STRATFOR Special Series: Geopolitical
Journey with George Friedman
• Part 1: The Traveler, November 8, 2010
• Part 2: Borderlands, November 9, 2010
• Part 3: Romania, November 16, 2010
• Part 4: Moldova, November 19, 2010
• Part 5: Turkey, November 23, 2010
• Part 6: Ukraine, November 30, 2010
• Part 7: Poland, December 3, 2010
• Part 8: Returning Home, December 7, 2010
Geopolitical Journey, Part 1: The Traveler
Created Nov 8 2010 - 16:57
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will
write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland.
In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and
conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
• Special Series: Geopolitical Journey with George Friedman
By George Friedman
I try to keep my writing impersonal. My ideas are my own, of course, but I prefer to keep myself
out of it for three reasons. First, I’m far less interesting than my writings are. Second, the world
is also far more interesting than my writings and me, and pretending otherwise is narcissism.
Finally, while I founded STRATFOR, I am today only part of it. My thoughts derive from my
discussions and arguments with the STRATFOR team. Putting my name on articles seems like a
mild form of plagiarism. When I do put my name on my articles (as Scott Stewart, Fred Burton
and others sometimes do) it’s because our marketing people tell us that we need to “put a face”
on the company. I’m hard pressed to understand why anyone would want to see my face, or why
showing it is good business, but I’ve learned never to argue with marketing.
I’ve said all of this to prepare you for a series of articles that will be personal in a sense, as they
will be built around what I will be doing. My wife (who plans and organizes these trips with
precision) and I are going to visit several countries over the next few weeks. My reasons for
visiting them are geopolitical. These countries all find themselves sharing a geopolitical
dilemma. Each country is fascinating in its own right, but geopolitics is what draws me to them
now. I think it might be of some value to our readers if I shared my thoughts on these countries
as I visit them. Geopolitics should be impersonal, yet the way we encounter the world is always
personal. Andre Malraux once said that we all leave our countries in very national ways. A
Korean visiting Paris sees it differently than an American. The personal is the eccentric core of
There are those who travel to sample wine and others who travel to experience art and others to
enjoy the climate. I travel to sample the political fault lines in the world, and I have done this all
my life. This is an odd preference, but there might be some others who share it. Traveling
geopolitically is not complex, but it does take some thought. I thought you might find my
description of geopolitical travel interesting. It’s how I think this series should start.
The geopolitical is about the intersection of geography and politics. It assumes that the political
life of humans is shaped by the place in which they live and that the political patterns are
frequently recurring because of the persistence of nations and the permanence of geography. I
begin my travels by always re-reading histories and novels from the region. I avoid anything
produced by a think tank, preferring old poems and legends. When I travel to a place, when I
look at the geography and speak to the people, I find that there is a constant recurrence of
history. In many places, a few centuries ago is like yesterday. Reading literature can be the best
preparation for a discussion of a county’s budget deficit. Every place and every conversation is
embedded in the centuries and the rivers and mountains that shaped the people who shape the
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and withdrew to the borders of old Muscovy, there
were those who said that this was the end of the Russian empire. Nations and empires are living
things until they die. While they live they grow to the limits set by other nations. They don’t
grow like this because they are evil. They do this because they are composed of humans who
always want to be more secure, more prosperous and more respected. It is inconceivable to me
that Russia, alive and unrestrained, would not seek to return to what it once was. The frontiers of
Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union had reasons for being where they were, and in my mind,
Russia would inevitably seek to return to its borders. This has nothing to do with leaders or
policies. There is no New World Order, only the old one replaying itself in infinitely varying
detail, like a kaleidoscope.
Our trip now is to countries within and near the Black Sea basin, so the geopolitical “theme” of
the trip (yes, my trips have geopolitical themes, which my children find odd for some reason) is
the Russian re-emergence as viewed by its western and southwestern neighbors: Turkey,
Romania, Moldova, Poland and
Ukraine. I was born in Hungary
and have been there many times,
so I don’t need to go there this
time, and I know Slovakia well.
My goal is to understand how
these other countries see and
wish the present to be. It’s not
that I believe that their visions
and hopes will shape the future
— the world is not that
accommodating — but because
I want to see the degree to
which my sense of what will
happen and their sense of what
will happen diverge.
This is the political theme of the
trip, but when I look at these countries geographically, there are several other organizing themes
as well. Turkey, Romania, Ukraine and, in a way, Moldova are all partly organized around the
Black Sea and interact with each other based on that. It’s a sea of endless history. I am also
visiting some of the countries in the Carpathian Mountains, a barrier that has divided the Russian
empire from Europe for centuries, and which the Russians breached in World War II, partly
defining the Cold War. Romania, Ukraine, Moldova and even southern Poland cannot be
understood without understanding the role the Carpathians play in uniting them and dividing
them. Finally, I am visiting part of the North European Plain, which stretches from France into
Russia. It is the path Napoleon and Hitler took into Russia, and the path Russia took on its way
to Berlin. Sitting on that plain is Poland, a country whose existence depends on the balance of
power between other countries on the plain, a plain that provides few natural defenses to Poland
and that has made Poland a victim many times over. I want to understand whether this time will
be different and to find out whether the Poles realize that in order for things to be different the
Poles themselves must be different, since the plain is not going to stop being flat.
Part of traveling geopolitically is the simple experience of a place. The luxury of a hotel room
facing the Bosporus, and me with a drink in hand and the time to watch the endless line of ships
passing through the narrow straits, teaches me more about Alexander’s conquests, Britain’s
invasion of Gallipoli or Truman’s obsession with Turkey than all the books I’ve read and maps
I’ve pored over. Walking a mountain path in the Carpathians in November, where bandits move
about today as they did centuries ago, teaches me why this region will never be completely
tamed or easily captured. A drive through the Polish countryside near Warsaw will remind me
why Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin took the path they did, and why Poland thinks the way it does.
The idea of seeing geographical reality is not confined to this trip. I recall visiting Lake Itasca in
Minnesota, where the Mississippi River begins, following it to St. Louis, where the Missouri
flows into it, and then going down to New Orleans, where the goods are transferred between
river barges and ocean-going vessels. Nothing taught me more about American power and
history than taking that trip and watching the vast traffic in grain and steel move up and down the
river. It taught me why Andrew Jackson fought at New Orleans and why he wanted Texas to
rebel against Mexico. It explained to me why Mark Twain, in many ways, understood America
more deeply than anyone.
In visiting countries of the Black Sea basin, I am fortunate that a number of political leaders and
members of the media are willing to meet with me. Although not something new, this access still
startles me. When I was younger, far less savory people wanted to make my acquaintance. A cup
of coffee and serious conversation in a warm office with influential people is still for me a rite of
These visits have their own dangers, different from older dangers in younger days. Political
leaders think in terms of policies and options. Geopolitics teaches us to think in terms of
constraints and limits. According to geopolitics, political leaders are trapped by impersonal
forces and have few options in the long run. Yet, in meeting with men and women who have
achieved power in their country, the temptation is to be caught up in their belief in what they are
going to do. There is a danger of being caught up in their passion and confidence. There is also
the danger of being so dogmatic about geopolitics that ignoring their vision blinds me to
possibilities that I haven’t thought of or that can’t simply be explained geopolitically. Obviously,
I want to hear what they have to say, and this trip presents a rare and precious opportunity. But
these meetings always test my ability to maintain my balance.
I should add that I make it a practice to report neither who I meet with nor what they say. I learn
much more this way and can convey a better sense of what is going on. The direct quote can be
the most misleading thing in the world. People ask me about STRATFOR’s sources. I find that
we can be more effective in the long run by not revealing those sources. Announcing
conversations with the great is another path to narcissism. Revealing conversations with the less
than great can endanger them. Most important, a conversation that is private is more human and
satisfying than a conversation that will be revealed to many people. Far better to absorb what I
learn and let it inform my own writing than to replicate what reporters will do far better than I
can. I am not looking for the pithy quote, but for the complex insight that never quite reduces
itself to a sentence or two.
There is another part of geopolitical travel that is perhaps the most valuable: walking the streets
of a city. Geopolitics affects every level of society, shaping life and culture. Walking the streets,
if you know what to look for, can tell you a great deal. Don’t go to where the monuments and
museums are, and don’t go to where the wealthy live. They are the least interesting and the most
globally homogenized. They are personally cushioned against the world. The poor and middle
class are not. If a Montblanc store is next to a Gucci shop, you are in the wrong place.
Go to the places where the people you will never hear of live. Find a school and see the children
leave at the end of the day. You want the schools where there is pushing and shoving and where
older brothers come to walk their sisters home. You are now where you should be. Look at their
shoes. Are they old or new? Are they local or from the global market? Are they careful with
them as if they were precious or casual with them as they kick a ball around? Watch children
play after school and you can feel the mood and tempo of a neighborhood.
Find a food store. Look at the food being offered, particularly fruits and vegetables. Are they
fresh-looking? What is the selection? Look at the price and calculate it against what you know
about earnings. Then watch a woman (yes, it is usually a woman) shopping for groceries. Does
she avoid the higher priced items and buy the cheapest? Does she stop to look at the price,
returning a can or box after looking, or does she simply place it in her basket or cart without
looking at the price? When she pays for the food, is she carefully reaching into an envelope in
her pocketbook where she stores her money, or does she casually pull out some bills? Watch five
women shopping for food in the late afternoon and you will know how things are there.
Go past the apartments people live in. Smell them. The unhealthy odor of decay or sewage tells
you about what they must endure in their lives. Are there banks in the neighborhood? If not,
there isn’t enough business there to build one. The people are living paycheck to paycheck. In
the cafes where men meet, are they older men, retired? Or are they young men? Are the cafes
crowded with men in their forties drinking tea or coffee, going nowhere? Are they laughing and
talking or sitting quietly as if they have nothing left to say? Official figures on unemployment
can be off a number of ways. But when large numbers of 40-year-old men have nothing to do,
then the black economy — the one that pays no taxes and isn’t counted by the government but is
always there and important — isn’t pulling the train. Are the police working in pairs or alone?
What kind of weapons do they carry? Are they everywhere, nowhere or have just the right
presence? There are endless things you can learn if you watch.
All of this should be done unobtrusively. Take along clothes that are a bit shabby. Buy a pair of
shoes there, scuff them up and wear them. Don’t speak. The people can smell foreigners and will
change their behavior when they sense them. Blend in and absorb. At the end of a few days you
will understand the effects of the world on these people.
On this I have a surreal story to tell. My wife and I were in Istanbul a few months ago. I was the
guest of the mayor of Istanbul, and his office had arranged a lecture I was to give. After many
meetings, we found ourselves with free time and went out to walk the city. We love these times.
The privacy of a crowded street is a delight. As we walked along we suddenly stopped. There, on
a large billboard, was my face staring down at us. We also discovered posters advertising my
lecture. We slunk back to our hotel. Fortunately, I am still sufficiently obscure that no one will
remember me, so this time we will try our walk again.
There are three things the geopolitical traveler must do. He must go to places and force himself
to see the geography that shapes everything. He must meet with what leaders he can find who
will talk to him in all parts of society, listening and talking but reserving a part of his mind for
the impersonal reality of the world. Finally, he must walk the streets. He won’t have time to meet
the schoolteachers, bank tellers, government employees and auto repairmen who are the
substance of a society. Nor will they be comfortable talking to a foreigner. But geopolitics
teaches that you should ignore what people say and watch what they do.
Geopolitics is everywhere. Look at the patterns of an American election and you will see it at
work. I would like, at some point, to have the leisure to study the geopolitics of the United States
in detail. But geopolitics is most useful in understanding conflict, and therefore the geopolitical
traveler will be drawn to places where tensions are high. That’s a pity, but life places the
important above the interesting.
In future pieces, I will be writing about the region I am visiting in a way more familiar to our
readers. The next one will be about the region as a whole. The series will replace my weekly
geopolitical analyses for several weeks, but I hope you will find it of value. By all means, let us
know what you think. We do read all of your emails, even if there isn’t time to answer them. So
what you say can help shape this series as well as our work in general.
Source URL: http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20101108_geopolitical_journey_part_1_traveler
Geopolitical Journey, Part 2: Borderlands
Created Nov 9 2010 - 16:29
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will
write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland.
In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and
conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
By George Friedman
A borderland is a region where history is constant: Everything is in flux. The countries we are
visiting on this trip (Turkey, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Poland) occupy the borderland
between Islam, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. Roman Catholic Hapsburg Austria
struggled with the Islamic Ottoman Empire for centuries, with the Ottomans extending northwest
until a climactic battle in Vienna in 1683. Beginning in the 18th century, Orthodox Russia
expanded from the east, through Belarus and Ukraine. For more than two centuries, the belt of
countries stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas was the borderland over which three
There have been endless permutations here. The Cold War was the last clear-cut confrontation,
pitting Russia against a Western Europe backed — and to a great extent dominated — by the
United States. This belt of countries was firmly if informally within the Soviet empire. Now they
are sovereign again. My interest in the region is to understand more clearly how the next
iteration of regional geopolitics will play out. Russia is far more powerful than it was 10 years
ago. The European Union is undergoing internal stress and Germany is recalculating its position.
