Russia, Ukraine, and Central Europe: The Return of Geopolitics

By Larrabee, F. Stephen | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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Russia, Ukraine, and Central Europe: The Return of Geopolitics

Larrabee, F. Stephen, Journal of International Affairs

Nine November 2009, marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, effectively marking the end of the Cold War. It opened the way to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of a new security order in Europe.

On the whole, the process of knitting Europe back together has been a remarkable success. As a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former communist states of Eastern Europe have been integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions and today enjoy a degree of economic prosperity, political stability, and external security that exceeds anything most of them have ever experienced in their histories. While many still face important economic and political challenges, their futures are reasonably secure.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall, however, unleashed an incomplete process of integration and political transformation and left a band of states on Russia's Western periphery without a clear political future or clear foreign policy attachment. This band of states includes Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Belarus. The political future and foreign policy orientation of these countries is uncertain and is, in effect, up for grabs.

At the same time, a series of developments are creating new challenges and uncertainties that threaten the stability of the Eastern part of the European continent and could have implications for European security. These include the emergence of a more confident and assertive Russia, the impact of the global economic crisis, the growing disillusionment with the European Union's enlargement among large parts of the European population, and the uncertainty regarding the direction and steadfastness of U.S. policy.

This article focuses on the changing security dynamics in Central Europe and the Western periphery of the post-Soviet space. The first section examines Russia's resurgence and the challenges it poses. The second section focuses on Ukraine's transition, while the third section discusses the impact of Russia's resurgence on Central and Eastern Europe. The fourth section examines the increasing cooperation between Russia and Germany. The fifth section analyzes the changing context of NATO enlargement. The final section discusses the implications of these trends for U.S. policy.


The security dynamics in Central Europe and the Western periphery of the post-Soviet space are in flux today. Several trends are underway that could have major implications for the broader European security order that emerged in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Perhaps the most important is the emergence of Russia as a more confident and assertive actor both globally and regionally.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a traumatic shock and left Russia weak and frustrated. Accustomed to being a superpower--and being treated as one--Russian leaders found it difficult to accept that Russia's influence in world affairs had sharply declined and that the country's voice in foreign policy no longer counted for much. Most Russians put the blame squarely on Boris Yeltsin's shoulders. Whereas Yeltsin's tenure as president of Russia is regarded relatively positively in the West as a time of incipient democratic reform and openness both internally and externally, in Russia it is remembered with bitterness and disenchantment. Russians see it as a time of economic decline, political chaos, and foreign policy weakness.

For a decade, Russia's weakness prevented Moscow from exerting much influence in global and regional affairs, and Western policy makers became accustomed to having a free ride. Russia objected to many Western policies--NATO enlargement, Kosovo, etc.--but it was powerless to do much about them. The predominant Western assumption was that with time Russia would "come around" and see the advantage of closer cooperation with the West.

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