Putin’s Gambit: Russia Takes Aim at Eastern Europe Once Again

by Szymon Butryn

Illustration by Weronika Ziarek

When the outbreak of the coronavirus stopped the world in its tracks, world leaders postponed the implementation of their policies to save the economies and lives of their respective nations. However, we should not deceive ourselves in thinking that the same applies to the Russian president. For while Russia has been losing its fight with COVID-19, it has continued to advance its pursuit of indirect domination over European affairs. Putin continues to conduct his diplomacy like a chess grandmaster, meticulously planning and scrupulously executing each move. He is not afraid to sacrifice his pawns and, regardless of what Gary Kasparov may say on the matter, it’s still Putin’s game to lose. 

Empire Strikes Back

Russia’s imperial aspirations run deep. This history has a considerable influence on      Putin’s image of his fatherland. In the 1800s, while fighting numerous wars with great powers, tsarist Russia pursued the idea of Pan-Slavism, justifying its aggressive moves in the Balkans and Eastern Europe with the message of unification of all Slavs under Russian leadership. Despite the southern Slavic nations’ early support for the initiative, especially in the late 19th century, the concept has not been considered a serious alternative since the end of World War I. Viewed simply as a guise  for russification, the idea essentially died with the fall of the Iron Curtain. However, a certain former KGB agent took inspiration from the movement, and consequently prepared a scheme to resume Russian dominance over the former Eastern Bloc. 

Vladimir Putin relaxing in Tuva

After transitioning from the communist system, Eastern European states aimed to restore their political and economic independence and integrated into an allied, European market. Since coming to power, Putin seized any opportunity to counter Western advancement; he retained control over Belarus and Moldova, destabilised the Ukraine and Georgia by military means, while successfully undermining Polish and Romanian assimilation with the EU and NATO. This crusade can be understood as a retaliation for the Western “plunder” of the countries formerly aligned with the USSR. 

Interestingly, Russia has not attempted to overthrow a government in any of these cases. Moreover, Putin always finds a way to question the validity of international law when violating it. The Russian Federation cannot risk an open conflict with the West, but it is trying to isolate Eastern European countries in order to victimise them one by one. Despite close cultural, political, and economic ties, Russia is willing to cooperate with a much more ideologically distant West to secure its indirect domination over the former communist bloc.

Eastern European states have not developed a united front in relationships with Russia, with each country having different interests and concerns regarding the Russian Federation. Putin established exclusively economic relations in the region, devoid of any political or historic integration, as a part of his strategy to subjugate those states to his indirect control. Russia also sows doubt regarding the modern understanding of the past, increasingly attempting to rewrite history through a ruthlessly efficient campaign of disinformation. From Russia Today’s news manipulation to creating rows over delicate historical matters, the Russian president continues to build the state’s claim for expanded influence. He undermines criticism and objections, while launching cyberattacks targeting political institutions, businesses, media, and sport. In light of the increased risk of foreign interference in internal democratic processes, Western European countries denounce Putin publicly but are eager to deal with him behind the scenes. In the past, Putin has used his leverage to make France, the United Kingdom, and Germany back off from his Eastern European campaign, in exchange for halting attacks on these Western powerhouses. 

European (Union?) Response

Putin’s advantage derives from his understanding of the European Union’s fundamental weaknesses. The former countries of the Soviet Bloc are generally supportive of the EU, considering its members to have a higher quality of life than post-Soviet states. Nevertheless, emerging right-wing parties (or governments) in Eastern member states have begun to question the long-term impact of their membership, citing economic subjugation at the hands of the original European Coal and Steel Community members and a lack of internal judiciary sovereignty under the Union’s regulations. The latter, along with questions over budget allocations favouring less-developed states, is causing public dissatisfaction within the older EU member states. The Russian share of energy products imported to the 27 European Union countries in the first semester of 2020 has reached 64.6% of total EU imports. Having already established gas supply pipelines for Western countries underneath the Baltic sea whilst securing a stable flow in Belarus and the Ukraine, Russia has left the eastern periphery of the EU self-dependent regarding energy, with Poland and the Baltic states under increased pressure in negotiations with Putin and stripped of any leverage themselves. 