The United States is playing an uncertain and complex game. I want to understand how the
semicircle of powers, from Turkey to Poland, are thinking about positioning themselves for the
next iteration of the regional game.
I have been accused of thinking like an old Cold warrior. I don’t think that’s true. The Soviet
Union has collapsed, and U.S. influence in Europe has declined. Whatever will come next will
not be the Cold War. What I do not expect this to be is a region of perpetual peace. It has never
been that before. It will not be that in the future. I want to understand the pattern of conflict that
will occur in the future. But for that we need to begin in the past, not with the Cold War, but with
World War I.
Regional Reshaping after World War I
World War I created a radically new architecture in this region. The Ottoman and Austro-
Hungarian empires collapsed, the Russian empire was replaced by the Soviet Union, and the
German empire was overthrown and replaced by a republic. No region in the world suffered
more or was left more impoverished by the war than this region. Indeed, the war didn’t end for
them in 1918. It went on as the grip of empires reluctantly subsided and the new nations
struggled within and among themselves.
The collapse of empires allowed a range of nations to emerge as independent nations. From the
Baltic states to Bulgaria, nations became nation-states. Many of the borders and some of the
nations were fixed by the victorious powers at Versailles and Trianon. They invented
Yugoslavia, which means “land of the southern Slavs,” out of a collection of hostile nations.
They reshaped their borders. If France, Britain and the United States shaped the region, the Poles
The border between the Russian empire/Soviet Union and Europe is divided into two parts. The
Carpathian Mountains form a rough boundary between the Russians and the rest of Europe from
Slovakia to the south. These mountains are not particularly tall, but they are rugged, with
scattered villages and few good roads. The Carpathians have belonged at various times to all of
the countries in the region, but the Carpathians are not easily controlled. Even today, bandits rule
parts of them. It is not impossible to move an army across it, but it is not easy, either.
The northern part of Europe is dominated by a vast plain stretching from France to Moscow. It is
flat and marshy to the north but generally good terrain for armies to move on. Except for some
river barriers, it is the route of Europe’s conquerors. Napoleon moved along the plain to
Moscow, as did Hitler (who moved across the Caucasus as well). Stalin returned the way
Napoleon and Hitler came.
Following World War I, Poland re-emerged as a sovereign nation. The Russians had capitulated
to Germany in 1917 and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, which ceded a great deal of
territory, including Ukraine, to Germany. With Germany’s defeat, Brest-Litovsk lost its force
and the Russians tried to regain what they had given away in that treaty. Part of that was Poland.
In 1920, a climactic battle took place in Warsaw, when an army led by Polish Gen. Jozef
Pilsudski, who had struck an alliance with Ukraine that couldn’t work, blocked a Soviet
Pilsudski is an interesting figure, a reactionary in some ways, a radical in others. But it was his
geopolitical vision that interests me. He was, above all else, a Polish nationalist, and he
understood that Russia’s defeat by Germany was the first step to an independent Poland. He also
believed that Polish domination of Ukraine — an ancient ploy — would guarantee Poland’s
freedom after Germany was defeated. His attempt to ally with Ukraine failed. The Russians
defeated the Ukrainians and turned on Poland. Pilsudski defeated them.
It is interesting to speculate about history if Pilsudski had lost Warsaw. The North European
Plain was wide open, and the Soviets could have moved into Germany. Undoubtedly, the French
would have moved to block them, but there was a powerful Communist Party in France that had
little stomach for war. It could have played out many different ways had Pilsudski not stopped
the Russians. But he did.
Pilsudski had another idea. Germany was in shambles, as was Russia, but both would be back.
An alliance in place before they revived would, in Pilsudski’s mind, save the region. His vision
was something called the Intermarium — an alliance of the nations between the seas built around
Poland and including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Finland and the Baltic states. This
never came to be, but if it had, World War II may never have happened or could have played out
in a different way. It is an idea that has been in my mind of late, thinking about what comes after
NATO and ambitious concepts of European federation. Pilsudski’s Intermarium makes a kind of
logical if not historical sense. It is not historical because this borderland has always been the
battleground for others. It has never formed together to determine its fate.
The Russian-German Relationship
In many ways, this matter doesn’t rest in these states’ hands. It depends partly on what Russia
wants and plans to do and it depends on what Europe wants and plans to do. As always, the
Intermarium is caught between Russia and Europe. There is no southern European power at the
moment (the Austro-Hungarian empire is a memory), but in the north there is Germany, a
country struggling to find its place in Europe and in history.
In many ways, Germany is the mystery. The 2008 and Greek economic crises shocked the
Germans. They had seen the European Union as the solution to European nationalism and an
instrument of prosperity. When the crisis struck, the Germans found that nationalism had reared
its head in Germany as much as it had in other countries. The Germans didn’t want to bail out the
Greeks, and the entire question of the price and value of the European Union became a central
issue in Germany. Germany has not thought of itself as a freestanding power since 1945. It is
beginning to think that way again, and that could change everything, depending on where it goes.
One of the things it could change is German-Russian relations. At various times since 1871 and
German re-unification, the Germans and Russians have been allies as well as mortal enemies.
Right now, there is logic in closer German-Russian ties. Economically they complement and
need each other. Russia exports raw materials; Germany exports technology. Neither cares to be
pressured by the United States. Together they might be able to resist that pressure. There is a
quiet romance under way between them.
And that rivets my attention on the countries I am visiting. For Poland, the specter of a German-
Russian entente is a historical nightmare. The last time this happened, in 1939, Poland was torn
apart and lost its sovereignty for 50 years. There is hardly a family in Poland who can’t name
their dead from that time. Of course, it is said that this time it would be different, that the
Germans are no longer what they were and neither are the Russians. But geopolitics teaches that
subjective inclinations do not erase historical patterns. Whatever the Poles think and say, they
must be nervous although they are not admitting it. Admitting fear of Germany and Russia would
be to admit distrust, and distrust is not permitted in modern Europe. Still, the Poles know history,
and it will be good to see what they have to say — or at least how they say it. And it is of the
greatest importance to hear what they say, and don’t say, about the United States under these
The Romanians are in a different position. The Romanians are buffered against the Russians by
Ukraine and Moldova, and their sense of unease should be lower. Unlike the Poles and the North
European Plain, they at least have the Carpathians running through their country. But what are
we to make of Ukraine? Their government is pro-Russian and trapped by economic realities into
strong Russian ties. Certainly, the increasingly German-led European Union is not going to come
to their rescue. The question in Ukraine is whether their attempt to achieve complete
independence is over, to be replaced by some informal but iron bond to Russia, or whether the
Ukrainians still have room to maneuver. It seems from a distance that there is little room for
them to breathe, let alone maneuver, but this is a question to be put to Ukrainians. They will, of
course, vigorously assert their independence, but it will be important to listen to what is not said
and what is answered by small shrugs and resignation. There is no more important question in
Europe at the moment than the future of Ukraine.
For Romania, this is vital because its buffer could turn into its boundary if the Russians return to
the border. This is why Moldova matters as well. Moldova used to be called Bessarabia. When
Stalin made his deal with Hitler in 1939, part of the deal was that Bessarabia, then part of
Romania, an ally of Germany, would be seized by the Soviets. This moved Romania farther from
the port of Odessa, the critical port on the Black Sea, and across the Dniester River. Bessarabia
remained part of the Soviet Union after the war. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Moldova
became independent, stretching from Romania to the eastern bank of the Dniester. The area east
of the Dniester, Transdniestria, promptly seceded from Moldova, with Russian help. Moldova
became a Romanian-speaking buffer on the Dniester River.
Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. Its primary export is wine, sent mostly to Russia. The
Russians have taken to blocking the export of wine for “health reasons.” I think the health issue
is geopolitical and not biological. If Moldova is an independent, pro-European state, Ukraine is
less isolated than the Russians would like it to be. Moldova could, in the distant future, be a base
for operations against Russian interests. Every inch that potential enemies are from Odessa is
beneficial. There was a reason why Stalin wanted to take Bessarabia from Hitler. That
consideration has not dissolved, and the Russians are acting to isolate and pressure Moldova
right now and, with it, Romania.
My visit to Romania and Moldova is to try to get a sense of how they view the situation in
Ukraine, what they think Russian intentions are and what they plan to do — if anything.
Romania is always a hard country to read. Geopolitically, its capital is on the wrong side of the
Carpathians if the Russians are the threat, on the right side if Austria or Germany is the threat.
Romania is oriented toward the European Union but is one of the many countries in the union
that may not really belong there. Unlike the Poles, for whom history and resistance is a tradition,
the Romanians accommodate themselves to the prevailing winds. It will be good to find out
where they feel the winds are blowing from right now. I doubt that they will do anything to save
Moldova and anger Moscow, but it is not clear whether Moldova is in danger. Still, this much is
clear: If the Russians are reclaiming Ukraine, then Moldova is an important piece of territory, not
only to protect Ukraine but also to create options toward Romania and southwestern Europe.
Sometimes small pieces of land that are not on anyone’s mind represent the test case.
Turkey is a place I have gone to several times in the past few years and expect to revisit many
times. In my book, “The Next 100 Years,” I argued that Turkey will be a great power in the next
50 years or so. I’m comfortable with my long-term prediction, but the next decade will be a
period of transition for Turkey, from being one of the countries confronting the Soviets under the
U.S. alliance system to being a resurgent power in its own right. It will be no one’s pawn, and it
will be asserting its interests beyond its borders. Indeed, as its power increases in the Balkans,
Turkey will be one of the forces that countries like Romania will have to face.
I will be interested in hearing from the Romanians and Moldovans what their view of Turkey is
at this point. Its re-emergence will be a slow process, with inevitable setbacks and
disappointments, but even now its commercial influence can be felt in the Black Sea basin. I will
be interested in hearing from the Turks how they view the Russians (and, of course, Iran and the
Arab countries as well as Central Asia). Russia as seen through the eyes of its neighbors is the
purpose of this trip, and that’s the conversation I will want to have. Poles, Ukrainians,
Romanians and Moldovans will all want to talk about Russia. The Turks will want to discuss
many issues, Russia perhaps least of all. I will have to work hard to draw them out on this.
A Geopolitical Theory
In the end, I am going to the region with an analytic framework, a theory that I will want to test.
It is a theory that argues that the post-Cold War world is ending. Russia is re-emerging in a
historically recognizable form. Germany is just beginning the process of redefining itself in
Europe, and the EU’s weaknesses have become manifest. Turkey has already taken the first steps
toward becoming a regional power. We are at the beginning of a period in which these forces
play themselves out.
For the United States, Turkey’s emergence is beneficial. The United States is ending its wars in
the region, and Turkey is motivated to fill the vacuum left and combat radical Islam. Those who
argue that the Turkish government is radically Islamist are simply wrong, for two reasons. First,
Turkey is deeply divided, with the powerful heirs of the secular traditions of Kemal Ataturk on
one side. They are too strong to have radical Islam imposed on them. Second, the Islamism of the
Turkish government cannot possibly be compared to that of Saudi Arabia, for example. Islam
comes in many hues, as does Christianity, and the Turkish version derives from Ottoman history.
It is subtle, flexible and above all pragmatic. It derives from a history in which Turkish Islam
was allied with Catholic Venice to dominate the Mediterranean. So Turkish Islam is not strong
enough to impose itself on the secularists and too urbane to succumb to simplistic radicalism. It
will do what it has to do, but helping al Qaeda is not on its agenda. Still, it will be good to talk to
the secularists, who regard the current government with fear and distrust, and see whether they
remain as brittle as ever.
While the United States can welcome a powerful Turkey, the same can’t be said for a powerful
Russia, particularly not one allied with Germany. The single greatest American fear should not
be China or al Qaeda. It is the amalgamation of the European Peninsula’s technology with
Russia’s natural resources. That would create a power that could challenge American primacy.
That was what the 20th century was all about. The German-Russian relationship, however early
and subdued it might be, must affect the United States.
It is not clear to me that the American leadership understands this. Washington’s mind is an
amalgam of post-Cold War cliches about Russia and Europe and an obsession with terrorism.
This is not a time of clear strategic thinking in Washington. I find it irritating to go there, since
they regard my views as alarmist and extreme while I find their views outmoded and simplistic.
It’s why I like Austin. I know that the Poles, for example, are deeply concerned that Washington
doesn’t understand the issues. But in the United States, Washington makes position papers and
only rarely history. The United States is a vast nation, and Washington thinks of itself as its
center, but it really isn’t. The United States doesn’t have a center. The pressures of the world and
the public shape its actions, albeit reluctantly.
I have no power to shape anything, but for Washington to support Poland they need to be shown
a path. In this case, I am going to explore the theory that Pilsudski brought to the table, of the
Intermarium. I regard NATO as a bureaucracy overseeing an alliance whose mission was
accomplished 20 years ago. From an American point of view, moving France or Germany is both
impossible and pointless. They have their own interests and the wrong geography. It is the
Intermarium — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and perhaps Bulgaria — that represents
this generation’s alliance. It blocks the Russians, splits them from the Germans and gently limits
Turkey’s encroachment in southeastern Europe.
