the various stories of post-communist states is that political ambiguity and institutional indetermination breed instability and stalemate, while resolute engagement and organizational structuring increase security and foster progress.

Towards a US Charter with the GUAM Group

The US, partly, learned its lesson from its earlier successes, and from the disaster of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war. It signed bilateral Strategic Partnership Charters with Ukraine in December 2008 and with Georgia in January 2009. The two Charters announced that the parties will support the integration of Ukraine and Georgia into European and Euro-Atlantic structures, security cooperation, and preparing these countries for candidacy for NATO membership. The two new documents, however, did not send much of a signal to Russia. They remained largely unknown even within the publics of the three signatory states.

What is needed, against such a background, is an expansion of Washington’s current two bilateral Charters into a larger quasi-alliance. A new multilateral charter should demonstratively link the United States with the EU’s three associated Eastern partners Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as, perhaps, Azerbaijan. This provisional semi-coalition could become a consequential upgrade for the GUAM group formed in 2001. It could be modelled on, or even go beyond, the Baltic and Adriatic Charters.

Ideas like that have been voiced before a number of times. For instance, at the 2009 meeting of foreign ministers of the Adriatic and Baltic countries, as well as that of the United States in Riga, the Lithuanian MFA head Vygaudas Ušackas called for continuing NATO enlargement. Lithuania’s FM Ušackas suggested to invite to such meetings of Balkan, Baltic, and US department heads and ministers, and also representatives of Ukraine and Georgia. Ušackas noted that “Ukraine and Georgia that aspire NATO membership could make use of our experience in the conduct of military, political and economic reforms.”

A new multilateral US Charter for Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus will, to be sure, not offer nearly as much protection to GUAM, as Article 5 of the Washington Treaty provides for NATO’s members. The United States’ assurances in such a document would, most likely, even remain significantly below those given to such countries as South Korea or Israel. Still, a US-GUAM Charter could provide elementary organizational structure to Eastern Europe’s gray zone during the interregnum, until these countries eventually become members of the EU, NATO, and/or other relevant international institutions that embed them properly in the international system. Even a very cautiously formulated American Charter for the GUAM countries would have considerable symbolic power, increase East European security, and raise the stakes of further escalation in the current post-Soviet gray zone for Moscow.

Three caveats apply. First, the US would hardly and should not agree to promise helping the four countries reconquer their lost territories. The eventual recovery of the separatist regions are major topics in Ukrainian, Moldovan, Georgian, and Azeri domestic discourse, and is subject of constant patriotic outbidding. Thus, Washington should make clear, from the outset, that a return of the altogether seven seceded territories under GUAM’s control is not the Charter’s function. In arguing so, reference could be made, for instance, to Washington’s close pre-2008 cooperation with Tbilisi, yet with eventual inability and unwillingness to interfere militarily in the five-day August war between Russia and Georgia.

Second, Azerbaijan has no announced ambition to join NATO or the EU while Moldova has, in its currently valid 1994 Constitution, defined itself as a permanently bloc-free country. Thus, the Charter should leave the question of the future entry of its signatory states into NATO and EU open – or even ignore the issue entirely. Oddly, exactly Moldova and Azerbaijan have both exceptionally close political, economic and ethno-linguistic links to large NATO member countries – Romania and Turkey respectively. Georgia and Ukraine, in contrast, have no comparably close relations to any Western countries (Poland’s once close relations to Ukraine have deteriorated during the last years because of historical memory issues). Azerbaijan, moreover, has since 2010 held a mutual aid treaty with Turkey that, at least formally, provides Baku with far-going security assurances, by a NATO member country.

Finally, Azerbaijan has – unlike Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova – not only no large Association Agreement with the EU, but it is also, unlike the other three, not even an electoral democracy, but clearly an autocracy. The Charter would thus have to be careful in formulating its political standards. Support for Azerbaijan could be seen as contradicting the United States’ general foreign policy goals. Yet, one should not forget that such inconsistencies are not unusual in Western geopolitical engagement. For instance, Azerbaijan is fully included into the EU’s Eastern Partnership program since 2009, and benefits from Brussels’s financial support. The NATO member countries Poland, Hungary and, especially, Turkey, have recently suffered from significant setbacks in their political development which put into question their classification as proper liberal democracies.

In spite of caveats like these, a US-GUAM Charter, following the examples of the Baltic and Adriatic Charters, would be a small, but symbolically significant step forward in making Eastern Europe more secure. It would usefully parallel and demonstratively support Brussels’s European Neighborhood Policy in general, and the Eastern Partnership initiative, in particular. While not providing yet a comprehensive solution to the fragile security situation in East-Central Europe and the Southern Caucasus, it would help in making gradually Europe’s post-Soviet gray zone less gray.