The nations of Eastern Europe are increasingly feeling the pressure from both the U.S. and the EU to sanction Russia. As a result, Serbia, Hungary and Bulgaria have become new battleground states in the confrontation between Russia and the West.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, center, along with his Serbian counterpart, Tomislav Nikolic, 2nd right, and his wife Dragica, right, watch the Serbian air force display during a military parade in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, October 16, 2014. Photo: AP
As a result of the crisis in Ukraine, European states are being forced to decide where they stand on sanctions against Russia. Either they stand in favor of more severe sanctions against Russia or they stand with Russia against the EU in resisting these sanctions. And, just as France earlier this year faced EU and American pressure to cancel its shipment of Mistral warships to Russia, Eastern European countries are also starting to feel more acute pressure to make their positions known in concrete ways.
For example, Serbia has found itself under increasing pressure by the EU to join sanctions on Russia. It is important for the EU to get Serbia to join in sanctioning Russia, as Serbia and Russia have long had cultural and religious ties. In sanctioning Russia, Serbia would be making a statement that, despite the cultural and religious ties, Russia is in the wrong in its handling of Ukraine, while the EU is in the right. This would be an even more powerful statement since just 15 years ago NATO was bombing Serbia over Kosovo.
Can Europe speak in unison over Ukraine?
The EU really wants to speak with one voice. It very much sees Russian actions in Ukraine as a resurrection of the Soviet-era “Evil Empire,” and wants to speak with a clear voice against what it sees as Russian interference and malicious meddling in the stability of the Ukrainian state. Generally, EU member states have pursued their own foreign policy, but the EU has tried to create a cohesive overarching foreign policy. Sanctions over Russian actions in Ukraine provide the conditions for the EU to develop a single foreign policy.
However, it is not enough for the EU to develop a single foreign policy. It also wants to develop a foreign policy that is accepted by all future EU member states as well as current member states. In addition to Serbia's close cultural relationship with Russia, Serbia is also trying to become a member of the European Union. Thus, the EU really wants Serbia to join the sanctions movement against Russia.
In opposition to the EU, Russia sees very few European countries as being sympathetic to its actions in Ukraine. It wants to crack the cohesiveness of the EU's sanctions policy and begin to wear down the individual countries to defeat the sanctions. One of the ways to begin this process is to influence Serbia into resisting pressure from the EU to join the sanctions regime. This would then be a symbolic victory to show that Europe does not speak with one voice against Russian foreign policy in Ukraine.
In other words, Serbia has become a new battleground in the battle between Russia and the West.
Despite the fact that the EU wishes to be perceived as speaking with one voice over sanctions, recent elections have shown that many citizens in EU member states remain skeptical over the EU, and member states have pushed back against the EU. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has not hidden his pro-Russian sympathies. His policies have been increasingly pro-Russian at a time when the EU would like more unanimity in its approach to Russia. However, Orban's policies have not been without controversy. Protests have erupted in Hungary against Orban and his pro-Russian policies. Many of these protests have focused on the need to for Hungarians to stand with the rest of Europe and oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin instead of supporting him. Like Serbia, Hungary is becoming a new battleground between the EU and Russia.
Another possible battleground state between the EU and Russia is Bulgaria. Bulgaria partnered with Russia and stood to benefit from the South Stream project to build gas pipelines under the Black Sea, through Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia, and Austria, as well as a pipeline that would deliver natural gas to Italy. The key to this pipeline was that the pipeline would bypass Ukraine, and instead, would greatly benefit Bulgaria.
The EU has argued that the South Stream project violates EU regulations on energy markets, and vociferously objected to Bulgaria's participation in the project after the start of the Ukrainian crisis. The EU pressured Bulgaria to back out of the South Stream project, and in June 2014, Bulgaria temporarily halted construction of the pipeline on its territory. Russia has filed an objection over the European energy laws with the World Trade Organization. Both Russia and the EU are trying to influence Bulgarian policy towards the South Stream project.
The EU has certainly spread its influence to the very borders of Russia. However, despite the fact that it has been successful in its expansion of influence, it is nevertheless facing revolts and difficulty with maintaining its current foreign policy approach of sanctions toward Russia. To make matters worse, some of its member states are looking to increase the severity of sanctions against Russia as well as to help Ukraine defeat the separatists in its civil war.
For example, Lithuania has just agreed to provide military aid to help Ukraine in its fight against the separatists. It is currently unclear whether that aid is “non-lethal” military aid or whether Lithuania will actually supply arms to Ukraine. Thus, the EU finds itself in the position of some of its member states pushing for increasing severity of sanctions against Russia while other current and future member states are trying to avoid pressure to join the sanctions imposed by the EU.
The EU must carefully navigate these interests and opposing directions from its current and future member states. If it does not carefully balance these interests, the EU will find it ever more difficult to develop a cohesive foreign policy. Further, it will relinquish any prospects of the EU being able to resolve this conflict. Instead, the EU will look to the U.S. to ultimately resolve this conflict bilaterally between the U.S. and Russia.
Russia's attempts to split Europe
While the Ukrainian crisis has not yet been resolved, the crisis has shown how quickly relative stability can lead to instability due to external circumstances. In the case of Ukraine, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign the association agreement led to protests and his removal from office, which in turn led to the Russian de facto annexation of Crimea and the current civil war in Eastern Ukraine. As the EU forces its current and future member states to join in sanctioning Russia, Russia will look to find faults within these countries and will look to turn them into battleground states against expanding EU influence.
That is why the Kremlin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov's recent interview with the BBC about Ukraine and Latvia took on an ominous tone. While he didn't directly state that Russia would help create instability in Latvia, he did imply that Russians in Latvia would revolt against the government in Latvia if a government came to power that resembled that of Ukraine. Further, his words provided a blueprint for Russian strategy in European countries in which there is either a sizable Russian minority or cultural and religious ties with Russians. Ultimately, the EU is not as unified in its sanctions policy as it would like, and Russia will look further to try to fracture the sanctions policy.