The Intermarium countries remain infatuated with the European Union and NATO, but the
infatuation is declining. The year 2008 and Germany’s indifference to these countries was not
pleasant, and they are learning that NATO is history. The Poles must be the leader of the bloc
and the Romanians the southern anchor. I think the Poles are thinking in these terms but the
Romanians are far from this idea. I’m not sure. I want to find out. For me, a U.S.-backed Poland
guarding the North European Plain, with Slovakia, Hungary and Romania guarding the
Carpathian approaches, would prevent what the United States should fear the most: an alliance
between Russia and Germany plus Western Europe. The key is the changing perception of the
European Union in the Intermarium. I want to see how far this has come.
Nothing, of course, could be further from Washington’s mind. Washington still thinks of Russia
as the failed state of the 1990s. It simply doesn’t take it seriously. It thinks of the European
Union as having gone over a speed bump from which it will recover. But mostly, Washington
thinks about Afghanistan. For completely understandable reasons, Afghanistan sucks up the
bandwidth of Washington, allowing the rest of the world to maneuver as it wishes.
As I said, I have no power to shape anything. But it is the charm of the United States that
powerlessness and obscurity is no bar to looking at the world and thinking of what will come
next. I am not making strategy but examining geopolitical forces. I am not planning what should
be but thinking about what will likely happen. But in doing this I need a reality check, and for
this reality check I will start in Romania.
Geopolitical Journey, Part 3: Romania
Created Nov 16 2010 - 04:56
Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will
write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland.
In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and
conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
By George Friedman
In school, many of us learned the poem Invictus. It concludes with the line, “I am the master of
my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” This is a line that a Victorian gentleman might bequeath to
an American businessman. It is not a line that resonates in Romania. Nothing in their history tells
Romanians that they rule their fate or dominate their soul. Everything in their history is a lesson
in how fate masters them or how their very soul is a captive of history. As a nation, Romanians
have modest hopes and expectations tempered by their past.
This sensibility is not alien to me. My parents survived the Nazi death camps, returned to
Hungary to try to rebuild their lives and then found themselves fleeing the communists. When
they arrived in America, their wishes were extraordinarily modest, as I look back on it. They
wanted to be safe, to get up in the morning, to go to work, to get paid — to live. They were never
under the impression that they were the masters of their fate.
The problem that Romania has is that the world cares about it. More precisely, empires collide
where Romania is. The last iteration was the Cold War. Today, at the moment, things seem
easier, or at least less desperate, than before. Still, as I discussed in “Borderlands,” the great
powers are sorting themselves out again and therefore Romania is becoming more important to
others. It is not clear to me that the Romanians fully appreciate the shift in the geopolitical
winds. They think they can hide in Europe, and perhaps they can. But I suspect that history is
reaching for Romania again.
Geopolitics and Self-Mutilation
Begin with geography. The Carpathian Mountains define Romania, but in an odd way. Rather
than serving as the border of the country, protecting it, the Carpathians are an arc that divides the
country into three parts. To the south of the mountains is the Wallachian Plain, the heart of
contemporary Romania, where its capital, Bucharest, and its old oil center, Ploesti, are located.
In the east of the Carpathians is the Moldavian Plain. To the northwest of the Carpathians is
Transylvania, more rugged, hilly country.
And this is the geopolitical
tragedy of Romania. Romania is
one nation divided by its
geography. None of the three
parts is easy to defend.
Transylvania came under
Hungarian rule in the 11th
century, and Hungary came
under Ottoman and Austro-
Hungarian rule. Wallachia came
under Ottoman rule, and
Moldavia came under Ottoman
and Russian rule. About the
only time before the late 19th
century that Romania was
united was when it was
completely conquered. And the
only time it was completely conquered was when some empire wanted to secure the Carpathians
to defend itself.
Some of us experience geopolitics as an opportunity. Most of humanity experiences it as a
catastrophe. Romania has been a nation for a long time, but rarely has it been a united nation-
state. After becoming a nation-state in the late 19th century, it had a precarious existence,
balanced between Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Russia, with Germany a more
distant but powerful reality. Romania spent the inter-war years trying to find its balance with
monarchism, authoritarianism and fascism, and it never quite found it. It sought safety in an
alliance with Hitler and found itself on the front lines in the German invasion of Russia. To
understand Romania as an ally one must bear this in mind: When the Soviets began their great
counterattack at Stalingrad, they launched it over Romanian (and Hungarian) troops. Romanians
maneuvered themselves into the position of fighting and dying for the Germans, and then got
their revenge on the Germans by being slaughtered by the Soviets.
All of this led to Romania’s occupation by the Soviets, toward whom the Romanians developed a
unique strategy. The Hungarians rose up against the Soviets and were crushed, and the
Czechoslovaks tried to create a liberal communist regime that was still loyal to the Soviets and
were crushed. The Romanians actually achieved a degree of autonomy from the Soviets in
foreign affairs. The way the Romanians got the Soviets to tolerate this was by building a regime
more rigid and oppressive than even that of the Soviet Union at the time. The Soviets knew
NATO wasn’t going to invade, let alone invade through Romania. So long as the Romanian
regime kept the people in line, the Russians could tolerate their maneuvers. Romania retained its
national identity and an independent foreign policy but at a stunning price in personal freedom
and economic well-being.
Contemporary Romania cannot be understood without understanding Nicolae Ceausescu. He
called himself the “Genius of the Carpathians.” He may well have been, but if so, the Carpathian
definition of genius is idiosyncratic. The Romanian communist government was built around
communists who had remained in Romania during World War II, in prison or in hiding. This was
unique among the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellites. Stalin didn’t trust communists
who stayed home and resisted. He preferred communists who had fled to Moscow in the 1930s
and had proved themselves loyal to Stalin by their betrayal of others. He sent Moscow
communists to rule the rest of the newly occupied countries that buffered Russia from the West.
Not so in Romania, where native communists ruled. After the death of the founder of communist
Romania, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, another Romanian communist who stayed in Romania
ultimately took over: Ceausescu. This was a peculiarity of Romanian communism that made it
more like Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia in foreign policy, and more like a bad dream in domestic
Ceausescu decided to pay off the national debt. His reason seemed to flow from his foreign
policy — he didn’t want Romania to be trapped by any country because of its debt — and he
repaid it by selling to other countries nearly everything that was produced in Romania. This left
Romania in staggering poverty; electricity and heat were occasional things, and even food was
scarce in a country that had a lot of it. The Securitate, a domestic secret police whose efficiency
and brutality were impressive, suppressed unrest. Nothing in Romania worked as well as the
Herta Muller is a Romanian author who writes in German (she is part of Romania’s ethnic
German community) and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. One of her books, The
Appointment, takes place in Romania under the communists. It gives an extraordinary sense of a
place ruled by the Securitate. It is about a woman who is living her life, working at her job and
dealing with an alcoholic husband while constantly preparing for and living in dread of
appointments with the secret police. As in Kafka, what they are looking for and what she is
hiding are unclear. But the danger is unrelenting and permeates her entire consciousness. When
one reads this book, as I did in preparing for this trip, one understands the way in which the
Securitate tore apart a citizen’s soul — and remembers that it was not a distant relic of the 1930s
but was still in place and sustaining the Romanian regime in 1989.
It was as if the price that Romania had to pay for autonomy was to punch itself in the face
continually. Even the fall of communism took a Romanian path. There was no Velvet Revolution
here but a bloody one, where the Securitate resisted the anti-communist rising under
circumstances and details that are still hotly debated and unclear. In the end, the Ceausescus
(Nicolae’s wife Elena was also a piece of work, requiring a psychological genius to unravel)
were executed and the Securitate blended into civil society as part of the organized-crime
network that was mistaken for liberalization in the former Soviet empire by Western academics
and reporters at the time.
Romania emerged from the previous 70 years of ongoing catastrophe by dreaming of simple
things and having no illusions that these things were easy to come by or things Romanians could
control. As with much of Eastern Europe but perhaps with a greater intensity, Romanians
believed their redemption lay with the West’s multilateral organizations. If they were permitted
to join NATO and especially the European Union, their national security needs would be taken
care of along with their economic needs. Romanians yearned to become European simply
because being Romanian was too dangerous.
The Redemption of Being European
In thinking of Romania, the phrase “institutionalized prisoner” comes to mind. In the United
States it is said that if someone stays in prison long enough, he becomes “institutionalized,”
someone who can no longer imagine functioning outside a world where someone else always
tells him what to do. For Romania, national sovereignty has always been experienced as the
process of accommodating itself to more powerful nations and empires. So after 1991, Romania
searched for the “someone else” to which it could subordinate itself. More to the point, Romania
imbued these entities with extraordinary redemptive powers. Once in NATO and the European
Union, all would be well.
And until recently, all has been well, or well in terms of the modest needs of a historical victim.
The problem Romania has is that these sanctuaries are in many ways illusions. It looks to NATO
for defense, but NATO is a hollowed-out entity. There is a new and ambitious NATO strategy,
which sets a global agenda for the organization. Long discussed, it is an exercise in
meaninglessness. Countries like Germany have no military with which to fulfill the strategy,
assuming that any agreement to act could be reached. NATO is a consensual organization, and a
single member can block any mission. The divergent interests of an expanded NATO guarantee
that someone will block everything. NATO is an illusion that comforts the Romanians, but only
if they don’t look carefully. The Romanians seem to prefer the comforting illusion.
As for the European Union, there is a deep structural tension in the system. The main European
economic power is Germany. It is also the world’s second-largest exporter. Its economy is built
around exporting. For a country like Romania, economic development requires that it take
advantage of its wage advantage. Lower wages allow developing countries to develop their
economy through exports. But Europe is dominated by an export superpower. Unlike the postwar
world, where the United States absorbed the imports of Germany and Japan without needing to
compete with them, Germany remains an exporting country exporting into Romania and leaving
precious little room for Romania to develop its economy.
At this stage of its development, Romania should be running a trade surplus, particularly with
Germany, but it is not. In 2007, it exported about $40 billion worth of goods and imported about
$70 billion. In 2009, it exported the same $40 billion but cut imports to only $54 billion (still a
negative). Forty percent of its trade is with Germany, France and Italy, its major EU partners.
But it is Germany where the major problem is. And this problem is compounded by the fact that
a good part of Romania’s exports to Germany are from German-owned firms operating in
During the period of relative prosperity in Europe from 1991 to 2008, the structural reality of the
EU was hidden under a rising tide. In 2008 the tide went out, revealing the structural reality. It is
not clear when the tide of prosperity will come rolling back in. In the meantime, while the
German economy is growing again, Romania’s is not. Because it exists in a system where the
main engine is an exporter, and the exporter dominates the process of setting rules, it is difficult
to see how Romania can take advantage of its greatest asset — a skilled workforce prepared to
work for lower wages.
Add to this the regulatory question. Romania is a developing country. Europe’s regulations are
drawn with a focus on the highly developed countries. The laws on employment guarantees
mean that Europeans don’t hire workers, they adopt them. That means that entrepreneurship is
difficult. Being an entrepreneur, as I well know, means making mistakes and recovering from
them fast. Given the guarantees that every worker has in Europe, an entrepreneur cannot quickly
recover from his mistakes. In Romania, the agility needed for risk-taking is not readily available
under EU rules drawn up for a mature economy.
Romania should be a country of small entrepreneurs, and it is, but there is extensive evasion of
Brussels’ — and Bucharest’s — regulations. It is a gray market that creates legal jeopardy and
therefore corruption in the sector that Romania needs the most. Imagine if Germany had the
regulations it champions today in 1955. Could it possibly have developed into what it is in 2010?
There may be a time for these regulations (and that is debatable), but for Romania it is not now.
I met a Romanian entrepreneur who marketed industrial products. In talking to him, I raised the
question of the various regulations governing his industry and how he handled them. There was
no clear answer or, more precisely, I didn’t realize the answer he had given me until later. There
are regulations and there are relationships. The latter mitigate the former. In Germany this might
be called corruption. In Romania it is survival. A Romanian entrepreneur rigorously following
EU regulations would rapidly go out of business. It may be that Romania is corrupt, but the
regulatory structure of the EU imposed on a developing economy makes evasion the only
rational strategy. And yet the entrepreneur I talked to was a champion of the European Union. He
too hoped for the time when he could be a normal European. As Rousseau said, “I have seen
these contradictions and they have not rebuffed me.”
It is difficult to for an outsider to see the specific benefits of NATO and EU membership for
Romania. But for the Romanians, membership goes beyond the specifics.
August and September are bad months in Europe. It is when wars and crises strike. August and
September 2008 were bad months. That August, Russia struck Georgia. In September, the
financial crisis burst wide open. In the first, Russia delivered a message to the region: This is
what American guarantees are worth. In the European handling of the financial crisis in Eastern
Europe, the Germans delivered a message on the limits of German responsibility. Both NATO
and the European Union went from being guarantors of Romanian interests to being enormous
In my conversations with Romanians, at all levels and almost universally, I have found the same
answer. First, there is no doubt that NATO and the European Union did not work in Romania’s
favor at the moment. Second, there is no question of rethinking Romania’s commitment to either.
There are those Romanians, particularly on the far right, who dislike the European Union in
particular, but Romania has no strategic alternative.