A clear division is forming—and Putin continues to enlarge the rift in order to further his expansion. On one hand, Russia remains an attractive trade partner for any EU member state, being rich in natural resources, high on new technology development, and eager to invest in foreign markets. The concerns regarding European integrity have tempted both Germany’s Merkel, and France’s Macron to diplomatically flirt with the Russian leader. On the other hand, Russian disinformation campaigns, recognised by the European Commission as the greatest threat to its security, continue to sow popular distrust in public institutions, fueling the scepticism of European integration. Playing on the uncertainty and volatility felt by these countries, dealing with Putin appears inevitable, prompting some, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, to “cut a deal with the devil.” 

France, Italy, Germany, and other Western European countries have not greatly suffered  from the sanctions and trade restrictions the EU has implemented on Russia. In fact, they have developed individual trade relations with Russia that are completely independent of their membership in the European Union. For smaller economies of the Union, those business opportunities are unavailable due to lack of influence in international organisations, or lack of significant funds to include third parties, which could mediate in deals with Putin to bypass the sanctions. 

Meanwhile, dialogue between the Russian Federation and Eastern EU member states has been limited. For example, the last meeting between Czech and Russian foreign ministers took place 15 years ago in 2005. Initiatives such as the Visegrad group (a cultural and political alliance of Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland) may help to create a common front in dealings with Putin; however, they fail to account for the individual needs of their member states. The Kremlin, whilst taking advantage of open access to the Western stock market, has, over time, monopolised the energy supply market of its former satellites. Russia has also prioritised finishing Nord Stream 2, with 94% of the pipeline already completed, which could see up to 10% of Europe’s gas imports become contingent on Putin. The project, which is fiercely opposed by Poland and the Baltic states, has created a further divide in the Union that has now struggled to retain internal unity, as proven by the recent failure of new budget negotiations. 

Putin, Macron, Merkel, and Zelensky before a joint press conference at the Élysée Palace, December 2019

Father Putin, Mother Russia

Having ascended as one of the most recognisable faces in the world, Putin has been particularly efficient in rallying support around him, at times orchestrating events in order to do so. Accusations of staging “foreign” provocations to declare war on Chechnya and Georgia, or to annex Crimea, earned him the international reputation of a ruthless villain. Domestically, he has long painted a different story, presenting himself as the nation’s guardian and creating an image of a powerful and “masculine” leader. 

Putin would be able to govern a state without popular support, but he would fail to realise his vision of aggressive expansion without it. There is currently no opposition in Russia that would realistically threaten the existing rule. Journalists critical of Putin such as Anna Politkovskaya or Alexander Litvinenko have been largely forgotten, while the oligarchs who stood against Putin have been exiled (Berezovsky) or imprisoned (Khodorkovsky). That does not mean Putin’s stance is firm, as many remain as much opposed to the system as they are oppressed by it. On the other hand, the Russian Federation is perhaps, historically, the most democratic version of a Russian state, despite its democratic practices being questionable and practically non-existent. The average quality of life has generally improved under Putin, thus securing a strong support base for the president. Still, in a factually authoritarian state, one can never fully rely on public support. Putin must question whether Russians would back his neo-imperialist vision.

Vladimir Putin fishing in southern Siberia

Alexander Rahr from the German-Russian Forum asks not if but how far Russia is willing to go: “It is about repelling enemies, preserving its own form of Christianity and protecting the fatherland,” he says, when explaining Putin’s expansive diplomacy. In the recent summer referendum over constitutional reform, which could keep him in power until 2036, Putin won over 76% of the vote in a display of overwhelming public support for his politics. Whether the validity of the vote should be recognised is up for debate, but Putin’s approval ratings over the years paint a similar picture; Russian backing of the president grows larger at the sight of decisive foreign policy moves, reaching a peak in the years of the Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea invasions in 2004, 2008, and 2014 respectively. The Russian public’s yearning for new strength and restoration of a superpower identity results in continued domestic support for Putin’s tortuous conquest. 

