Another appeal to Western governments from renowned public figures, this time over Georgia, has appeared in European newspapers (Le Monde, Die Welt, The Guardian, Corriere della Sera, September 22, 23). Signed by the Czech, Lithuanian, and Estonian former heads of state and government (Vaclav Havel, Vytautas Landsbergis, Valdas Adamkus, Mart Laar), as well as by the Polish Solidarity movement’s political theorist Adam Michnik, the Paneuropa movement’s founding president Otto von Habsburg, French liberal opinion leaders Bernard-Henri Levy and Andre Glucksmann, and prominent European cultural figures. The document urges Western governments to take a stand against Russia’s occupation of Georgian territories and its continuing threats to Georgia.
The signatories appeal to the E.U. member nations to "define a proactive strategy to help Georgia peacefully regain its territorial integrity and obtain the withdrawal of Russian forces illegally stationed on Georgian soil." They also warn against accepting a new Berlin Wall-like dividing line, this time across Georgia. In passing they remind the E.U.’s investigative commission that on the August 2008 war that Russia can easily "find or engineer pretexts for invading a neighbor whose independence it resents."
More broadly, the signatories warn against the re-emergence of a Russian sphere of influence in Europe’s East by Western default. On the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain -they ask- is the West "willing to accept that the borders of a small country can be unilaterally changed by force? And to tolerate de facto the annexation of territories by a big power? The Western democracies’ failure to respond can have very serious global consequences. At stake is nothing less than the project of the peaceful and democratic reunification of Europe."
Several public appeals of this nature have been addressed recently by renowned public figures from Central-Eastern Europe to the U.S. and Western European governments (EDM, July 22, September 22). They all reflect a growing unease with current trends as seen from the region’s perspective: an eroding U.S. commitment, with policy priorities seen to short-change this region; poorly explained strategies and decisions; NATO’s own deepening malaise; a security deficit growing in Europe’s immediate Eastern neighborhood vis-à-vis Russia; and a proactive, U.S.-led quest for Moscow’s help on other issues elsewhere, generating speculation about any possible trade-off at Eastern Europe’s expense.
The United States and NATO are attempting to address these concerns from time to time in their public and inter-governmental communications, though rarely at a high level or comprehensively. U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden set the main frame of reference for the U.S. position while visiting Ukraine and Georgia in July (enlarging on President Barack Obama’s relevant themes from his Moscow visit). Those postulates have been echoed by U.S. officials since then; and most recently also by NATO’s new Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen in his inaugural speech (NATO press release, September 17).
These tenets, however, comprise a set of mostly passive propositions, formulated primarily as negatives, and rarely proactive ones. U.S., NATO, and European Union officials assert (on the appropriate occasions) that they:
1. Do not accept Russia’s notion of a sphere of special interest.
2. Do not recognize unilateral, forcible border changes.
3. Support the territorial integrity principle, for example, by not recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
4. Disagree (sometimes "fundamentally disagree") with Russia on certain issues, but need Russia’s cooperation on higher-priority issues.
5. Support countries’ sovereign right to join the alliance of their choice.
6. Hold NATO’s door open to countries that qualify, with no veto on the enlargement process from outside the alliance.
7. Regard Russian threats to neighboring countries as a nineteenth century method, not appropriate to the twenty first century (the twentieth century is usually bracketed out from this official talking point).
In practice, however, these tenets can be seen to operate with diminishing effectiveness in Europe’s East recently. Non-acceptance, non-recognition, and support for principles do not seem to be accompanied by a proactive, remedial Western policy. In its absence, Russia has crossed the threshold from undeclared to officially declared border changes in Georgia while also questioning Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russia’s monopoly on "peacekeeping" and its naval forces stationed around the Black Sea region are ingredients to sphere-of-influence building. This process would advance further if NATO recognizes the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) step-by-step at Moscow’s insistence.
Meanwhile, NATO’s enlargement process has been suspended from within the Alliance by a few governments interested in special relations with Russia. The "outside veto" becomes a moot issue in this case; the open-door policy becomes a symbolic one when aspirant countries are no longer mentored (as their predecessors were) to reach that door; and the right to choose alliances, a risky one to pursue when it opens a window of vulnerability for aspirant countries in the grey zone. More than one year after the Russian invasion, Georgia remains a military vacuum, with no conventional-force deterrent in place. Russian leaders’ public threats to Ukraine and their recent doctrines on intervention abroad (EDM, September 22) do not seem to elicit a Western policy response. The recent series of appeals from Central and Eastern Europe attempts to focus Western leaders’ attention to these issues.
The current concerns stem from Western allies’ reluctance to address hard-security requirements in this region; its apparent relegation to a second tier of Allied priorities; and the ensuing potential for expediency-based trade-offs, whereby necessary security measures in this region are left in abeyance, whether for want of resources or to incentivize Russian support in other theaters.
Spheres of influence formerly took shape through explicit arrangements among great powers, usually involving trade-offs in territory. At present, they can potentially emerge by one side’s default or through trade-offs in security priorities. Today’s concerns in Eastern Europe, while partly shaped by historical experience, focus on the current need to firm up the enlarged NATO’s commitments and the American connection with the allies through proactive policies.