As for the vast majority, they cannot and will not conceive of a Romania outside the confines of
NATO and the European Union. The mere fact that neither is working well for Romania does not
mean that they do not do something important: NATO and the European Union keep the anti-
democratic demons of the Romanian soul at bay. Being part of Europe is not simply a matter of
strategic or economic benefits. It represents a transitional point in Romanian history. With
membership in the European Union and NATO, Romania has affirmed its modernity and its
democratic institutions. These twin amulets have redeemed Romania’s soul. Given this, I
suppose, an unfavorable trade balance and the absence of genuine security guarantees is a small
price to pay. I am not Romanian, so I can’t feel their ineffable belief in Brussels.
Romanians do acknowledge, again almost universally, the return of Russia to the historical stage,
and it worries them. Of particular concern is Moldova, a region to the east that was historically
Romanian, taken by the Soviets in a treaty with Hitler and the rest of which was seized after
World War II. Moldova became an independent country in 1991 (a country I will be visiting
next). For much of the post-Cold War period it had a communist government that fell a few years
ago. An election will be held on Nov. 28, and it appears that the communists might return. The
feeling is that if the communists return this time, the Russians will return with them and, in the
coming years, Russian troops will be on Romania’s borders.
Romanian officials are actively engaged in discussions with NATO officials about the Russians,
but the Germans want a more active involvement of Russia in NATO and not tension between
NATO and Russia. The Western Europeans are not about to be drawn into Eastern European
paranoia fed by nostalgic American strategists wanting to relive the Cold War, as they think of it.
I raised two strategic alternatives with Romanian officials and the media. One was the
Intermarium — an alliance, perhaps in NATO, perhaps not — of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary,
Romania and Bulgaria. (To readers who asked why I did not go to Bulgaria on this trip, it was
simply a matter of time. I will go there as soon as I can.) Very interestingly, one official pointed
out substantial levels of cooperation on military planning between Hungary and Romania and
discussions between Romania and Poland. How serious this is and whether it will go beyond the
NATO context is unclear to me. Perhaps I can get a better sense in Warsaw.
But military planning is one thing; the wherewithal to execute military plans is quite another.
The Romanians are now caught in a crisis over buying fighter planes. There are three choices:
the Swedish Gripen, the Eurofighter and used American F-16s. The problem is that the
Romanians don’t have the money for any of these aircraft, nor does it seem to me that these are
the defense measures they really need. The Americans can provide air cover in a number of
ways, and while 24 F-16s would have value, they would not solve Romania’s most pressing
military problem. From where I sit, creating an effective mobile force to secure their eastern
frontier is what is needed. The alternative I’ve heard was buying naval vessels to block a very
real Russian naval buildup in the Black Sea. But if Romania has trouble buying 24 fighters, naval
vessels are out of the question.
The Romanians are approaching defense planning from a NATO perspective — one used for
planning, not implementation, and one that always leads to sophisticated systems while leaving
the basics uncovered. This may seem like an unnecessary level of detail for this essay, but the
Romanians are deep in this discussion, and questions like this are the critical details of strategies
growing out of geopolitics. It is the difference between planning papers drawn up by think tanks
and the ability to defend a nation.
The Black Sea is a critical part of Romania’s reality, and the rise of Turkey makes the system of
relationships interesting. Turkey is Romania’s fourth-largest export target, and one of the few
major trading partners that imports more from Romania than it exports. I pointed out to
Romanians that it is the great good fortune of Turkey that it was not admitted to the European
Union. Turkey’s economy grew by an annualized rate of 12 percent in the first quarter of 2010
and has been surging for years.
Turkey is becoming a regional economic engine and, unlike Germany, France and Italy, it offers
compatibilities and synergies for Romania. In addition, Turkey is a serious military force and,
while not seeking confrontation with Russia, it is not subservient to it. Turkey has adopted a
“360 degree” strategy of engagement with all countries. And since Turkey is a NATO member,
as are Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, there is no incompatibility with a dual strategy of the
Intermarium and the Black Sea. For now, they fit. And the irony of Romania reaching out to the
heir to the Ottomans is simply that and no more. This is the neighborhood that Romania inhabits.
These are the options it has.
What doesn’t fit for Romania is the NATO/EU system alone. Perhaps this is part of a rational
mix, but it cannot be all of it. For Romania, the problem is to move beyond the psychological
comfort of Europe to a strategic and economic understanding that accepts that the post-Cold War
world is over. More important, it would be a move toward accepting that Romania is free,
responsible for its future and capable of managing it.
It is this last step that is the hardest for Romania and many of the former Soviet satellites —
which were also bound up with World War I and Hitler’s disaster — to come to terms with.
There is a connection between buying more expensive German cars than you can afford, and
more of them than you need, and the novels of Herta Muller. The appointment can be
permanently canceled, but the fear of the interrogation is always with you. In this region, the fear
of the past dominates and oppresses while the confident, American-style military planning and
economic restructuring I suggested is alien and frightening.
The Romanians emerged from a world of horror, some of it of their own making. They fear
themselves perhaps more than they fear others. For them, becoming European is both a form of
therapy and something that will restrain the demons within and without. When you live with bad
memories, you live with the shadows of reality. For the Romanians, illusory solutions to
haunting memories make a great deal of sense.
It makes sense until war comes, and in this part of the world, the coming of war has been the one
certainty since before the Romans. It is only a question of when, with whom and what your own
fate will be when it arrives. The Romanians believe with religious fervor that these things will be
left behind if they become part of Europe. I am more skeptical. I had thought that Romania’s
problem was that it was part of Europe, a weak power surrounded by stronger ones. They seem
to believe that their solution is to be part of Europe, a weak power surrounded by stronger ones.
I leave Romania confused. The Romanians hear things that I am deaf to. It is even at a pitch my
Hungarian part can’t hear. I leave now for another nation, Moldova, which has been even more
exposed to history, one even stranger and more brutal than Romania’s.
Source URL: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20101115_geopolitical_journey_part_3_romania
Geopolitical Journey, Part 4: Moldova
Created Nov 18 2010 - 19:18
Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will
write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland.
In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and
conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
By George Friedman
Moldova is a country in need of explanation, two explanations in fact. First, there is the question
of what kind of country Moldova is. Second, there is the question of why anyone should care.
Oddly, I went to Moldova thinking I knew the answer to the second question but not the first. I
came away unsure of either. Let’s begin with the second question: Why does Moldova matter?
The second article in this series, “Borderlands,” described the re-emergence of Russian regional
power following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russian national security is dependent
on two countries that became independent following the collapse. Belarus is the buffer between
Russia and Europe on the North European Plain. Ukraine is the buffer between Russia and the
Carpathian Mountains. From the Russian point of view, dominating these countries is less
important than Europe and the United States not dominating them. The Russians have achieved
this and perhaps more.
Ukraine is Russia’s southwestern anchor and its Achilles’ heel. It is difficult for Russia to be
secure without Ukraine both for economic and strategic reasons. Russia would be hard to defend
if Ukraine were under the control of a hostile power. What Ukraine is to Russia, Moldova is to
Ukraine. It is a salient that makes Ukraine difficult to defend, and if Ukraine can’t be defended
Russia can’t be defended either. Or so my reasoning went at the beginning of my visit.
Moldova’s Strategic Position
I had strong historical arguments for this. My thinking was in line with Stalin’s. In 1939, the
Soviets signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. One part of the agreement secretly
partitioned Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. Another part of the treaty secretly
ceded Bessarabia to the Soviets, even though Bessarabia was part of Romania. The Soviets
seized Bessarabia in 1940, renaming it the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic and changing its
boundaries somewhat. Bessarabia can thus be thought of as Moldova’s predecessor.
There were many things the Soviets might have demanded from the Germans, but this, along
with eastern Poland, was what they asked for. The reason was strategic:
1. The eastern frontier of Bessarabia, and therefore of Romania, was less than 50 miles from
the Soviet port of Odessa, the Soviet Union’s major outlet to the Black and
2. Romania was anchored in the east on the Dniester River. Should the Soviets decide to
attack westward at any point, the Dniester was a formidable defensive line.
3. By taking Bessarabia, the Soviets eliminated part of a salient from which Kiev could be
4. The Soviets pushed their frontier west to the Prut River.
5. The Soviets could interdict the Danube from Bessarabia. Close the Danube and European
trade — in this case, German trade — would be damaged.
Stalin wanted to increase Ukraine’s security and increase Romania’s and the Danube basin’s
vulnerability. As obscure as it was to the rest of the world, Bessarabia became a key piece on the
chessboard between Hitler and Stalin, just as the Russian and Ottoman empires had sought after
it before. Places that are of little interest to the rest of the world can be of great importance to
As it was, the bet didn’t pay off for Stalin, as Hitler attacked the Soviets and quickly seized all
the regions conceded to them. But what Stalin lost in 1941, he regained in 1944. He had no
intention of returning Bessarabia to Romania. He shifted some Moldovan territory to Ukraine
and transferred some Ukrainian territory east of the Dniester River to Moldova. Since it was all
under Soviet control, these were merely administrative shifts with no strategic significance at the
After the Soviet collapse, this
territory became the Republic
of Moldova. The portion east
of the Dniester revolted with
Russian support, and Moldova
lost effective control of what
was called Transdniestria.
Moldova remained in control
of the area between the Prut
and Dniester rivers, for about
18 years a fairly insignificant
region. Indeed, from a global
point of view, Moldova was
just a place on a map until
2010. The Ukrainian elections
of 2010 brought what seems to
be a pro-Russian government
to power, repudiating the
Orange Revolution. As I
argued in “Borderlands,” this
was a key step in the
resurrection of Russian
strategic power. Consequently,
Moldova began to shift from
being a piece of land between
two rivers to being a strategic
asset for both the Russians and any Western entity that might wish to contain or threaten Ukraine
and therefore Russia.
Let me emphasize the idea that it “began to shift,” not that it is now a strategic asset. This is an
unfolding process. Its importance depends on three things:
• The power of Russia
• Russia’s power over Ukraine
• A response from some Western entity
These are all moving parts; none is in place. Moldova is therefore a place of emerging
importance, as the saying goes. But however slow this process, this fairly obscure country has
lost its insignificance, as it does whenever great powers clash in this part of the world.
This is why I wanted to visit Moldova: It seemed to be evolving into strategic terrain, and I
wanted to understand it.
The Moldovan Identity
Moldova, of course, is not just a strategic chip. It is a place where people live, caught between
their Romanian heritage and their Soviet past. It is a mistake to think of Moldova simply as part
of the Romania that had been taken by the Soviets, which once freed from Soviet domination
would simply rejoin Romania. Seventy years after the partition, Moldova has become more than
a Romanian province, far from a Russian province and something less than a nation. This is
where geopolitics and social reality begin to collide.
The Soviets brutalized Moldova. I had a conversation with a Moldovan journalist in which he
described how he and his family had been deported in 1948 to Tomsk in Siberia. He put it almost
casually; it was the common heritage of Moldovans. Stalin was concerned that the Moldovans
would want to rejoin Romania, and although Romania was a Soviet satellite, Stalin didn’t want
to take any chances. His solution, repeated many times in many places in the Soviet Union, was
the deportation of the Romanian population, importing Russians, a small famine and the terror
designed to break the Moldovan spirit.
The difference between Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union was driven
home to me in Moldova. In the Eastern European countries, the Soviet era is regarded as a
nightmare and the Russians are deeply distrusted and feared to this day. In Moldova, there is
genuine nostalgia for the Soviet period as there is in other parts of the former Soviet Union.
Indeed, in Moldova communist rule didn’t end in 1992. The Party of Communists of the
Republic of Moldova (PCRM), heir to the Communist Party that was banned, continued to rule
Moldova until 2009. The PCRM was not ideologically communist; it had no real ideology at all.
What it offered was continued ties to Russia and a sense of continuity to a country that preferred
Bessarabia was a province of Romania, and Bessarabians generally spoke Romanian. In today’s
Moldova, Romanian is not the only language spoken. As in most former Soviet republics,
Russian is widely spoken, and not simply by Russians living there. For a large part of the
Moldovan population, Russian is the preferred language. Older Moldovans were taught Russian
in school and learned to use it in everyday life. But younger Moldovans also speak Russian, and
signs are in Romanian and Russian. In addition, it was pointed out to me (I don’t speak any
Romanian) that the Romanian spoken in Moldova is not quite the same as that spoken in
Romania today. It has not evolved the same way and has an archaic cast to it. You can easily
distinguish between a Romanian and a Moldovan speaking Romanian.
There is genuine tension about this. A member of our staff who lives in Romania accompanied
us to Moldova. She told us about going into a store that sold chocolate. (Apparently, it was quite
famous for its chocolates.) When she spoke, her Romanian was clearly distinguishable from the
Moldovan variety and obviously from Russian. She was not served, was ignored for a while and
then shuttled between lines. As she explained it, the Moldovans feel that Romanians look down
on them, and so Moldovans resent them. Obviously, this is a single anecdote, but others spoke of
this three-way tension between Romanians, Moldovan Romanian speakers and Russian speakers.
This split runs parallel to political fault lines. While there are those who want union with
Romania, this is far from the dominant group. The real struggle is between those who back the
communists and those who support an independent Moldova oriented toward the European
Union and NATO. In broad terms, the communists’ strength is among the rural, poor and elderly.
