Following Sunday's Ukrainian run-off vote, ties between Moscow and Kiev are likely to improve, leaving Poland and the Czech Republic isolated in their fear of Russia. Germany holds the key to easing those concerns.
Viktor Yanukovych voting 2007
It has become an annual tradition in Europe. Each winter since 2006, Russia has turned off natural gas supplies to Ukraine, which, in turn, has siphoned off gas meant for Western Europe. In each instance, Moscow has blamed the supply cuts on a pricing dispute between Gazprom, the Russian-controlled energy giant, and Ukraine, with Gazprom claiming it is owed millions in unpaid bills. Ukraine has countered that Russia is using energy as a foreign policy tool, to punish Ukraine for aspiring to closer ties with the West.
This year, despite lingering disagreements over pricing, politics might have a hand in bringing this tradition to an end. Last month, Ukrainian voters selected Viktor Yanukovych, a candidate who advocates for closer ties with Russia, to face Yulia Tymoshenko - a more moderate, pro-western figure - in Sunday's presidential run-off election.
If's Yanukovych slender victory margin is confirmed, Kiev's relations with Russia will be strengthened. This has begun already - last month, Russia resumed diplomatic ties with Ukraine after a five-year lull. Talk about Russian imperial ambitions, common under former president Viktor Yushchenko, will likely cease.
Ukraine's possible shift toward a pro-Russia policy is troubling for Poland and the Czech Republic. Both have pointed to the Ukrainian gas disputes as evidence of Moscow's willingness to use economic resources as a foreign policy tool and of Russia's desire to reestablish its former sphere of influence. Ukraine under Yushchenko was a victim of these ambitions and an ally in lobbying the United States and NATO allies to speak more forcefully against Russia's increasingly strong rhetoric. A Ukraine under Yanukovych, or Tymoshenko, will no longer play this role.
US President Barack Obama has also seemingly abdicated the United States' role of Eastern European champion. During the Bush administration, US policies - from a missile shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic to NATO membership for Ukraine - were cornerstones of transatlantic relations. US officials constantly warned of the dangers of European reliance on Russian energy, most notably when Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza said in 2008, "we don't want our European allies in a position to choose between Gazprom and freezing."
The Obama administration, on the other hand, has not shown the same enthusiastic support for Eastern European causes. It has cancelled plans for the missile shield, opting for a smaller missile detachment instead. The White House has also made efforts to mend relations with Russia, yet has made little effort to engage Warsaw or Prague.
Polish and Czech concerns over German-Russian ties
Germany, which cultivated deep ties with Russia during the last 10 years while largely dismissing Eastern European concerns about Moscow's renewed ambitions, continues to strengthen its relationship with Russia. Construction of the Nord Stream pipeline, which links
Gazprom recently begun construction of the Nord Stream pipeline, which will connect Russian gas directly with Germany.
Germany directly with Russian energy, bypassing Poland and the Czech Republic, began last month.
Berlin and Moscow also teamed up to back the failed Magna-Sberbank bid for Opel, which would have saved German jobs while allowing Russia to enter the auto industry. Germany remains Russia's biggest trading partner with 43 billion euros ($60 billion) in bilateral turnover last year. Even with Germany's criticism of human rights violations in Russia, this trend is likely to continue as both emerge from the economic crisis.
"Europe is deeply divided in its approach to Russia," Kurt Volker, who served as US ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009 and is now managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told Deutsche Welle. "Eastern Europeans want protection in numbers [more countries sharing their view that a resurgent Russia is a threat] while the Germans believe that stance is provocative and that the Russians should be engaged."
"I think Poland and the Czech Republic feel a bit abandoned," Volker continued. "The United States is doing deals with the Russians, Western Europe is doing deals with the Russians. Transatlantic relations are changing."
Part of the Problem
Volker argues that both Poland and the Czech Republic are contributing to their isolation by mismanagement of internal affairs that make the countries appear to be at best, disorganized; at worst, chaotic; and intent on keeping old grudges with Germany alive.
For instance, the controversy in the Czech Republic over the Lisbon Treaty did not portray Prague in a positive light to the international community. For years President Vaclav Klaus, an outspoken skeptic of the European Union, argued against the country's ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, even though members of his own government publicly
Czech Republic's President Vaclav Klaus briefs the press after signing the Lisbon Treaty
called for its acceptance.
Poland has dealt with similar embarrassing internal political incidents. In recent years, Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his brother and former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have made a number of provocative statements about Moscow's intentions to recapture Cold War territory.
Political parties have struggled to form lasting, effective coalitions, and government inaction has resulted in voter apathy. Warsaw has also stirred tensions with Germany over the appointment of Erika Steinbach as head of the planned Center for Expulsion, which is expected to document Germans expelled from other countries after World War II.
"It's been messy," Damon Wilson, director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council, told Deutsche Welle. "There hasn't been a lot of political stability or clarity."
The financial crisis has also hit both of these countries hard. The Polish unemployment rate was nearly 12 percent at the end of last year, while nearly 10 percent of Czech workers were unemployed. Both countries risk economic isolation if they refuse to increase ties with Russia, which established itself as an economic force in the last decade.
Meanwhile, Russia thrives
Poland and the Czech Republic's political instability and fragile economic growth have occurred during a period of dramatic growth and political stability in Russia. Since 2000, Russia's gross domestic product has increased from 782 billion euros to 1.5 trillion euros in 2009. This growth has been anchored by former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who, along with his handpicked successor Dmitry
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and Premier Vladimir Putin enjoy a stranglehold on power
Medvedev, enjoy a stranglehold on power and enormous popularity. They have prompted a swell of national pride in Russia.
Putin's rise was accompanied by some unfriendly rhetoric toward former Soviet Bloc states, including discussions about restoring Russian power in Eastern Europe. The Russian war with Georgia in 2008, roundly criticized by the international community, served notice that Moscow would use military force to protect Russian interests in the region.
Unifying Europe and moving forward
According to Volker, European divisiveness over Russia needs to be resolved if the EU economies are to continue rebounding. Ties with Russia are inevitable, he said, but Western European nations should also acknowledge Polish and Czech concerns.
"German interests can be built without sacrificing European interests," he said. "Europe needs to have a common approach where everyone's interests are recognized."
Germany, as Europe's leading economy with the closest ties to Russia, has an especially important role to play, added the Atlantic Council's Wilson. First, he said the Germans should lobby the European Union to better connect Eastern Europe's energy grid with the west, easing Polish and Czech concerns over shortages if Russia cuts supplies to the east. "Germany should show as much activity in promoting interconnectedness with the east as it does with Russia and Nord Stream," he said.
The second step is for Germany to continue consultations with Warsaw and Prague. Wilson commended German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her outreach to both, but said other European Union countries should do the same.
Lastly, Wilson said Poland and the Czech Republic need to be assured of their importance in the EU and NATO.
"What's missing is an underlying sense of solidarity," he said. "This isn't satisfied through an interconnected energy grid. The European Union needs to take their concerns seriously. NATO needs to be a credible actor. Polish and Czech concerns needs to be acknowledged as important and real and need to be taken into account."
Author: David Francis
Editor: Rob Mudge