During the past year, the primary focus of the US-Russian rivalry has centred around Iran. The United States put an end to Western sanctions against Iran, and also chose to keep American troops in Afghanistan who support, among others, many of the tens of millions of Afghans who are Shiite Muslims or who can speak Farsi (as opposed to the Taliban, who are Sunni and typically Pashto-speaking). Russia, meanwhile, intervened to aid Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who’s survival diverts Sunni attention away from Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq.
With Russia now withdrawing most of its forces from Syria and the US hoping to do so from Afghanistan, the focus of the US-Russian rivalry could revert, perhaps, to Ukraine. By comparison to the Middle East, Ukraine has appeared to be very quiet of late.
Russia may have dialed back the conflict in Ukraine partly in order to shift the West’s focus to the Middle East. This of course has not been very difficult to accomplish, given Europe’s influx of Syrian migrants and America’s election-season rhetoric on issues like ISIS, the conflict in Libya, and Donald Trump’s proposal to ban, for an unspecified amount of time, all Muslims from travelling to the United States.
If the US-Russian focus does move back towards Eastern Europe, one can perhaps guess the rough outlines of any geopolitical contest that may occur there.
Poland will likely be the chief ally of the United States in the region. Unlike any of the five other former satellite nations of the Soviet Union, Poland borders the Atlantic Ocean (via the Baltic Sea). This provides it access to English-speaking countries like Britain, the United States, and Canada, as well as to countries where proficiency in English as a second language has become particularly widespread, most notably in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Germany.
Poland, indeed, tends to be relatively Atlantic-oriented. It conducts a larger percentage of its trade with economies like Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States than do any of the other ex-satellite countries in Eastern Europe. More than 10% of Poland’s modern-day labour force has worked at one time or another in Britain or Ireland, whereas Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks have more often gone to Germany or Austria and Romanians have more often gone to Germany, Austria, Italy, or Spain.
Poland is not an Eastern Orthodox country, like Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia and several others in the region are. Rather, its population is predominantly Roman Catholic.
Much more important than Poland having Western ties, however, is that it may be the only state in Eastern Europe large enough to lead a US alliance. Poland’s GDP is estimated to be 80 percent as large as those of its fellow ex-satellites – Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia) – combined.
Among other things, this economic size has allowed Poland’s economy to become relatively self-sufficient: Poland’s imports and exports are thought to be equal in value to just 80% or so of Polish GDP, compared to 110-170% of GDP in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Lithuania (though just 75% in Romania). This could make Poland somewhat less susceptible to the whims of its (largely European) trading partners than the other countries in Eastern Europe might be, and so perhaps also a more dependable ally of the United States.
Poland, finally, is the only one of the ex-satellites to border the northeastern Baltic region, which consists of the “Baltic states” of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (which is situated between Poland and Lithuania), the Russian city of St Petersburg, and southern Finland.
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in particular have become the object of worldwide geopolitical speculation. They are the only former members of the Soviet Union to have joined the European Union and NATO, and, along with Slovakia, Finland, Greece and Cyprus, are the only countries east of Central Europe to use the Euro in place of their national currencies. They are home to six million people, about the same number of people as live in St Petersburg.
While Poland will probably be the foundation of American influence in Eastern Europe, Romania may become its capstone. Though Romania’s per capita income is still considerably lower than other countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Poland, its population is significantly larger than any of the other former satellites apart from Poland, as is the size of its territory.
Romania has Western ties because its language is close to Latin, rather than being a Slavic language like Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Serbian, or Croatian. This has resulted, among other things, in substantial Romanian diasporas having formed in Spain and especially in Italy. A Romanian living in Italy can arguably become near-fluent in Italian within just a month or two, without much difficulty.
Crucially, Romania may also be able to exert influence in Ukraine. Romania shares a roughly 800 km frontier with the former Soviet Union (by comparison, Poland has a 900 km or so border with the former Soviet Union, Hungary and Slovakia have 70 km ones, and the Czechs and Bulgarians have none), and both Romania and Ukraine are economically oriented toward the Black Sea.
Romania and Ukraine both also surround Moldova, which is a mostly Romanian-speaking country but home to Ukrainian, Russian, and Turkic Gaguaz minority populations. This is a particularly contested region; Russia has troops stationed in Moldova’s secessionist province of Transnistria, while the Black Sea coast, which includes Ukraine’s second city Odessa (just 140 km from Romania), is the only part of western Ukraine in which politically “pro-Russian” Ukrainians and “ethnic Russians” may still be prominent.
In response to a US-Romanian axis, Russia could attempt to press Romania from all sides by building up influence in Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary. Ukraine and Moldova are already home to Russian soldiers, while Serbia and Bulgaria are both Slavic and Orthodox countries that have historically often looked to Russia for support when fighting against their non-Slavic, Catholic, or Muslim neighbours like Turkey, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Romania. Russia continues to have ties to Bulgaria, and especially to Serbia, in the present day.