Pandemic? Opportunity     

Since 2018, Russia has been seeking a breakthrough during a stagnant standoff with the EU. Enter COVID-19. The outbreak of the virus has grinded economies to a halt, striking particularly hard in Europe, where public health services have been on the verge of collapse since April, seeing economies suffer their worst losses in a decade. Russia has been on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe itself, with nearly 2 million cases recorded to date. Nevertheless, Putin has seized the opportunity to make bolder moves on the international stage, exerting economic pressure on eastern members of the EU. His current actions prove that his people were never his priority; Putin was always absorbed by the international power struggle. 

It seems, somewhat unexpectedly, that a power struggle has also emerged in Putin’s own backyard, causing him to strike more firmly against Eastern European opposition to both him and his puppet rulers. In spite of over 100 days of protests in Belarus, the country seems to be firmly in the grasp of Lukashenko’s apparatus. That has not always been the case. Putin understood that a potential overthrow of the Belarusian dictator would not only erase a loyal ally in Eastern Europe, but could also potentially diminish his own position domestically by inspiring revolutionary movements. Putin pledged military aid to Lukashenko and has seemingly sent a signal of Russia’s renewed intention to meddle in Eastern European politics. The 2014 conflict in Ukraine, sparked by pro-democracy protests in Kiev that remain active, provoked a similar reaction from the Russian Federation. The Russian president has regarded any democratic movements in his neighbourhood as potential pioneers of a “Moscow Maidan,” which would see Putin and his regime step down. He has never been more decisive in his quest to bury these efforts, reassured by Europe’s preoccupation with the pandemic.   

“Big Brother” watching over Crimea

In September, Reuters reported that the EU had prolonged sanctions and asset freezes over Russia’s Crimea annexation. Nevertheless, Ukraine and Russia agreed to a ceasefire in 2019, in what appeared to be a gesture indicating a willingness to end the conflict. Though the move seemed to suggest major progress in the Russo-Ukrainian stalemate, it was merely the tip of the iceberg. With Merkel and Macron, two of the most powerful Union politicians, “overseeing” the summit, Ukraine’s European future is indeed being decided; however, Russia holds all the leverage. If the Russians agree to Ukraine’s demand of complete openness to Western business, Putin may see the annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine officially recognised by European powerhouses. This would also deal a blow to the economies of Poland, Romania, and Hungary. 

Nowadays, Eastern European members of the EU remain unable to truly compete with Western labour markets due to a lack of automatisation and the underdevelopment of their manufacturing and industrial sectors. With economies largely dependent on cheap labour and manufacturing, those states would see their GDP growth significantly stunted, as Western companies will move to an ever “cheaper” Ukraine. On the other hand, if not given his way, Putin’s military power is at his disposal, ready to engage in an “active phase of hostilities.” Owing to the pandemic, nobody is eager to re-engage in the Crimea conflict, for not even Russia can afford the health crisis it could face domestically. Nevertheless, Putin, contrary to his EU counterparts, appears ready to ignore the COVID-19 repercussions moving forward. His eyes may be set on Eastern Europe, but his fight is really with Western powerhouses, with the former Soviet Bloc countries as assets, not players, at the negotiation table. 

Politics and economics come together in a peculiar manner, with political decisions frequently aggravating economic associations between states and rarely having a positive impact on shaping long-term trade relations. Nothing holds more true for the Russian pursuit of dominance over Eastern European affairs. Putin has carefully prepared an attack and currently seems to have more pieces on the board than any other player. He has been making notable mistakes, such as the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny, which earned him renewed EU sanctions, but he should never be underestimated. Other European states should combine their chessmen and overpower the Russian leader with a cohesive, united strategy. For now, however, it appears that many have been tempted to play the master by themselves. But Putin’s pawns have already started to move forward. If one reaches the eight rank and is promoted to a queen, it might be too late for Europe to stop Russia. For while it may not take one queen promotion to threaten Germany or France, it takes one for Eastern Europe to become a bargaining chip in a new West versus East clash. 

Pawn to C4. Your move, Europe.

Szymon Butryn is a third-year History student at Queen Mary University in London specializing in Early-Modern and Political History. He has also studied at the University of Sydney, where he participated in academic projects on Natural Philosophy and the Sociology of Terror.

Categories: Europe & Russia

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