Big powers jockey for influence in eastern Europe
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo begins a tour of the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland and Slovenia on Tuesday, but the twin elephants in the room will be China and Russia.
Pompeo said in a visit to the region last year that Moscow and Beijing posed threats to the democratic and economic gains made there since the end of the Cold War, so the trip is also aimed at mitigating Russian and Chinese influence.
On Russia, one key theme of Pompeo’s tour is eastward redeployment of US troops in Europe. This follows confirmation last week that the Trump team will permanently station 1,000 additional troops in Poland, bringing the total US contingent there to 5,500, only days after the Pentagon formally announced plans to withdraw 12,000 from Germany.
Poland is not just closer to Russia’s border than Germany is. Warsaw recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Washington, is one of only five NATO members that spends the 2 percent target of GDP on defence, and the Polish government has been much more welcoming of Donald Trump than have Germany and other countries in western Europe; so much so, in fact, that in 2018 Warsaw even proposed naming a military base “Fort Trump.”
But it is not just the military threat from Moscow that Pompeo is worried about. He also believes that central and eastern European countries are increasingly vulnerable to dependence on Russian energy, exemplified by Hungary, which imports most of its gas, providing significant leverage for Moscow in bilateral relations.
On China, Pompeo and fellow hawks in Washington appear, belatedly, to have woken up to Beijing’s growing influence in central and eastern Europe. The secretary of state will make clear his concern about this and, as he is doing in western Europe too, push back against countries using Huawei telecoms technology.
But Beijing’s ambitions in the region go well beyond 5G networks: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, for instance, has regularly met eastern and central European leaders for “16+1” summits in recent years to discuss deepening economic investment, and political influence across the board, in areas such as infrastructure and green technologies.
Pompeo believes that central and eastern European countries are increasingly vulnerable to dependence on Russian energy, exemplified by Hungary, which imports most of its gas, providing significant leverage for Moscow in bilateral relations.
Buttressing this initiative (which is becoming the 17+1 with the addition of Greece), a number of states have also signed agreements with China on its mammoth, $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative. These include Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Greece.
In response to this perceived threat, Pompeo and Trump have said they will give greater attention to the region, reversing many years of what the secretary of state calls “US disengagement.” Beyond security, this includes strengthening energy and wider economic ties.
On these fronts, top US officials, including Trump, have spoken at “Three Seas Initiative” conferences in recent years. These encompass the nations strategically located between the Black, Baltic and Adriatic seas with the intent of boosting regional connectivity, not just in energy but in transport and digital too.
And it is not just Washington that is agitated by Beijing and Moscow’s jockeying for political position in eastern and central Europe. Brussels has long been concerned by other world powers dividing and ruling, to undermine the continent’s collective interests, and is increasingly aware that the popularity of the EU is waning in a number of key states in the region.
Indeed, while challenges to Brussels are often seen through the prism of western European states, especially with Brexit, central and eastern European countries are also proving thorns in the side of the EU. There is rising economic inequality and significant corruption in the region, and a backlash in the form of authoritarian anti-liberalism in several states, including Poland and Hungary.
What is striking about those two countries in particular is the rise of right-wing populism. This is illustrated by Poland where President Andrzej Duda, narrowly re-elected last month with Trump’s help, is forcefully promoting values that often clash with standards promoted by Brussels on democracy, the rule of law and wider freedoms. On these and other issues, the Polish administration has much more in common with Trump than than with Brussels, including shared opposition to immigration, support for burning coal, and skepticism of multilateral institutions.
Problematically for Brussels, Hungary and Poland are leaders of wider groups of countries, including the Visegrad which also includes Slovakia and the Czech Republic with a collective population of around 65 million. While Visegrad countries are by no means a monolithic bloc, they have agreed joint positioning pushing back at proposals being floated for more, post-Brexit integration in the EU.
It is in this troubled, changing landscape that world powers are looking to build influence in central and east Europe. With Brussels on the back foot, US engagement increasing again, and China and Russia jockeying for position, perhaps the only certainty in the 2020s is that international interest in the region is likely to increase as it becomes a growing geopolitical prize.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics