PARIS – When unexpected crises erupt, people tend to assume that nothing will ever be the same – exactly the conclusion that many Europeans have drawn in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Are they right?
Though European leaders have almost unanimously condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, assessments of the security threat that Russia poses vary widely. Poland and the Baltic countries are among those most worried by Russia’s behavior, while the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria remain circumspect about adopting a confrontational approach – a stance shared by countries like Spain and Portugal, which do not rely on Russian energy supplies.
These divergent attitudes can be explained by the vast differences between European countries’ histories and strategic perspectives. Poland and Russia have invaded and occupied one another’s territory for centuries. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were all Soviet republics, for which opposition to Russia was an essential feature of the rebuilding process. With large Russophone minorities in Estonia and Latvia, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea – the need to defend supposedly threatened ethnic kin – plays directly to these countries’ deepest-seated anxieties.
Of course, the Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians – all former Soviet satellites – also have bitter memories of Russia. But their response to their difficult histories has been to adopt a low profile and avoid taking a stand on major international issues. Branded by their proximity (if not vulnerability) to more powerful neighbors, they have internalized their political and strategic marginalization.