Thirty years is a fairly long period in international politics. Even though the geostrategic changes in Eastern Europe in 1989 did not come about through the military victory of any particular state, but rather through a change of power “from below,” these changes were important, first and foremost, for international politics. Therefore, with the hindsight of 2019 and for the sake of simplicity, we can designate them as part of the transition of a certain territory from the zone of military-political dominance of Russia to the sphere of total influence of the United States and its allies in the West.
The ensuing changes, complete, partial or insignificant, of the political elites, the accession of 10 countries of the region to the European Union and NATO are nothing but predictable consequences of Russia (then the Soviet Union) abandoning the Western perimeter of its security in 1989. Following the demise of the political regimes in the countries that were, to varying degrees, oriented toward Moscow, these nations were left with no alternative. Even Romania where overthrowing the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day in 1989 put a bloody stop to the sequence of revolutionary events, even though not Moscow’s direct satellite, still remained non-aligned to the military or economic alliances of the West.
Nearly 200 years of Russia's dominance in European affairs and its direct military presence in the center of the continent ended in a matter of 45 days between November 9, 1989 and December 25, 1989. The East European countries on Russia’s western borders, behind which lay civilizations beyond its control, became the eastern border of Western Europe, with which they maintained cultural affinity. Soon, they became incorporated into the Western institutional system and were subjected to resource development by large European countries and their corporations. However, the accession of new countries to the EU and NATO has changed these organizations. No doubt, they remain blocs oriented toward maintaining their members’ military and economic leadership. However, for the new members, both institutes proved to be cultural phenomena because, on top of the economic benefits of membership, they represented being part of a common civilization. Russia fell back east and remained in a state of international humiliation, economic shocks and foreign policy uncertainty for almost 15 years.
Russia lost, but may have matured in the process. Europe won, but the territorial gains were among the factors that have led to its “third geopolitical disaster” which is the emergence of a long-term hotbed of tension in its relations with Russia. Interestingly, the countries which were the strongest supporters of the idea of expanding the EU and NATO to the East – Germany and France – were the hardest hit. They historically need Russia as an external player and “a consolidating other,” but not as a steady adversary.
The presence of such an opponent seriously ties their hands in other areas and limits the ability of the “main” Europeans to place “numerous bets”, as the great French thinker Raymond Aron once put it. It reaches ridiculous proportions where the technical backwardness of the Polish railways has become an important obstacle to developing transport and logistics cooperation between the EU and China. The Polish government is not willing to bring it up to standard as it would involve cooperation with Russia and Belarus. All the more so as even the likelihood of a military conflict with Russia is not a big deal for the small- and medium-sized countries of Northern and Eastern Europe, which are the most passionate opponents of their vast eastern neighbor, as their fate in the event of such a conflict is clear and they have little to lose.
On the contrary, a clash with the Russian military might spell the end of history for the leading West European countries. Their history is much more eventful and they undoubtedly have a brighter future in store than Poland or Sweden. For the last 250 years, Poland has for the most part existed with limited sovereignty or none at all. Numerous wars have made it almost impossible to create a significant material or spiritual culture. Therefore, the population and elites of these countries are more blasé about potential tragedies than, for example, France, Italy or Belgium. Numerous wars and foreign influence prevented these countries from developing a meaningful foreign policy culture. After another “liberation” in 1989 Eastern Europe fell back on more archaic forms of expressing preferences than those existing in the West.
For its part, Russia learned a good lesson in 1989. The country's return to the club of leading global powers took place over the past 15 years in fundamentally different circumstances. Although it is a military power, Russia is not large by modern world standards. Its main development resources can be found not in Europe but in the East, by way of cooperating with Asian economic leaders and developing new-level relations with the Central Asian countries of the former USSR, given the fact that each of Moscow’s new partners has a theoretical and practical opportunity to find sources for its security and development in the person of third states such as China, which is increasingly promoting the concept of a new world order.
The overall conclusion is quite trivial. The division of the western Eurasian continent was the price paid for uniting Europe. The development dynamics in Ukraine and the political evolution of the most important countries of Eastern Europe do not lend any hope that such a division can be overcome within the next 20 to 30 years. Was such a possibility contemplated in the now distant 1989? Of course, it was. Even though the chance of integrating Russia into the “world of the West” was at its highest during that historical period, listing the objective factors that stood in its way would take up an exceptionally large amount of space in this paper. Is such a division dramatic? Of course, not. Despite all its mistakes caused by the inevitability of a number of decisions in 1990–2000, Europe is still the region that is most capable of developing its internal intellectual dynamics. French President Emmanuel Macron is a case in point. Moreover, Europe maintains its openness and has never been a place for isolationism. Therefore, in the longer term, Russia and Europe have a chance to return, in new positions, to a diplomatic game with a positive sum.