Hungary, however, is neither Slavic nor Orthodox. Still, Hungary would be a critical anti-Romanian ally for Russia to attempt to recruit. The large and rugged Hungarian-Romanian borderland, located in and around the region of Transylvania, has long been politically fraught. It lies on the Hungarian side of the Carpathian Mountains and is home to substantial Hungarian and Roma (who are distinct from Romanian) minority groups, yet, since roughly the end of the First World War, has mostly been part of Romania.
While Romania holds the upper hand in this region, Hungary still has leverage over Romania because it controls the land and river routes that link Bucharest to markets in Austria, Germany, and northern Europe in general. Russia has been moving to form closer ties with Hungary, as Hungary’s Fidesz-led nationalist government has angered many of the other countries in the EU in recent years.
Hungary and Bulgaria are both potentially significant to Russia for other reasons as well. Bulgaria can give the Russians access to the Mediterranean Sea via Greece or the Balkans, without having to pass through the Turkish Straits. It is just 250 km from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea via Bulgaria and Greece, and 600-700 km from the Black Sea to the Adriatic via Bulgaria and the Balkans.
Indeed, given Russia’s reliance on natural gas exports and Italy’s reliance on gas imports (Russia is the world’s leading gas exporter, and Italy the world’s third largest gas importer), this trans-Bulgarian route to the Adriatic is one that Russia may need to avoid recession and at the same time maintain its influence in Italy. In turn, Russia may try to use Italy to put pressure on Romania, given the relatively close connections that exist between the two Latin countries.
Russia may need Hungary, meanwhile, to resist interfering with Russia’s interests in Ukraine (there are an estimated 200,000 ethnic Hungarians living in western Ukraine), serve as a wedge between Poland and Romania, and ensure Russian access to Central European economies like Germany.
If, hypothetically, Russia were to cow western Ukraine into submission and then be shunned as a result by US allies like Poland and Romania and by German allies like the Czech Republic and Slovakia (The Czech Republic and Slovakia are deeply entrenched in the modern German trade network), Hungary could be left as the only land route linking Russia’s sphere of influence to potentially “neutral” European economies like Italy, Austria, Switzerland, or France.
Moreover, Hungary is the only ex-satellite state apart from Romania that borders both the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Hungary’s leading city Budapest is just 300 km from Serbia’s capital Belgrade, 300 km from Croatia’s capital Zagreb, 380 km from Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, and 400 km from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo. Considering that Budapest is also only 215 km from Vienna, 160 from Bratislava, and 400 km from the outskirts of Prague, this puts seven European capital cities within a 400 km radius of Budapest. The only other EU capital which can come even close to saying the same thing for itself is Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.
Russia might ideally like to ally itself with Germany or one of Europe’s other big economies, but if the Germans are not willing to participate in such a relationship then Hungary could be the place where a tug-of-war between Russia and America, or between Russia and Germany, or between Russia and “the West”, will occur. And if Russians do successfully win Hungary as a partner, thus potentially blocking off access to Romania from Poland, the focus of the conflict might then shift to Southeastern Europe, as the Americans could seek an alternative route to Romania.
During the Cold War the Americans involved themselves in Southeastern Europe by folding both Greece and Turkey into NATO (in spite of their intense rivalry with one another), but of late US-Turkish relations have been challenged by the wars in Syria and Iraq, while Greece has been trapped in an economic crisis and so unable to pick up the slack.
During just the past few months, though, more hopeful discussions than there have been in years have taken place regarding the possibility of the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus finally reunifying. This may perhaps portend an increasing cooperation between Turkey and the West, particularly as it has occurred around the same time as Turkey’s relationship with Russia deteriorated sharply following Russia’s entrance into Syria and Turkey’s downing of a Russian military jet there.
Then again, it is also entirely plausible that American relations with Turkey will continue to decline, and that the Greek economy will not soon recover in any meaningful way, leaving the United States to look instead to countries like Italy, Bulgaria, and the Balkan states in order to form a southern pathway to Romania and the Black Sea.
Of course, nothing like this scenario is guaranteed to happen. This is just a very rough outline of what a new US-Russian political confrontation in Eastern Europe might look like. Given that the past may not necessarily resemble the future, and in particular that technological developments could perhaps render some traditionally important geopolitical imperatives irrelevant – to give just one example, air power might allow countries like the United States to access their allies without possessing a land route to reach them – this outline may not end up being very prescient. Ideally, none of the ex-satellites will have to choose between looking eastward to Moscow or westward to Washington.
For a discussion of the conflict in Ukraine in particular, see The Geopolitics of Ukraine