The pro-Western parties are handicapped by being divided into a series of parties that vary by
personality more than ideology. This means that the government created after demonstrators
routed the communists in 2009 is a highly fragmented coalition made more fragile by the
complex interests, personalities and ambitions of each. The communists may not get a majority,
but they don’t need as many coalition partners as do the pro-Western parties.
There will be an election Nov. 28. The country has billboards with various candidates all around
and rallies throughout the country. Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are there.
Some are funded, we were told, by the American National Endowment for Democracy, others
supported by NATO and so on. The Russians, too, have learned the NGO gambit from the West
by watching the various color revolutions. Russian-supported NGOs are in the country, and as
one journalist told me, they are serving wine and cheese to young people. That appears to be
having an impact.
The real issue behind the complex politics is simply this: What is Moldova? There is consensus
on what it is not: It is not going to be a province of Romania. But Moldova was a province of
Romania and a Soviet Socialist Republic. What is it now? What does it mean to be a Moldovan?
On this question I could see no consensus. There are nations that lack a state, like the Kurds.
Moldova is a state that lacks a nation. Nation-building in Moldova is not so much about
institutions but about creating a national consensus about the nation.
As in Romania, the pro-Western faction has a clear solution to this problem: membership in
NATO and membership in the European Union. If they get this, they feel, they will then have a
secure definition of a nation — a European country — and protection from the Russians and
others who might threaten them. Romania sees membership in these organizations as a way to
overcome its past. Moldova sees this as providing definition to the country. But where being
European is a general goal in Romania, it is hotly disputed in Moldova, although what the
communists want in practice, aside from power, is quite unclear.
And this is the core problem in Moldova. The pro-Western factions’ idea is to join the European
Union and NATO and have that stamp a definition on the country. It does not take into account
the powerful communists with their Russian ties, nor does it take into account the substantial
portion of the country that identifies with Russia rather than with the West. Some of the pro-
Western parties, sensitive to this problem, have reached out to the Russians, either with visits to
Moscow or indirectly. Committed to the Western option, they are trying to accommodate pro-
Russian sentiment. But squaring the circle is not easy, and the basic divisions remain in place. In
that sense, the country is in gridlock. Whoever wins this or succeeding elections governs a
country that is significantly divided and with very different ideas about what the country should
look like and who should govern it.
An Economy of Shadows
This is made even more difficult when you consider Moldova’s economic condition. It is said to
be one of the poorest countries in Europe, if not the poorest. About 12 percent of its gross
domestic product is provided by remittances from emigrants working in other European
countries, some illegally. This has fallen from 19 percent, not by economic growth, but since the
global recession cut remittances. Romania has begun a program of providing Moldovans with
Romanian passports. This allows the Moldovans to travel and work anywhere in the European
Union. They were already doing this illegally. Now the process of emigration and remittance has
become formal. Some in Moldova charge that this is an attempt by Romania to undermine
Moldova by encouraging emigration. But given the remittance situation, it is probably a lifeline.
People in Moldova and in Romania have told me that the largest export of Moldova is women,
who are lured into or willingly join (depending on whom you might ask) the Moldovan diaspora
to work as prostitutes. Some say (and I can’t verify) that Moldovan women constitute the largest
number of prostitutes working in Europe’s legal brothels. This is a discussion for which there are
few valid statistics and many opinions. Yet in talking to people, the claim does not seem
controversial. This is a sign of a desperate country.
Consider this anecdote from a Saturday night spent walking the streets of Chisinau, the capital.
The sidewalks of the main street filled with young people, from their late teens to their mid-
twenties. I was told that there were no clubs for young people to party in, so they gather in the
streets. That’s not all that odd: It reminds me of Queens Boulevard in New York during my high
school years. What was odd was the way they clustered in groups of five to 15. At the center of
each group was a small number of girls, one to three, all dressed stunningly compared to the
boys, who were one cut above slobs. The oddity was the extent to which the boys outnumbered
girls. I could never find out if the other girls were home with their parents or there was a shortage
of young women. Regardless, my wife assured me the girls were not wearing cheap clothes; she
estimated the boots alone ran into the hundreds of dollars.
I don’t quite know how to read this, but add to this the fact that there were bank branches up and
down the main street. When we
visited a small town north of the
capital, it also had a string of bank
branches lining the street. Bank
branches are expensive to build
and maintain. They need
depositors to keep them going, and
when you have seven competing
banks in a small town that means
there is money there. Certainly,
the town didn’t look poor.
Soviet-style apartments in Chisinau (Photo by STRATFOR)
So, we have a paradox. The numbers say Moldova is extremely poor, yet there are lots of banks
and well and expensively dressed young women. The young men all seemed to share my taste in
clothes, which might come from poverty or indifference, so they don’t fit the analysis. But I am
fairly confident in saying that the official statistics of Moldova and the economic reality are not
There are three possible explanations. The first is that remittances are flooding the country, from
women or other expatriates, and that the banks are there to service the money coming in. The
second is that there is a massive shadow economy that evades regulation, taxation and statistical
analysis. The third explanation is that the capital and a few towns are fairly affluent while the
rural areas are extraordinarily poor. (I saw some Soviet-era apartments that might confirm that.) I
suspect the answer is all three are correct, explaining the split politics in the country.
The Republic of Moldova has a profound identity crisis, a deeply divided political system and an
economy that does not have, as they say, full transparency. It is therefore difficult to think about
Moldova and Strategy
From the Moldovan point of view, at least among the pro-Western factions, Moldova’s strategic
problems begin and end with Transdniestria. They want to regain the east bank of the river. The
region would have real benefits for Moldova, as it would be its industrial heartland, in relative
terms at least. Like some other disputed territories in the former Soviet Union, however, it is the
dispute, more than the strategic value of the territory, that is important. It is a rallying point, or at
least an attempt to find one. It also is a basis for pro-Western groups to attack pro-Russian
groups since the Russians protect the breakaway region.
The Germans, who are getting close to the Russians, appear to be trying to facilitate negotiations
regarding Transdniestria. The Russians may accommodate the Germans. But if they do, I doubt
the outcome will deny the Russians control of the east bank of the Dniester. From the Russian
point of view, hostile forces east of the Dniester could threaten Odessa, and they see no reason to
leave the Dniester River regardless of how benign conditions appear right now. The Russian
view, driven home by history, is that benign situations can turn malignant with remarkable
There is an oddity here, of course. I am talking about Russian troops on the Dniester, but this in a
country surrounded by Ukraine, not Russia. The Russians are supporting the Transdniestrian
republic while the Ukrainians have not. Since 1992, the Ukrainians have not made an effective
demand for the Russians to stop interfering in what is essentially a Ukrainian-Moldovan issue.
This might be because the Ukrainians don’t want other lands that had been taken from Moldova
and given to Ukraine put on the table as a bargaining chip. But I suspect the reason is simpler:
Regardless of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians are the ones concerned about things
like a defensive river position while the Ukrainians see the matter with more detachment.
A Net Assessment
On a map, Moldova is valuable real estate. It is a region that in the hands of NATO or any other
Western power could provide leverage against Russian power, and perhaps strengthen Ukraine’s
desire to resist Russia. Putting NATO troops close to Odessa, a Ukrainian port Russians depend
on, would cause the Russians to be cautious. The problem is that the Russians clearly understand
this and are doing what they can to create a pro-Russian state in Moldova, or at least a state
sufficiently unstable that no one can use it to threaten the Russians.
Moldova is caught between its Romanian roots and its Soviet past. It has not developed a
national identity independent of these two poles. Moldova is a borderland-within-a-borderland. It
is a place of foreign influences from all sides. But it is a place without a clear center. On one
side, there is nostalgia for the good old days of the Soviet Union — which gives you a sense of
how bad things are now for many Moldovans. On the other side is hope that the European Union
and NATO will create and defend a nation that doesn’t exist.
If geopolitics were a theoretical game, then the logical move would be to integrate Moldova into
NATO immediately and make it a member of the European Union. There are equally strange
nations that are members of each. But geopolitics teaches that the foundation of national strategy
is the existence of a nation. That may be obvious, but it is something that needs to be said. I
came to Moldova looking in the borderland for a nation that might be a counter to Russian
resurgence. I thought I had found the nation on the map. It turned out that while there were
people living there, they were not a nation. What appeared promising on a map was very
different in reality.
This is not to say that Moldova cannot evolve a sense of nationhood and identity. But such things
take a long time to create and rarely emerge peacefully. In the meantime, powerful forces on all
sides might make the creation of a Moldovan nation difficult if not impossible. This may well be
a case of a state that could forge a nation if it were a member of the European Union and NATO,
but the European Union is dealing with Ireland, and NATO has no appetite to confront Russia.
This will be up to the Moldovans. It is not clear to me how much time history will give them to
reach a consensus.
It is certainly not for me to advise the Moldovans, since I don’t share their fate. But given that I
won’t be listened to anyway, I will offer this observation. Moldova was once part of Romania. It
was once part of the Soviet Union. Moldova makes a great deal of sense as part of something.
The Soviet Union is gone. Europe has more problems than it can handle already; it is not looking
for more. Romania is still there. It is not a perfect solution, and certainly not one many
Moldovans would welcome, but it is a solution, however imperfect.
I leave now for a place that has no doubt that it is a nation but is engaged in a debate as to what
kind of nation it should be: Turkey.
Source URL: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20101118_geopolitical_journey_part_4_moldova
Geopolitical Journey, Part 5: Turkey
Created Nov 23 2010 - 04:55
Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will
write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland.
In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and
conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
By George Friedman
We arrived in Istanbul during the festival of Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness
of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael on God’s command and praises the God who stayed his
hand. It is a jarring holiday for me; I was taught that it was Isaac whom God saved. The
distinction between Ishmael and Isaac is the difference between Hagar and Sarah, between
Abraham and the Jews and Abraham and the Muslims. It ties Muslims, Jews and Christians
together. It also tears them apart.
Muslims celebrate Eid with the sacrifice of animals (sheep and cattle). Istanbul is a modern
commercial city, stunningly large. On this day, as we drove in from the airport, there were vacant
lots with cattle lined up for those wishing to carry out the ritual. There were many cattle and
people. The ritual sacrifice is widely practiced, even among the less religious. I was told that
Turkey had to import cattle for the first time, bringing them in from Uruguay. Consider the
juxtaposition of ancient ritual sacrifice so widely practiced that it requires global trade to sustain
The tension between and within nations and religions is too ancient for us to remember its
beginnings. It is also something that never grows old. For Turkey, it is about a very old nation at
what I think is the beginning of a new chapter. It is therefore inevitably about the struggles
within Turkey and with Turkey’s search for a way to find both its identity and its place in the
Turkey will emerge as one of the great regional powers of the next generation, or so I think. It is
clear that this process is already under way when you look at Turkey’s rapid economic growth
even in the face of the global financial crisis, and when you look at its growing regional
influence. As you’d expect, this process is exacerbating internal political tensions as well as
straining old alliances and opening the door to new ones. It is creating anxiety inside and outside
of Turkey about what Turkey is becoming and whether it is a good thing or not. Whether it is a
good thing can be debated, I suppose, but the debate doesn’t much matter. The transformation
from an underdeveloped country emerging from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire to a major
power is happening before our eyes.
At the heart of the domestic
debate and foreign discussion of
Turkey’s evolution is Islam.
Turkey’s domestic evolution has
resulted in the creation of a
government that differs from
most previous Turkish
governments by seeing itself as
speaking for Islamic traditions
as well as the contemporary
Turkish state. The foreign
discussion is about the degree to
which Turkey has shifted away
from its traditional alliances with the United States, Europe and Israel. These two discussions are
At a time when the United States is at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and in confrontation
with Iran, any shift in the position of a Muslim country rings alarm bells. But this goes beyond
the United States. Since World War II, many Turks have immigrated to Europe, where they have
failed to assimilate partly by choice and partly because the European systems have not facilitated
assimilation. This failure of assimilation has created massive unease about Turkish and other
Muslims in Europe, particularly in the post-9/11 world of periodic terror warnings. Whether
reasonable or not, this is shaping Western perceptions of Turkey and Turkish views of the West.
It is one of the dynamics in the Turkish-Western relationship.
Turkey’s emergence as a significant power obviously involves redefining its internal and
regional relations to Islam. This alarms domestic secularists as well as inhabitants of countries
who feel threatened by Turks — or Muslims — living among them and who are frightened by
the specter of terrorism. Whenever a new power emerges, it destabilizes the international system
to some extent and causes anxiety. Turkey’s emergence in the current context makes that anxiety
all the more intense. A newly powerful and self-confident Turkey perceived to be increasingly
Islamic will create tensions, and it has.
The Secular and the Religious
Turkey’s evolution is framed by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the
creation of modern Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk’s task was to retain the core
of the Ottoman Empire as an independent state. That core was Asia Minor and the European side
of the Bosporus. For Ataturk, the first step was contraction, abandoning any attempt to hold the
Ottoman regions that surrounded Turkey. The second step was to break the hold of Ottoman
culture on Turkey itself. The last decades of the Ottoman Empire were painful to Turks, who saw
themselves decline because of the unwillingness of the Ottoman regime to modernize at a pace
that kept up with the rest of Europe. The slaughter of World War I did more than destroy the
Ottoman Empire. It shook its confidence in itself and its traditions.
