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Stability must not be achieved at Central and Eastern Europe's expense.

The space between Germany and Russia was the cradle of two world wars and the Cold War. Today it is the focal point of international conflict again. Europe is living a moment reminiscent to the period before 1914, which eventually led to a complete overhaul of European order.  

Middle Europe sits on a major geopolitical fault line. It is a territory contested throughout history by major powers such as the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, and the nation-state of Germany. In the last hundred years, this space has been rearranged multiple times, with the tide of Russian control expanding and receding. In 1914, the Vienna system of 1815 ended, and a world war broke out to settle the question of mastery in Europe. The Russian collapse and the defeat of the Central Powers created a power vacuum as Austria-Hungary, which had guaranteed the balance between Russia and Germany, disintegrated. 

The peacemakers in Paris at the end of World War I cobbled together a new international system and erected a string of new, mutually hostile nation-states. These vulnerable countries sat on the ruins of the old empires. The successor states were supposed to form a protective barrier against Soviet Russia while also containing Germany, and thereby enhance stability. They did none of these things.

France and Great Britain were the architects of this peace, but they never committed military power to uphold it. They gradually abandoned their construct and left it to its own devices. Hitler and Stalin took advantage of the emerging power vacuum in the region, where both tyrants hoped to construct their own, murderous, self-sufficient, anti-Western empires. In their brief honeymoon, they divided the northern part of the region into spheres of influence at the expense of Poland and the Baltic states. The Soviet Union moved one step farther to its west. The Nazi-Soviet condominium collapsed in the Balkans, and Hitler decided to attack its main strategic and ideological rival. Had Hitler won, the fate of Poland and Ukraine would have been disastrous: Pax Germanica envisioned genocide and colonization for them. 

A precarious order

A new international system was forged at the conferences in Moscow in 1944 and Yalta in 1945. The system sought to secure Britain’s position as a global power and to ensure Stalin’s participation in safeguarding European peace. This led to a new partition between Great Britain and the United States on one hand, and the emerging Soviet colossus on the other. As a British Foreign Office paper stated, the adjacent states would be “handed over to the wolves.”

Stalin noted that Russia’s czars had known how to win a war, but not how to win peace. Now, each power would introduce its own system in the lands it had conquered. The West sought to placate Stalin and earn his participation in ensuring an orderly Europe. They wanted the Soviets to keep Germany down, even if this cost the states of middle Europe their independence. In contrast with 1918, Soviet domination was regarded as a token of stability. 

In 1948, the U.S. discovered that the Moscow’s ambition to expand was boundless, witnessing the coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the blockade of Berlin. By then, it was too late. Soviet control of the region was a dagger at the throat of the West. Middle Europe became a Soviet political, economic, and military space. This was the token of Moscow’s position as a global power, and it was safeguarded by the Brezhnev Doctrine, under which the Soviet Union reserved the right to use military force to uphold the communist system in Warsaw Pact states. Instead of more security, the West ended up with less. Soviet power extended well into what the National Security Council described as the “heart of Europe.” 

In the 1950s, the U.S. briefly promoted the restoration of national independence for the states behind the Iron Curtain, but the Soviet nuclear deterrent and West European reticence made that policy too dangerous to pursue. 

The security order changed again in 1989. Gorbachev’s reform processes within the Soviet satellite states created a new opportunity to reorganize this strategically crucial space. It is not that NATO or the United States were eager to exploit the emerging power vacuum and end the Cold War. It was, rather, the Eastern Europeans themselves who rejected the revised order offered by Gorbachev and the West. They opted for a new order altogether.

By late 1989, it was becoming clear that Europe's East would be left with an enormous power vacuum and that the United States would need to stand between Germany and Russia in Central Europe. The power vacuum expanded further to the east with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Sovereignty was returned to former Soviet satellites, and further still, new nation-states emerged on the ruins of the Soviet Union itself. Moreover, Gorbachev agreed to German unification within NATO. He thought he got something in return: a pledge that not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction would spread in an eastern direction. Current Russian President Vladimir Putin has referred to this pledge and claimed that the West conned Russia.

The loss of Ukraine involved a strategic setback for Moscow that was hardly even noticed in the turmoil. One of the most important fruits of Soviet victory in World War II were the Carpathian passes in Western Ukraine. Once an army crosses through the Carpathians into the Hungarian plains, the heart of Europe is only a short leap away.

Stabilizing order now

The post-Soviet elite never resigned themselves to the loss of empire. Russia saw itself relegated to the European periphery, back where it had started in 1939. From Moscow’s perspective, the situation was aggravated by the fact that the U.S. filled the gap in a paradigmatic shift of America’s commitment to Europe. 

The question now is where the boundaries between the Russian and the Western spheres of influence will be stabilized. Moscow has started to push back on the post-Cold War status quo in Europe. This pushback is facilitated by the unresolved status of Ukraine, and this status is what is waiting now to be settled.

Weak states are able to destabilize international politics by their weakness. They can use that very weakness as leverage on their great-power patrons, whom they are sometimes able to manipulate to prop them up.

Indeed, weak states are usually unable to fend for themselves. They require the support of powerful states to protect them from the encroachments of expansionist powers and to ensure their sovereignty and territorial integrity. The problem for Eastern and Central European states, until they joined NATO, was the lack of such protection, as evidenced by their subjugation to the Germans and later the Soviets.

Ukraine’s position in international space is undefined. The possibility of NATO membership has only served to increase Ukraine’s vulnerability, while simultaneously inviting Russian aggression and causing anxiety among the former Warsaw Pact states.

NATO membership for Ukraine may enhance stability between Russia and the West and deter Russian aggression. The negative effect would be to cement the current rivalry between Russia and NATO for the foreseeable future. Moreover, this scenario would push Russia further toward China, the West’s main geopolitical rival.

An Austrian-type Ukrainian armed neutrality within its current borders, guaranteed by the former World War II allies, could be a solution to consolidate Central and Eastern Europe’s place in international politics. Austria’s permanent neutrality resulted from the Austrian State Treaty of 1955. The treaty was signed by the U.S., the UK, France, and the USSR. It worked because Austria pledged to protect it with all means at its disposal and because it is embedded in Austrian constitutional law as well as international law. A similar solution for Ukraine would alleviate Russia’s security concerns and its sense of prestige. Ukraine’s security would be enhanced, and the solution might diminish Russian hostility. Any violation of the border by the signatory powers – provoked or unprovoked – can be considered as a casus belli. The downside here is the question of Russian reliability.

A dialogue needs to begin on finding a lasting fix to the problem before it is too late and Russia is found at Europe’s doorstep again. This dialogue must begin with the proviso that NATO’s current borders are not negotiable. A permanent fix is needed, otherwise this will remain a constant source of tension with the potential to escalate into a major war in Europe. The model could be the Congress of Vienna, where allies and former foes sat at the same table. The result was a stable Central Europe for a whole century. This time around, though, stability must not be achieved at the expense of the independence and sovereignty of Central and Eastern Europe.

László Borhi is Peter A. Kadas Chair associate professor at the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington. The views expressed are the author's own.