In light of rising tensions with Russia, American policy makers should refocus their attention on countries of the former Eastern Bloc

By Andro Mathewson

When discussing the rising tensions between the West and Russia, the notion of a new Cold War brewing is never far away. Although the current situation is undoubtedly significantly different from the decades-long competition for global dominance and power between the United States (US) and the Soviet Union, there are some unmistakable similarities.

First, the ongoing conflict in Crimea, initiated after Ukraine indicated its intentions to join the European Union (EU) and NATO, reminds us of the Soviet Union’s response to the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and the Czech Republic in 1968. Second, we are observing a return to the prominence of nuclear weapons and their role in the global order, thanks to President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review, President Vladimir Putin’s announcement regarding the successful testing of a new hypersonic missile, and the wavering of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Finally, Russia is actively interfering in other countries’ domestic politics, by for instance meddling in the US presidential election, or via recent assassination attempts in the United Kingdom, reminiscent of the “Umbrella Murder” in London in 1978.

Yet, fundamental differences exist. Not only is Russia now much more interconnected – both politically and economically – with the rest of the world, but so are the countries that used to be part of the Eastern Bloc, which are now democracies with (for the most part) fair and free elections, instead of autocratic puppet regimes subservient to Soviet rule. The majority of these nations are also now members of NATO and the EU. Additionally, the lack of a global clash of ideologies, which made the Cold War distinct and unique in the history of great power conflicts, is absent in today’s globalized and capitalist world. However, the cultural differences between Western nations and today’s Russia are unmistakable.

The Kremlin’s hostile actions against Western institutions and values started years ago and remained mostly undetected, as they were conducted on completely novel fronts: disinformation via news channels and on the Internet, as well as in the cultural and educational sphere. This aspect of the current opposition between the West and Russia is unfortunately frequently disregarded. If a new type of cold war is indeed set in motion, the countries of the former Eastern Bloc – ranging from Central and Eastern Europe to the former Yugoslavian states and the Baltic countries – could become a major battleground.

Countries of the former Eastern Bloc (© Mosedschurte / Wikimedia Commons)

These countries have much to benefit from American regional influence. Washington’s engagement in these countries, not solely in military terms, but in societal and cultural ways as well, is vital to counter Russian influence. Working to improve the image of the US, and the West as a whole, can have a huge impact on the efforts to promote liberalism and the rule of law in these – still relatively new – democracies. As the EU is burdened with a large swath of issues, including the ongoing refugee crisis, Brexit, and nationalist movements across the continent, it seems that it is not currently ready to take on its responsibility toward the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. In addition, while there are ongoing NATO military operations in the region, such as the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic, the countering of Russia’s expansionism also needs to take on the cultural and economic aspects of the issue. Understanding and promoting its image – and that of the West as a whole – in these countries needs to play a much larger role in American policies. This will be instrumental in helping solidify the peace and stability of the region, to which the US largely contributed in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Limited information exists on how the US is viewed abroad, specifically in Central and Eastern Europe and among members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (the regional intergovernmental organization of ten post-soviet republics in Eurasia, established following the collapse of the Soviet Union). The data that does exist portrays a very worrisome picture. Since the beginning of the 21st century, public opinion of the US in Europe has fluctuated depending on who is in the White House. While confidence in American leadership reached an extreme low in the final years of the George W. Bush administration, President Obama consistently received high ratings from most European countries during both of his terms. His time in office seems to be the exception.

The declining US leadership approval worldwide following Donald Trump’s election (Source: Gallup World Poll)

Since the election of Donald Trump, the image of the US has reached a new low in Europe, with the median approval rate of US leadership down to 25% in 2017. The approval rate of the president often mimics that of America’s image abroad, hence serving as an important metric thereof. With the recent developments on the European continent, including the ongoing refugee crisis, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the rise of nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe, attitudes toward the US and its president have become increasingly complex. Members of the general public, mostly in Western European nations, often see US policies as too interventionist and one-sided – Germany’s opposition to the Iraq war in 2003 perfectly encapsulates this mindset. Others, such as Poland, who has long wanted a US permanent military base on their soil, often welcome America’s involvement & intervention around the world.

From the available data, it is clear that America’s image in the region has suffered since Trump’s election. This seems to fall in line with a global tendency: out of 134 countries, US leadership approval ratings declined substantially (throughout 2018) – by 10% or more in 65 countries.

Since Trump’s ascendance to the presidency, only Kosovo, Albania and Poland have observed a majoritarian popular approval of US leadership and just six countries (all of which are Central or Eastern European) saw this approval rating increase: Poland, Macedonia, Slovakia, Ukraine,   Montenegro and Belarus. These six countries (and Kosovo) are either experiencing external pressure from a belligerent neighbor – namely Serbia or Russia – or are going through internal turmoil, associated with a rise in nationalistic sentiment.