For Ataturk, Turkish national
survival depended on
modernization, which he equated
with the creation of a secular
society as the foundation of a
modern nation-state in which
Islam would become a matter of
private practice, not the center of
the state or, most important,
something whose symbols could
have a decisive presence in the
public sphere. This would include
banning articles of clothing
associated with Islamic piety from
public display. Ataturk did not try
to suppress Muslim life in the
private sphere, but Islam is a
political religion that seeks to regulate both private and public life.
Ataturk sought to guarantee the survival of the secular state through the military. For Ataturk, the
military represented the most modern element of Turkish society and could serve two functions.
It could drive Turkish modernization and protect the regime against those who would try to
resurrect the Ottoman state and its Islamic character. Ataturk wanted to do something else — to
move away from the multinational nature of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk compressed Turkey to
its core and shed authority and responsibility beyond its borders. Following Ataturk’s death, for
example, Turkey managed to avoid involvement in World War II.
Ataturk came to power in a region being swept by European culture, which was what was
considered modern. This Europeanist ideology moved through the Islamic world, creating
governments that were, like Turkey’s, secular in outlook but ruling over Muslim populations that
had varying degrees of piety. In the 1970s, a counter-revolution started in the region that argued
for reintegrating Islam into the governance of Muslim countries. The most extreme part of this
wave culminated in al Qaeda. But the secularist/Europeanist vision created by Ataturk has been
in deep collision with the Islamist regimes that can be found in places like Iran.
It was inevitable that this process would affect Turkey. In 2002, the Justice and Development
Party (AKP) came to power. This was a defining moment because the AKP was not simply a
secular Europeanist party. Its exact views are hotly debated, with many inside and outside of
Turkey claiming that its formal moderation hides a radical-Islamist agenda.
We took a walk in a neighborhood in Istanbul called Carsamba. I was told that this was the most
religious community in Istanbul. One secularist referred to it as “Saudi Arabia.” It is a poor but
vibrant community, filled with schools and shops. Children play on the streets, and men cluster
in twos and threes, talking and arguing. Women wear burqas and headscarves. There is a large
school in the neighborhood where young men go to study the Koran and other religious subjects.
A private Koran school in the
Carsamba neighborhood of
Istanbul (Photo by STRATFOR)
The neighborhood actually
reminded me of Williamsburg,
in the Brooklyn of my youth.
Williamsburg was filled with
Chasidic Jews, Yeshivas,
children on the streets and men
talking outside their shops. The
sensibility of community and
awareness that I was an outsider revived vivid memories. At this point, I am supposed to write
that it shows how much these communities have in common. But the fact is that the
commonalities of life in poor, urban, religious neighborhoods don’t begin to overcome the
profound differences — and importance — of the religions they adhere to.
That said, Carsamba drove home to me the problem the AKP, or any party that planned to
govern Turkey, would have to deal with. There are large parts of Istanbul that are European in
sensibility and values, and these are significant areas. But there is also Carsamba and the villages
of Anatolia, and they have a self-confidence and assertiveness that can’t be ignored today.
There is deep concern among some secularists that the AKP intends to impose Shariah. This is
particularly intense among the professional classes. I had dinner with a physician with deep roots
in Turkey who told me that he was going to immigrate to Europe if the AKP kept going the way
it was going. Whether he would do it when the time came I can’t tell, but he was passionate
about it after a couple of glasses of wine. This view is extreme even among secularists, many of
whom understand the AKP to have no such intentions. Sometimes it appeared to me that the fear
was deliberately overdone, in hopes of influencing a foreigner, me, concerning the Turkish
But my thoughts go back to Carsamba. The secularists could ignore these people for a long time,
but that time has passed. There is no way to rule Turkey without integrating these scholars and
shopkeepers into Turkish society. Given the forces sweeping the Muslim world, it is impossible.
They represent an increasingly important trend in the Islamic world and the option is not
suppressing them (that’s gone) but accommodating them or facing protracted conflict, a kind of
conflict that in the rest of the Islamic world is not confined to rhetoric. Carsamba is an extreme
case in Istanbul, but it poses the issue most starkly.
This is something the main opposition secularist party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP),
can’t do. It has not devised a platform that can reach out to Carsamba and the other religious
neighborhoods within the framework of secularism. This is the AKP’s strength. It can reach out
to them while retaining the core of its Europeanism and modernism. The Turkish economy is
surging. It had an annualized growth rate of 12 percent in the first quarter of 2010. That helps
keep everyone happy. But the AKP also emphasizes that it wants to join the European Union.
Now, given how healthy the Turkish economy is, wanting to join the European Union is odd.
And the fact is that the European Union is not going to let Turkey in anyway. But the AKP’s
continued insistence that it wants to join the European Union is a signal to the secularists: The
AKP is not abandoning the Europeanist/modernist project.
The AKP sends many such signals, but it is profoundly distrusted by the secularists, who fear
that the AKP’s apparent moderation is simply a cover for its long-term intentions — to impose a
radical-Islamist agenda on Turkey. I don’t know the intentions of the AKP leadership, but I do
know some realities about Turkey, the first being that, while Carsamba can’t be ignored, the
secularists hold tremendous political power in their own right and have the general support of the
military. Whatever the intentions imputed to the AKP, it does not have the power to impose a
radical-Islamist agenda on Turkey unless the secularists weaken dramatically, which they are not
going to do.
The CHP cannot re-impose the rigorous secularism that existed prior to 2002. The AKP cannot
impose a radical-Islamist regime, assuming it would want to. The result of either attempt would
be a paralyzing political crisis that would tear the country apart, without giving either side
political victory. The best guard against hidden agendas is the inability to impose them.
Moreover, on the fringes of the Islamist community are radical Islamists like al Qaeda. It is a
strategic necessity to separate the traditionally religious from the radical Islamists. The more
excluded the traditionalists are, the more they will be attracted to the radicals. Prior to the 1970s
this was not a problem. In those days, radical Islamists were not the problem; radical socialists
were. The strategies that were used prior to 2002 would play directly into the hands of the
radicals. There are, of course, those who would say that all Islamists are radical. I don’t think
that’s true empirically. Of the billion or so Muslims, radicals are few. But you can radicalize the
rest with aggressive social policies. And that would create a catastrophe for Turkey and the
The problem for Turkey is how to bridge the gap between the secularists and the religious. That
is the most effective way to shut out the radicals. The CHP seems to me to have not devised any
program to reach out to the religious. There are some indications of attempted change that came
with the change in leadership a few months ago, but overall the CHP maintains a hostile
suspicion toward sharing power with the religious.
The AKP, on the other hand, has some sort of reconciliation as its core agenda. The problem is
that the AKP is serving up a weak brew, insufficient to satisfy the truly religious, insufficient to
satisfy the truly secular. But it does hold a majority. In Turkey, as I have said, it is all about the
AKP’s alleged hidden intentions. My best guess is that, whatever its private thoughts and
political realities are, the AKP is composed of Turks who derive their traditions from 600 years
of Ottoman rule. That makes Turkish internal politics, well, Byzantine. Never forget that at
crucial points the Ottomans, as Muslim as they were, allied with the Catholics against the
Orthodox Christians in order to dominate the Balkans. They made many other alliances of
convenience and maintained a multinational and multireligious empire built on a pyramid of
compromises. The AKP is not the party of the Wahhabi, and if it tried to become that, it would
fall. The AKP, like most political parties, prefers to hold office.
Turkey and the World
The question of the hidden agenda of the AKP touches its foreign policy, too. In the United
States, nerves are raw over Afghanistan and terror threats. In Europe, Muslim immigration, much
of it from Turkey, and more terror threats make for more raw nerves. The existence of an
Islamist-rooted government in Ankara has created the sense that Turkey has “gone over,” that it
has joined the radical-Islamist camp.
This is why the flotilla incident with Israel turned out as it did. The Turks had permitted a fleet to
sail for Gaza, which was blockaded by Israel. Israeli commandos boarded the ships and on one of
them got into a fight in which nine people were killed. The Turks became enraged and expected
the rest of the world, including the United States and Europe, to join them in condemning Israel’s
actions. I think the Turkish government was surprised when the general response was not
directed against Israel but at Turkey. The Turks failed to understand the American and European
perception that Turkey had gone over to the radical Islamists. This perception caused the
Americans and Europeans to read the flotilla incident in a completely unexpected way, from the
Turkish government’s point of view, one that saw the decision to allow the flotilla to sail as part
of a radical-Islamist agenda. Rather than seeing the Turks as victims, they saw the Turks as
deliberately creating the incident for ideological reasons.
At the moment, it all turns on the perceptions of the AKP, both in Turkey and the world. And
these perceptions lead to very different interpretations of what Turkey is doing.
In this sense, the ballistic missile defense (BMD) issue was extremely important. Had the Turks
refused to allow BMD to be placed in Turkey, it would have been, I think, a breakpoint in
relations with the United States in particular. BMD is a defense against Iranian missiles. Turkey
does not want a U.S. strike on Iran. It should therefore have been enthusiastic about BMD, since
Turkey could argue that with BMD, no strike is needed. Opposing a strike and opposing BMD
would have been interpreted as Turkey simply wanting to obstruct anything that would upset
Iran, no matter how benign. The argument of those who view Turkey as pro-Iranian would be
confirmed. The decision by the Turkish government to go forward with BMD was critical.
Rejecting BMD would have cemented the view of Turkey as being radical Islamist. But the point
is that the Turks postured on the issue and then went along. It was the AKP trying to maintain its
The reality is that Turkey is now a regional power trying to find its balance. It is in a region
where Muslim governments are mixed with secular states, predominantly Christian nations and a
Jewish state. When you take the 360-degree view that the AKP likes to talk about, it is an
extraordinary and contradictory mixture of states. Turkey is a country that maintains relations
with Iran, Israel and Egypt, a dizzying portfolio.
It is not a surprise that the Turks are not doing well at this. After an interregnum of nearly a
century, Turkey is new to being a regional power, and everyone in the region is trying to draw
Turkey into something for their own benefit. Syria wants Turkish mediation with Israel and in
Lebanon. Azerbaijan wants Turkish support against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. Israel and
Saudi Arabia want Turkish support against Iran. Iran wants Turkey’s support against the United
States. Kosovo wants its support against Serbia. It is a rogue’s gallery of supplicants, all wanting
something from Turkey and all condemning Turkey when they don’t get it. Not least of these is
the United States, which wants Turkey to play the role it used to play, as a subordinate American
Turkey’s strategy is to be friends with everyone, its “zero conflict with neighbors” policy, as the
Turks call it. It is an explicit policy not to have enemies. The problem is that it is impossible to
be friends with all of these countries. Their interests are incompatible, and in the end, the only
likely outcome is that all will find Turkey hostile and it will face distrust throughout the region.
Turkey was genuinely surprised when the United States, busy finally getting sanctions into place
against Iran, did not welcome Turkey and Brazil’s initiative with Iran. But unlike Brazil, Turkey
lives in a tough neighborhood and being friendly with everyone is not an option.
This policy derives, I think, from a fear of appearing, like the Ottoman Empire, so distrusted by
secularists. The Ottoman Empire was both warlike and cunning. It was the heir to the Byzantine
tradition and it was worthy of it. Ataturk simplified Turkish foreign policy radically, drawing it
inward. Turkey’s new power makes that impossible, but it is important, at least at this point in
history, for Turkey not to appear too ambitious or too clever internationally. The term neo-
Ottoman keeps coming up, but is not greeted happily by many people. Trying to be friendly with
everyone is not going to work, but for the Turks, it is a better strategy now than being
prematurely Byzantine. Contrary to others, I see Turkish foreign policy as simple and
straightforward: What they say and what they intend to do are the same. The problem with that
foreign policy is that it won’t work in the long run. I suspect the Turkish government knows that,
but it is buying time for political reasons.
It is buying time for administrative reasons as well. The United States entered World War II
without an intelligence service, with a diplomatic corps vastly insufficient for its postwar needs
and without a competent strategic-planning system. Turkey is ahead of the United States of 1940,
but it does not have the administrative structure or the trained and experienced personnel to
handle the complexities it is encountering. The Turkish foreign minister wakes up in the morning
to Washington’s latest demand, German pronouncements on Turkish EU membership, Israeli
deals with the Greeks, Iranian probes, Russian views on energy and so on. It is a large set of
issues for a nation that until recently had a relatively small foreign-policy footprint.
Turkey and Russia
Please recall my reasons for this journey and what brought me to Turkey. I am trying to
understand the consequences of the re-emergence of Russia, the extent to which this will pose a
geopolitical challenge and how the international system will respond. I have already discussed
the Intermarium, the countries from the Baltic to the Black seas that have a common interest in
limiting Russian power and the geopolitical position to do so if they act as a group.
