After the countries of Western Europe implemented their large-scale project of expanding the European Union to the East in the early 2000s, they hoped to create a belt of countries around its perimeter, which could ensure a peaceful neighbourhood. This, however, turned out to be impossible — now the EU borders are a continuous conflict zone, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
International politics are gradually progressing to a state that has been forgotten, or even unknown among generations of statesmen and thinkers. The novelty of the form and content of the main processes occurring at the regional and global level helps one understand the main thing — it makes any historical analogies senseless, although these, quite often, are nothing more than a manifestation of intellectual laziness. Something really huge is happening — the institutional landscape that has formed in political relations between states since the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century is disappearing.
States continue to ensure their survival, but the disintegration of the institutional system forces them to make decisions that are striking in their novelty. Under the new conditions, things that until recently were considered unthinkable or catastrophic become possible: this is associated with the tragic perception of events that in reality are not so tragic. The elements of familiar persisting globalisation — colossal cross-border trade, communications and information space — already exist in a fundamentally new political environment, compared to the one created as a result of technological advances.
Therefore, the consequences of the destruction of what we used to call the Liberal World Order are more significant than one could expect. First of all, because the basis of this order — the unconditional power dominance of the Western countries in world affairs — has been shaken. Until recently, even those powers that were considered revisionist were counting on the preservation of this dominance, albeit in a more relaxed form. However, they, including Russia and China, cannot look into the future with full confidence either: rather than a change adapted to their own interests, real multipolarity turned out to be a fundamentally new state of the international environment. State leaders are going by their instincts, relying on their loyalty to national interests and common sense, leaving no room for the usual forms of international interaction.
The ideal situation from the point of view of the winners in the 20th century’s Cold War was supposed to look like the interaction of narrow and large groups of states within the international community. At the same time, individual representatives of the second group could, under certain circumstances, be incorporated into the first one. But even if this did not happen (the most enlightened minds in the West understood the inevitability of this), the community of liberal market democracies still hoped to use their colossal power advantages in order to create a protective barrier around their societies. Punishment for violating the limits of this barrier would be so significant that in itself it served as a guarantee of calm development. However, this is precisely what is not happening — the West was unable to rule the world. It cannot fence itself off from international politics using the wall of its institutional and power capabilities. At the same time, internal processes in the United States and Europe are often viewed from the outside as signs of revolutionary behaviour. In fact, this is not altogether unjustified.
Europe is gradually sinking into a state of universal competition, both on its borders and within that world of European integration, which just recently seemed strong and reliably protected. The problem of refugees has become the most powerful challenge to the concept of a “democratic fortress”, outside of which there are sanctions, targeted bombings and political assassinations of opponents of the West. For several years, this has affected Western Europe — the most enlightened and progressive part of the community of market democracies. This year, the problem has taken an unexpected angle and turn — Europe is faced with a movement of Middle Eastern refugees from a state with which the European Union has openly hostile relations. The leading EU countries have been actively fighting against Belarus for more than a year.
For logistical reasons, Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko cannot be a transit country for such a number of refugees as, for example, Turkey or the nations of the Maghreb. However, unlike Turkey or the former European colonies in North Africa, it is a European state itself, but at the same time it is not associated with any institutional obligations to the EU. Since the government of Belarus is not legitimate from the official point of view of the EU, it is difficult to negotiate with it, although the Europeans have never been particularly embarrassed by the legal aspects of the issue. Behind the back of the government in Minsk is Russia, bound to it by strong allied obligations. Even if the Europeans wanted to, they would no longer be able to reverse the movement of Moscow and Minsk towards each other; Europe itself gave the impetus to this process in August 2020 through its policymaking.
The border crisis between Belarus and Poland in the autumn of 2021 is just one example of the behaviour of states within the framework of the new normal in international politics. The fact that the fate of several hundred refugees is at the centre of the conflict is related to Europe’s vulnerability on this very issue. Since the Europeans themselves, acting by the right of the strong, quite actively use their advantages in relation to different states, distributing “sanctions” right and left, they should not be surprised that the place where they feel least confident will be under attack.
Moreover, here the behaviour of the Belarusian authorities underscored another weak spot of the EU — the specificity of the political culture and foreign policy manners of the Eastern European countries. It is Poland, the largest country in this region, which separates Russia from the countries of Western Europe, which are presumably capable of more civilised behaviour. For the Polish authorities, who have been in the grip of nationalist propaganda for several years now, the fight against the invasion of “aliens” from the other side of the border has truly become a matter of state. The armed forces of the republic, which normally lag not only Russia or the United States, but also the more advanced European armies, are in a fight against several hundred unarmed men, women and children. And the Polish soldiers feel right at home.
At the same time, the crisis that arose, like most crises of the new era, does not risk escalating to the level of a general war. Neither side initially had any reason to interpret the situation as an interstate conflict. Therefore, Warsaw and Minsk had no reason to scale down tensions, both states showed assertiveness, the scale of which might not have been expected from them even by their powerful neighbours in the East and West. The movement towards the settlement of the conflict was the result of the joint peacekeeping efforts of Moscow and Berlin, even if it has not been accurate to characterise relations between them as friendly for more than a year. However, they were able to find a common language among themselves, when faced with the tough position of countries that sometimes are viewed as their wards.
After the countries of Western Europe implemented their large-scale project of expanding the European Union to the East in the early 2000s, they hoped to create a belt of countries around its perimeter, which could ensure a peaceful neighbourhood. This, however, turned out to be impossible — now the EU borders are a continuous conflict zone. However, something else is much more unusual for the countries of Western Europe — within the European Union and NATO itself there are states, such as relatively large Poland and small Lithuania, which are willingly and gladly drawn into border conflicts with their neighbours. This makes Europe itself not an arbiter, but a party to the confrontations that it would like to avoid forever.
So far, Germany’s political and, most importantly, economic influence on its emotional partners in the eastern EU is sufficient to settle their squabbles with neighbours in Berlin’s own interests. However, it is hardly likely to continue indefinitely. Already this autumn, Russia and the leading countries of the European Union upped the ante — we heard threats, the implementation of which could cause devastating damage to the international transport and trade infrastructure in this part of Eurasia. The next conflict of this kind is likely to lead to their, albeit partial, realisation. Then the leading European powers, like Russia, will face the need to interact in a completely new reality.