The Need for an Eastern European Federation

A month after Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the subsequent declarations of war on Germany by the United Kingdom and France, Winston Churchill, who had just become First Lord of the Admiralty, delivered on October 1, 1939 a broadcast over the BBC. His words have become famous and often repeated: “I cannot foresee to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Were he alive today Churchill would almost certainly use the same phraseology in explaining the actions in the last few months of Russian President Vladimir Putin. All of Putin’s actions, though at times they seem to puzzle the pundits of the mainstream media, suggest they are based on a policy of asserting Russian national interest, protecting the country against terrorist attacks, maintaining its nuclear deterrent capability and expanding its economy. Above all Putin wants Russia to be treated as a major player in international politics, especially at the United Nations. President Barack Obama was mistaken in referring to Russia as only “a regional power.”

Though Putin seems averse to repeating the Cold War, he is conscious of the imperial past of Russia and responsive to it, as he has shown by his political, as well as his physical, toughness. That toughness has been amply displayed by policies and actions regarding Syria, Iran, and Venezuela, Putin’s friendship with the Non-Aligned Countries that account for 20 per cent of global economic output, his multibillion dollar gas deal with China, his membership of BRICS, (the association of five major national economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), as well as by the annexation of Crimea.

Yes, Putin’s actions may be puzzling at times. Were Putin’s orders to Russian troops engaged in exercises in the Rostov, Belgorod, and Bryansk regions, near the Ukrainian border, to return to their bases a sincere, genuine command, since there is little evidence that any drawdown has occurred? In this regard, Putin’s behavior paraphrases the old Jewish joke of people who say goodbye and never leave. Similarly, Putin has been hesitant, and for the moment reluctant, to accept the activity of pro-Russian separatists and the consequences of the referendums in the two Ukrainian regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, that voted on May 11, 2014 to become independent.

Using surprisingly strong rhetoric, Putin termed the end of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Yet if he does not talk of restoring or copying the SU, an entity that belongs to the past, he does call for a close integration of states “based on an economic and political foundation.” This is to be a “Eurasian Union,” bringing together parts of the old Soviet Union, from the borders of China to the borders of the European Union. In spite of his past career as a KGB agent, all Putin’s policies and actions suggest he is a pragmatist eager to strengthen and expand Russia, politically and economically, not an ideologue with Marxist messianic ambitions.

Putin’s aim is to create what he calls “a powerful supra-national nation” of sovereign states based, he argues, on the model of the European Union. The intention is to unite economies, legal systems, and customs services, and military coordination of some of the former Soviet nations. It will replace, or supplant, the existing Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) founded in 1991 of former members of the SU. This was a loose and ineffective association of states interested in some form of cooperation in trade, finance, and security issues.

The process of Eurasian Union had already started in November 2001 with the formation of a customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. The three countries with a population of 165 million have a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion. Two of the three are oil producers. Other states have been hesitant to join, but Kyrgyzstan and Armenia are expected to do so.

While still Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton spoke of the Eurasian Union as “a move to re-Sovietize the region… We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”  The Obama Administration, in spite of mathematicians on board, has been slow in its “figuring” what to do, and so has the European Union, especially after the Russian annexation of Crimea. Decisions about the “effective ways” depends on determined leadership by both the US and Europe, and this has been sadly lacking.

It is time for a modest proposal that might help alleviate any anxieties about Russian intentions of expansion. This is to create an Eastern European Federation.

Since the 14th century proposals for a federation of Eastern European countries, especially between Poland and Lithuania, have been made. After World War I, the Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski proposed a federation that was called Intermarium. It was to stretch from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. However, it was opposed by Russia and some Western European countries, and failed.

The revival of this concept, so far on a limited scale, in recent years has been the formation in February 1991 of the Visegrad Group (VG), an alliance of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, aimed at overcoming the animosities of the past by cooperating in military, economic, and energy issues. Collectively, the VG, with 64 million inhabitants, is the fifth largest economy in Europe and the 12th in the world. The average GDP for the Group is $22,500. Though the countries have diverse religious traditions and histories, their aim is to be work together as part of a single civilization and to protect themselves against any possible Russian aggression. This has meant political summits, diplomatic meetings, and contacts among cultural and intellectual organizations, as well as cooperation between the respective ministries and joint projects in a number of fields. 

On May 12, 2011, VG announced that a “battlegroup” was to be formed under the command of Poland. It is supposed to be ready by 2016 as an independent force. Though it is not under the command of NATO, some military exercises have taken place under the auspices of the NATO Response Force. The reason for this creation of this unilateral military structure is the outcome of recent international events that displayed NATO’s ineffectiveness. All of the four countries became members of NATO and of the European Union in 2004. But they have been aware of the economic and political problems, the euro currency crisis and the weak economic growth, within the EU, as a result of which Poland and the Czech Republic have been hesitant to join the Eurozone.

What is important in this it that while the East Europeans are concerned about Russian power and possible ambitions, they are equally aware that an indecisive U.S. and an unwilling Western Europe are not as prepared to defend them as they would like. They are conscious that NATO may not be the protective security umbrella it is supposed to provide. The East Europeans now doubt that NATO has the political and military will to defend their region. It is aware that the NATO Response Force, whose role is supposed to be a quick response to support NATO missions, has only been used six times. The formation of the Visegrad battlegroup is a significant indication of an East European desire to strengthen their security by its unilateral defense policy.

As a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and threats against East Ukraine, NATO has announced it is considering establishing bases in countries of Eastern Europe or rotation of its troops there. But those countries now doubt NATO can be an efficient defensive force, or that the U.S. under present conditions is likely to be a willing participant in any force. The case for an effective Eastern European Federation capable of ensuring its own security against any Russian aggression is now compelling.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.