One of the questions is what the southern anchor of this line will be. The most powerful anchor
would be Turkey. Turkey is not normally considered part of the Intermarium, although during
the Cold War it was the southeastern anchor of NATO’s line of containment. The purpose of this
trip is to get some sense of how the Turks think about Russia and where Russia fits into their
strategic thinking. It is also about how the Turks now think of themselves as they undergo a
profound shift that will affect the region.
Turkey, like many countries, is dependent on Russian energy. Turkey also has a long history
with Russia and needs to keep Russia happy. But it also wants to be friends with everyone and it
needs to find new sources of energy. This means that Turkey has to look south, into Iraq and
farther, and east, toward Azerbaijan. When it looks south, it will find itself at odds with Iran and
perhaps Saudi Arabia. When it looks east, it will find itself at odds with Armenia and Russia.
There are no moves that Turkey can make that will not alienate some great power, and it cannot
decline to make these moves. It cannot simply depend on Russia for its energy any more than
Poland can. Because of energy policy, it finds itself in the same position as the Intermarium, save
for the fact that Turkey is and will be much more powerful than any of these countries, and
because the region it lives in is extraordinarily more complex and difficult.
Nevertheless, while the Russians aren’t an immediate threat, they are an existential threat to
Turkey. With a rapidly growing economy, Turkey needs energy badly and it cannot be hostage to
the Russians or anyone else. As it diversifies its energy sources it will alienate a number of
countries, including Russia. It will not want to do this, but it is the way the world works.
Therefore, is this the southern anchor of the Intermarium? I think so. Not yet and not forever, but
I suspect that in 10 years or so, the sheer pressure that Russian energy policy will place on
Turkey will create enough tensions to force Turkey into the anchor position.
If Moldova is the proof of the limits of geopolitical analysis, Turkey is its confirmation. There is
endless talk in Turkey of intentions, hidden meanings and conspiracies, some woven decades
ago. It is not these things that matter. Islam has replaced modernism as the dynamic force of the
region, and Turkey will have to accommodate itself to that. But modernism and secularism are
woven into Turkish society. Those two strands cannot be ignored. Turkey is the regional power,
and it will have to make decisions about friends and enemies. Those decisions will be made
based on issues like energy availability, economic opportunities and defensive positions.
Intentions are not trivial, but in the case of Turkey neither are they decisive. It is too old a
country to change and too new a power to escape the forces around it. For all its complexity, I
think Turkey is predictable. It will go through massive internal instability and foreign tests it is
not ready for, but in the end, it will emerge as it once was: a great regional power.
As a subjective matter, I like Turkey and Turks. I suspect I will like them less as they become a
great power. They are at the charming point where the United States was after World War I.
Over time, global and great powers lose their charm under the pressure of a demanding and
dissatisfied world. They become hard and curt. The Turks are neither today. But they are facing
the kind of difficulties that only come with success, and those can be the hardest to deal with.
Internally, the AKP is trying to thread the needle between two Turkish realities. No one can
choose one or the other and govern Turkey. That day has passed. How to reconcile the two is the
question. For the moment, the most difficult question is how to get the secularists to accept that,
in today’s Turkey, they are a large minority. I suspect the desire to regain power will motivate
them to try to reach out to the religious, but for now, they have left the field to the AKP.
In terms of foreign policy, they are clearly repositioning Turkey to be part of the Islamic world,
but the Islamic world is deeply divided by many crosscurrents and many types of regimes. The
distance between Morocco and Pakistan is not simply space. Repositioning with the Islamic
world is more a question of who will be your enemy than who will be your friend. The same
goes for the rest of the world.
In leaving Turkey, I am struck by how many balls it has to keep in the air. The tensions between
the secularists and the religious must not be minimized. The tensions within the religious camp
are daunting. The tensions between urban and rural are significant. The tensions between Turkey
and its allies and neighbors are substantial, even if the AKP is not eager to emphasize this. It
would seem impossible to imagine Turkey moving past these problems to great power status. But
here geopolitics tells me that it has to be this way. All nations have deep divisions. But Turkey is
a clear nation and a strong state. It has geography and it has an economy. And it is in a region
where these characteristics are in short supply. That gives Turkey relative power as well as
The next 10 years will not be comfortable for Turkey. It will have problems to solve and battles
to fight, figuratively and literally. But I think the answer to the question I came for is this:
Turkey does not want to confront Russia. Nor does it want to be dependent on Russia. These two
desires can’t be reconciled without tension with Russia. And if there is tension, there will be
shared interests with the Intermarium, quite against the intentions of the Turks. In history,
intentions, particularly good ones, are rarely decisive.
Source URL: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20101122_geopolitical_journey_part_5_turkey
Geopolitical Journey, Part 6: Ukraine
Created Nov 30 2010 - 04:55
Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will
write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland.
In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and
conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
By George Friedman
The name “Ukraine” literally translates as “on the edge.” It is a country on the edge of other
countries, sometimes part of one, sometimes part of another and more frequently divided. In the
17th and 18th centuries, it was divided between Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. In the
19th century, it was divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary. And in the 20th century, save
for a short period of independence after World War I, it became part of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine has been on the edge of empires for centuries.
My father was born in Ukraine in 1912, in a town in the Carpathians now called Uzhgorod. It
was part of Austria-Hungary when he was born, and by the time he was 10 the border had moved
a few miles east, so his family moved a few miles west. My father claimed to speak seven
languages (Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish). As a child, I
was deeply impressed by his learning. It was only later that I discovered that his linguistic skills
extended only to such phrases as “What do you want for that scrawny chicken?” and “Please
He could indeed make himself understood in such non-trivial matters in all these languages.
Consider the reason: Uzhgorod today is on the Slovakian border, about 30 miles from Poland, 15
miles from Hungary and 50 miles from Romania. When my father was growing up, the borders
moved constantly, and knowing these languages mattered. You were never sure what you’d be a
citizen or subject of next or who would be aiming a rifle at you.
My father lived on the edge until the Germans came in 1941 and swept everything before them,
and then until the Soviets returned in 1944 and swept everything before them. He was one of tens
of millions who lived or died on the edge, and perhaps nowhere was there as much suffering
from living on the edge than in Ukraine. Ukraine was caught between Stalin and Hitler, between
planned famines and outright slaughter, to be relieved only by the grinding misery of post-Stalin
communism. No European country suffered as much in the 20th century as Ukraine. From 1914
until 1945, Ukraine was as close to hell as one can reach in this life.
Asking to be Ruled
Ukraine was, oddly enough,
shaped by Norsemen, who swept
down and set up trading posts,
eventually ruling over some local
populations. According to early
histories, the native tribes made
the following invitation: “Our
land is great and rich, but there is
no law in it. Come to rule and
reign over us.” This is debated,
as Anne Reid, author of the
excellent “Borderland: Journey
through the History of Ukraine,”
points out. But it really doesn’t
matter, since they came as merchants rather than conquerors, creating a city, Kiev, at the point
where the extraordinarily wide Dnieper River narrows.
Still, few historians doubt that some offer of this type was made. I can imagine inhabitants of
what became Ukraine making such an offer in ways I can’t imagine in other places. The flat
country is made for internal conflict and dissension, and the hunger for a foreigner to come and
stabilize a rich land is not always far from Ukrainians’ thoughts. Out of this grew the Kievan
Rus, the precursor of modern Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. There are endless arguments over
whether Ukraine created Russia or vice versa. Suffice it to say, they developed together. That is
more important than who did what to whom.
Consider the way they are said to have chosen their religion. Volodymyr, a pagan ruler, decided
that he needed a modern religion. He considered Islam and rejected it because he wanted to
drink. He considered Catholicism and rejected it because he had lots of concubines he didn’t
want to give up. He finally decided on Orthodox Christianity, which struck him as both beautiful
and flexible. As Reid points out, there were profound consequences: “By choosing Christianity
rather than Islam, Volodymyr cast Rus’ ambitions forever in Europe rather than Asia, and by
taking Christianity from Byzantium rather than Rome he bound the future Russians, Ukrainians
and Belarusians together in Orthodoxy, fatally dividing them from their Catholic neighbors the
Poles.” I suspect that while Volodymyr liked his drink and his women, he was most concerned
with finding a balance between powers and chose Byzantium to create space for Ukraine.
Ukraine, Europe and Russia
Ukraine is on the edge again today, trying to find space. It is on the edge of Russia and on the
edge of Europe, its old position. What makes this position unique is that Ukraine is independent
and has been so for 18 years. This is the longest period of Ukrainian independence in centuries.
What is most striking about the Ukrainians is that, while they appear to value their independence,
the internal debate seems to focus in part on what foreign entity they should be aligned with.
People in the west want to be part of the European Union. People in the east want to be closer to
the Russians. The Ukrainians want to remain independent but not simply independent.
It makes for an asymmetric relationship. Many Ukrainians want to join the European Union,
which as a whole is ambivalent at best about Ukraine. On the other hand, Ukraine matters as
much to the Russians as it does to Ukrainians, just as it always has. Ukraine is as important to
Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands
of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries. Therefore,
rumors to the contrary, neither Scotland nor Texas is going anywhere. Nor is Ukraine, if Russia
has anything to do with it. And this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental
sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives
From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia,
Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to
penetrate, but they can’t be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a
Western power, Russia’s (and Belarus’) southern flank is wide open along an arc running from
the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more
than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.
For Russia, Ukraine is a matter of fundamental national security. For a Western power, Ukraine
is of value only if that power is planning to engage and defeat Russia, as the Germans tried to do
in World War II. At the moment, given that no one in Europe or in the United States is thinking
of engaging Russia militarily, Ukraine is not an essential asset. But from the Russian point of
view it is fundamental, regardless of what anyone is thinking of at the moment. In 1932,
Germany was a basket case; by 1941, it had conquered the European continent and was deep into
Russia. One thing the Russians have learned in a long and painful history is to never plan based
on what others are capable of doing or thinking at the moment. And given that, the future of
Ukraine is never a casual matter for them.
It goes beyond this, of course. Ukraine controls Russia’s access to the Black Sea and therefore to
the Mediterranean. The ports of Odessa and Sevastopol provide both military and commercial
access for exports, particularly from southern Russia. It is also a critical pipeline route for
sending energy to Europe, a commercial and a strategic requirement for Russia, since energy has
become a primary lever for influencing and controlling other countries, including Ukraine.
This is why the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 was critical in transforming Russia’s view
of the West and its relationship to Ukraine. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine
had a series of governments that remained aligned with Russia. In the 2004 presidential election,
the seemingly pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, emerged the winner in an election that
many claimed was fraudulent. Crowds took to the streets and forced Yanukovich’s resignation,
and he was replaced by a pro-Western coalition.
The Russians charged that the peaceful uprising was engineered by Western intelligence
agencies, particularly the CIA and MI6, which funneled money into pro-Western NGOs and
political parties. Whether this was an intelligence operation or a fairly open activity, there is no
question that American and European money poured into Ukraine. And whether it came from
warm-hearted reformers or steely eyed CIA operatives didn’t matter in the least to Vladimir
Putin. He saw it as an attempt to encircle and crush the Russian Federation.
Putin spent the next six years working to reverse the outcome, operating both openly and
covertly to split the coalition and to create a pro-Russian government. In the 2010 elections,
Yanukovich returned to power, and from the Russian point of view, the danger was averted. A
lot of things went into this reversal. The United States was absorbed in Iraq and Afghanistan and
couldn’t engage Russia in a battle for Ukraine. The Germans drew close to the Russians after the
2008 crisis. Russian oligarchs had close financial and political ties with Ukrainian oligarchs who
influenced the election. There is a large pro-Russian faction in Ukraine that genuinely wants the
country to be linked to Russia. And there was deep disappointment in the West’s unwillingness
to help Ukraine substantially.
Beyond the Orange Revolution
On the day we arrived in Kiev, two things were going on. First there were demonstrations under
way protesting government tax policy. Second, Yanukovich was in Belgium for a summit with
the European Union. Both of these things animated the pro-Western faction in Ukraine, a faction
that remains fixated on the possibility that the Orange Revolution can be recreated and that
Ukraine must enter the European Union. These two things are linked.
The demonstrations were linked to a shift in tax law that increased taxes on small-business
owners. The main demonstration took place in a large square well-stocked with national flags
and other banners. The sound systems in place were quite good. It was possible to hear the
speeches clearly. When I pointed out to a pro-Western journalist that it seemed to be a well-
funded and organized demonstration, I was assured that it wasn’t well-organized at all. I have not
been to other Ukrainian demonstrations but have been present at various other demonstrations
around the world, and most of those were what some people in Texas call a “goat rodeo.” I have
never seen one of those, either, but I gather they aren’t well-organized. This demonstration did
not strike me as a goat rodeo.
This actually matters. There was some excitement among politically aware pro-Westerners that
this demonstration could evolve into another Orange Revolution. Some demonstrators were
camping out overnight, and there were some excited rumors that police were blocking buses
filled with demonstrators and preventing them from getting to the demonstration. That would
mean that the demonstration would have been bigger without police interference and that the
government was worried about another uprising.
