Europe’s Contested Neighborhood

BRUSSELS – What is the most important source of disagreement today between Russia and the West? It is not the issues most often in the news – Iran or Afghanistan. It is Europe’s contested neighborhood – the future of those countries between the eastern border of NATO and the European Union and the western border of Russia. While the West and Russia still talk the talk of cooperative security in Europe, geopolitical competition for influence has been renewed in these regions.

Russia today openly lays claim to a sphere of interest in its borderlands – in direct contradiction to commitments made under the Helsinki process. It has embraced policies and a military doctrine that labels NATO a threat and justifies the right to intervene in these countries. While packaged in smooth diplo-speak, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s new proposal for European security has the less-than-hidden goal of stopping and rolling back Western influence.

Rather than moving into the twenty-first century, Russia seems determined to revert to nineteenth-century strategic thinking. With the Obama administration focused on Afghanistan and Iran, the Kremlin hopes that a West in need of its cooperation will acquiesce in its demands.

And it is not only words. Eighteen months ago, a war took place in Europe between Russia and Georgia. It was a little war, but one that raised big questions. It was not fought over the future status of Georgia’s Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (though that source of conflict was a real one). Instead, the war’s root cause was Georgia’s desire to align itself with the West and Russia’s determination to stop it.