A comparison of US leadership approval in Europe under the Obama (2008-2016) and Trump (since 2016) presidencies (Source: Gallup World Poll)

Poland, for instance, showed an eight percent-point increase. With Russia’s involvement in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea since 2014, Poland has moved closer to its NATO allies, to the point where it has offered $2 billion to the US to establish a permanent military presence to “present an unequivocal challenge and deterrence to Russia’s increasingly emboldened and dangerous posture that threatens Europe.” In addition, Poland is clashing with the EU over illiberalism, while Slovakia’s government is experiencing intense domestic dissatisfaction coupled with the rise of right-wing parties. Hungary’s government has signed a $10bn loan agreement with Russia to expand its nuclear facility and has been allowing operatives of Russia’s foreign spy service to freely roam the country. Macedonia and Montenegro are not only both hoping to join the EU within the next decade, but have also long-standing tensions with neighboring Serbia, a country which is seen as Russia’s only European ally. Macedonia, currently in the process of joining NATO, is also struggling with fake Russian social media accounts disseminating disinformation against the EU. Kosovo is yet to be recognized as an independent state before it is even considered eligible for membership in either the EU or NATO. Ukraine is fighting a civil war, and struggling with Russian interventions in its most Eastern regions.

These situations raise concern for the stability and future of the region and present a rather complex picture of the dynamics behind US approval in the former Eastern bloc. Do people in Macedonia, Montenegro and Ukraine hope that Donald Trump, who is perceived as “a strong leader,” will resist Russian pressure in their respective regions? Or do those in Poland and Slovakia view the American president’s populism more favorably that the liberal alternatives?

These are questions which could have important implications regarding US dealings in the region. With Russia’s encroachment on the Black Sea and the constant flow of refugees from the Middle East through Turkey, Greece and Central Europe, countries of the former Eastern Bloc are slowly regaining their importance for US foreign policy. Knowing more about America’s image among the nations of the former Soviet bloc would be of great benefit to American and NATO policies in the region.

The fracture in terms of US leadership approval worldwide following Donald Trump’s election (Source: Gallup World Poll)

In January 2016, Romania suggested the creation of a NATO Black Sea Fleet as a means of securing NATO’s eastern flank, in response to the annexation of Crimea, which de facto provided Russia with a direct maritime border with Romania and Bulgaria. However, the initiative garnered no support from Sofia, as some 80% of Bulgarian exports and imports transits through the Black Sea, while tourism, especially from Russia, contributes greatly to the economy. Allowing a NATO fleet to be stationed in Bulgarian waters could be seen as an aggressive act against Russia, potentially changing its overall positive relationship with Bulgaria. Additionally, Bulgaria depends heavily on Moscow for oil and gas imports, and even for the maintenance of its air force, primarily composed of Soviet MIG-29 and SU-25, despite being a NATO ally. Many Bulgarians also have more positive attitudes toward Russia – a culturally and socially closer nation – than the US, to the extent of mentioning the latter as a bigger threat to regional stability in 2015.

The current debate surrounding NATO allies’ contributions (in terms of percentage of GDP allocated to military expenses) has also had an effect on attitudes toward the US. This materialized in the largest decline in history of American leadership approval among allies, between 2016 and 2017. Portugal, Belgium and Norway all registered a point loss over 40%. Citizens in many Central and Eastern European countries such as Slovenia and Bulgaria also expressed increased mistrust. Amplified frustration with President Trump among NATO allies is likely to further complicate the situation and could harm the effectiveness of future NATO initiatives.

The Foreign Analyst - Romanian frigate during NATO SEA SHIELD exercise on the Black Sea in 2018
A Romanian frigate during the 2018 NATO SEA SHIELD exercise on the Black Sea (© SHAPE NATO / flickr)

In Central and Eastern Europe the stakes are even higher. In the post-Soviet era, the competition for influence between Russia and the West is still a reality. In the long run, it is not inconceivable to see some countries, such as Bulgaria or Serbia, grow even closer to Russia, further weakening America’s already diminishing influence in the region and emboldening Putin to act more aggressively. With the persisting Ukrainian civil war, in which Russia is heavily involved, raging close to Europe’s most eastern border, an increased understanding of the region’s cultural and sociological intricacies would certainly be beneficial to help reassess American foreign policy.

With mounting frustrations toward President Trump and the United States in Europe, the future looks somewhat bleak. Washington’s relationship with Western European nations is based on decades of strong cooperation and a shared belief in the virtues of the liberal post-World War II global order. On the other hand, the links between the US and European countries of the former Soviet bloc are much newer and have yet to be fully fortified. America’s deteriorating image, as well as an emboldened and outwardly aggressive Russia, should act as a wake-up call for policymakers and researchers to invest more time and interest in this region, and to strengthen American leadership as a way to ensure the stability of the entire continent and the viability of the Western alliance.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of TFA’s Editorial Board.

Cover Picture: Map of Central and Eastern Europe, © Cartographer of the United Nations / Wikimedia Commons