It just didn’t seem that way to me. There were ample police in the side streets, but they were
relaxed and not in riot gear. I was told that the police with riot gear were hidden in courtyards
and elsewhere. I couldn’t prove otherwise. But the demonstration struck me as too well-
organized. Passionate and near-spontaneous demonstrations are more ragged, the crowds more
restless and growing, and the police more tense. To me, as an outsider, it seemed more an
attempt by organization leaders and politicians to generate a sense of political tension than a
spontaneous event. But there was a modicum of hope among anti-government factions that this
could be the start of something big. When pressed on the probabilities, I was told by one
journalist that there was a 5 percent chance it could grow into an uprising.
My perception was that it was a tempest in a teapot. My perception was not completely correct.
Yanukovich announced later in the week that the new tax law might not go into effect. He said
that it would depend on parliamentary action that would not come for another week but he gave
every indication that he would find a way to at least postpone it if not cancel it. Clearly, he did
not regard the demonstrations as trivial. Regardless of whether he would finally bend to the
demonstrators’ wishes, he felt he needed to respond.
On the same day the demonstrations began, Yanukovich left for Brussels for talks about Ukraine
entering the European Union. I had an opportunity to meet with an official of the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs before he departed for Brussels as well. The official had also been with the
ministry during the previous administration. He was a member of the group that had been part of
the numerous programs run by the United States and Europe for turning Eastern Europeans into
proponents of the West, and he was certainly that. My meeting with the official taught me one of
two things: Either Yanukovich was not purging people ideologically or he wanted to keep a foot
in the pro-EU camp.
From where I sat, as an American, the European Union appeared at best tarnished and at worst
tottering. I had met in Istanbul with some European financial leaders who had in past discussions
dismissed my negativism on the European Union as a lack of sophistication on my part. This
time they were far less assured than ever before and were talking about the possibilities of the
euro failing and other extreme outcomes. They had traveled quite a road in the past few years to
have arrived at this point. But what was fascinating to me was that the Ukrainian Foreign
Ministry official was not only unshaken by the Irish situation but also saw no connection
between that and the EU appetite for Ukraine becoming a member. For him, one had nothing to
do with the other.
The troubles the European Union was facing did not strike pro-EU Ukrainians as changing the
basic game. There was no question in their mind that they wanted Ukraine in the European
Union, nor was there any question in their mind that the barriers to entry were in the failure of
the Ukrainians to measure up. The idea that EU expansion had suffered a fatal blow due to the
Irish or Greek crises was genuinely inconceivable to them. The European Union was not going to
undergo any structural changes. Nothing that was happening in the European Union impacted its
attractiveness or its openness. It was all about Ukraine measuring up.
In many countries we have visited there has been a class difference for EU membership. The
political and economic elites are enthusiastic, the lower classes much more restrained. In
Ukraine, there is also a regional distinction. The eastern third of the country is heavily oriented
toward Russia and not to the West. The western third is heavily oriented toward the West. The
center of the country tilts toward the west but is divided. Linguistic division also falls along these
lines, with the highest concentrations of native Ukrainian speakers living in the west and of
Russian speakers in the east. This can be seen in the election returns in 2010 and before.
Yanukovich dominated the east, Timoshenko the west, and the contested center tilted toward
Timoshenko. But the support in the east for the Party of Regions and Yanukovich was
This division defines Ukrainian politics and foreign policy. Yanukovich is seen as having been
elected to repudiate the Orange Revolution. Supporters of the Orange Revolution are vehement
in their dislike of Yanukovich and believe that he is a Russian tool. Interestingly, this wasn’t the
view in Poland, where government officials and journalists suggested that Yanukovich was
playing a more complex game and trying to balance Ukraine between Europe and the Russians.
Whatever Yanukovich intends, it is hard to see how you split the difference. Either you join the
European Union or you don’t. I suspect the view is that Yanukovich will try to join but will be
rejected. He will therefore balance between the two groups. That is the only way he could split
the difference. Certainly, NATO membership is off the table for him. But the European Union is
I met with a group of young Ukrainian financial analysts and traders. They suggested that
Ukraine be split into two countries, east and west. This is an idea with some currency inside and
outside Ukraine. It certainly fits in with the Ukrainian tradition of being on the edge, of being
split between Europe and Russia. The problem is that there is no clear geographical boundary
that can be defined between the two parts, and the center of the country is itself divided.
Far more interesting than their geopolitical speculation was their fixation on Warsaw. Sitting in
Kiev, the young analysts and traders knew everything imaginable about the IPO market,
privatization and retirement system in Poland, the various plans and amounts available from
those plans for private investment. It became clear that they were more interested in making
money in Poland’s markets than they were in the European Union, Ukrainian politics or what the
Russians are thinking. They were young and they were traders and they knew who Gordon
Gekko was, so this is not a sampling of Ukrainian life. But what was most interesting was how
little talk there was of Ukrainian oligarchs compared to Warsaw markets. The oligarchs might
have been way beyond them and therefore irrelevant, but it was Warsaw, not the European
Union or the power structure, that got their juices flowing.
Many of these young financiers dreamed of leaving Ukraine. So did many of the students I met
at a university. There were three themes they repeated. First, they wanted an independent
Ukraine. Second, they wanted it to become part of the European Union. Third, they wanted to
leave Ukraine and live their lives elsewhere. It struck me how little connection there was
between their national hopes and their personal hopes. They were running on two different
tracks. In the end, it boiled down to this: It takes generations to build a nation, and the early
generations toil and suffer for what comes later. That is a bitter pill to swallow when you have
the option of going elsewhere and living well for yourself now. The tension in Ukraine, at least
among the European-oriented, appears to be between building Ukraine and building their own
Sovereign in Spite of Itself
But these were members of Ukraine’s Western-oriented class, which was created by the
universities. The other part of Ukraine is in the industrial cities of the east. These people don’t
expect to leave Ukraine, but they do understand that their industries can’t compete with
Europe’s. They know the Russians will buy what they produce, and they fear that European
factories in western Ukraine would cost them their jobs. There is nostalgia for the Soviet Union
here, not because they don’t remember the horrors of Stalin but simply because the decadence of
Leonid Brezhnev was so attractive to them compared to what came before or after.
Add to them the oligarchs. Not only do they permeate the Ukrainian economy and Ukrainian
society but they also link Ukraine closely with the Russians. This is because the major Ukrainian
oligarchs are tied to the Russians through complex economic and political arrangements. They
are the frame of Ukraine. When I walked down a street with a journalist, he pointed to a beautiful
but derelict building. He said that the super-wealthy buy these buildings for little money and hold
them, since they pay no tax, retarding development. For the oligarchs, the European Union, with
its rules and transparency, is a direct challenge, whereas their relation to Russia is part of their
The Russians are not, I think, trying to recreate the Russian empire. They want a sphere of
influence, which is a very different thing. They do not want responsibility for Ukraine or other
countries. They see that responsibility as having sapped Russian power. What they want is a
sufficient degree of control over Ukraine to guarantee that potentially hostile forces don’t gain
control, particularly NATO or any follow-on entities. The Russians are content to allow Ukraine
its internal sovereignty, so long as Ukraine does not become a threat to Russia and so long as gas
pipelines running through Ukraine are under Russian control.
That is quite a lot to ask of a sovereign country. But Ukraine doesn’t seem to be primarily
concerned with maintaining more than the formal outlines of its sovereignty. What it is most
concerned about is the choice between Europe and Russia. What is odd is that it is not clear that
the European Union or Russia want Ukraine. The European Union is not about to take on another
weakling. It has enough already. And Russia doesn’t want the burden of governing Ukraine. It
just doesn’t want anyone controlling Ukraine to threaten Russia. Ukrainian sovereignty doesn’t
threaten anyone, so long as the borderland remains neutral.
That is what I found most interesting. Ukraine is independent, and I think it will stay
independent. Its deepest problem is what to do with that independence, a plan it can formulate
only in terms of someone else, in this case Europe or Russia. The great internal fight in Ukraine
is not over how Ukraine will manage itself but whether it will be aligned with Europe or Russia.
Unlike the 20th century, when the answer to the question of Ukrainian alignment caused wars to
be fought, none will be fought now. Russia has what it wants from Ukraine, and Europe will not
Ukraine has dreamed of sovereignty without ever truly confronting what it means. I mentioned to
the financial analysts and traders that some of my children had served in the military. They were
appalled at the idea. Why would someone choose to go into the military? I tried to explain their
reasons, which did not have to do with wanting a good job. The gulf was too vast. They could
not understand that national sovereignty and personal service cannot be divided. But then, as I
said, most of them hoped to leave Ukraine.
Ukraine has its sovereignty. In some ways, I got the sense that it wants to give that sovereignty
away, to find someone to take away the burden. It isn’t clear, for once, that anyone is eager to
take responsibility for Ukraine. I also did not get the sense that the Ukrainians had come to terms
with what it meant to be sovereign. To many, Moscow and Warsaw are more real than Kiev.
Source URL: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20101129_geopolitical_journey_part_6_ukraine
Geopolitical Journey, Part 7: Poland
Created Dec 3 2010 - 07:27
Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman is
writing as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he shares
his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and will conclude, in the next
installment, with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
By George Friedman
To understand Poland, you must understand Frederic Chopin. First listen to his Polonaise and
then to his Revolutionary Etude. They are about hope, despair and rage. In the Polonaise, you
hear the most extraordinary distillation of a nation’s existence. In the Revolutionary Etude,
written in the wake of an uprising in Warsaw in 1830 crushed by Russian troops, there is both
rage and resignation. In his private journal, Chopin challenged God for allowing this national
catastrophe to happen, damning the Russians and condemning the French for not coming to
Warsaw’s aid. Afterward,
Chopin never returned to
Poland, but Poland never left his
Poland finally became an
independent nation in 1918. The
prime minister it chose to
represent it at Versailles was
Ignacy Paderewski, a pianist and
one of the finest interpreters of
Chopin. The conference restored
the territories of Greater Poland,
and Paderewski helped create the interwar Poland. Gdansk (the German Danzig) set the stage for
Poland’s greatest national disaster when Germany and the Soviet Union allied to crush Poland,
and Danzig became the German justification for its destruction.
A History of Tragedy and Greatness
For the Poles, history is always about betrayal, frequently French. Even had France (and the
United Kingdom) planned to honor their commitment to Poland, it would have been impossible
to carry it out. Poland collapsed in less than a week; no one can aid a country that collapses that
fast. (The rest of the invaders’ operations comprised mopping up.)
Wars take time to wage, and the
Poles preferred the romantic
gesture to waging war. The
Poles used horse cavalry against
German armor, an event of great
symbolism if not a major
military feat. As an act of human
greatness, there was
magnificence in their resistance.
They waged war — even after
defeat — as if it were a work of
art. It was also an exercise in
futility. Listen carefully to
Chopin: Courage, art and futility
are intimately related for Poland.
The Poles expect to be betrayed,
to lose, to be beaten. Their pride
was in their ability to retain their humanity in the face of catastrophe.
I think Chopin can be understood geopolitically. Look at where Poland is. It rests on the North
European Plain, an open country whose national borders to its west and east are not protected or
even defined by any significant geographical boundaries. To its east is Russia, by 1830 a massive
empire. To the west were first the Prussians and after 1871 the Germans. To the south until 1918
was the Hapsburg Empire. No amount of courage or wisdom could survive forces as massive as
Poland is neither the master of its fate nor the captain of its soul. It lives and perishes by the will
of others. Little can be done to stop the Germans and Russians when they join forces or use
Poland as their battlefield. The
most Poland can do is hope that
powers farther away will come
to its aid. They can’t. No one
can aid a country that far away
unless it aids itself. Chopin
knew this in his soul and knew
that the Poles would not succeed
in aiding themselves. I think
Chopin took pride in the
certainty of catastrophe.
There is a book by Ivan Morris
titled “The Nobility of Failure.”
It is about Japan, but the title
resonates with me when I think
of Poland, Chopin and
Paderewski. The Poles were
magnificent in defeat, something I say without irony. But it must be remembered that Polish
history was not always about the nobility of failure, nor is this kind of nobility Poland’s certain
fate. Before the Russian Empire emerged, before the Hapsburgs organized southeastern Europe
and before the rise of Prussia, Poland was one of Europe’s great powers, the Polish-Lithuanian
When the Germans are divided, the Russians weak and the Austrians worried about the
Ottomans, then Poland stops being a victim. The Poles remember this and constantly refer to
their past greatness. It is not clear that they fully appreciate why they were once great, why the
greatness was taken away from them or that its resurrection is not unthinkable. The Poles know
they once dominated the North European Plain. They are convinced that it will never happen
The Poles today want to escape their history. They want to move beyond Chopin’s tragic sense,
and they want to avoid fantastic dreams of greatness. The former did nothing to protect their
families from the Nazis and Communists. The latter is simply irrelevant. They were powerful for
a while when there was no Germany or Russia, but they’re not now. Or so it would appear. I
would argue that this view is lacking in imagination.
Poland, Russia and Europe
The Poles, like the rest of Central Europe, look at the European Union as the solution to their
strategic problem. As an EU member, Poland’s Germany problem is solved. The two nations are
now to be linked together in one vast institutional structure that eliminates the danger the two
once posed to each other. The Poles also think the Russians are not a danger because the
Russians are weaker than they appear and because, as one Foreign Ministry official put it to me,
neither Ukraine nor Belarus is simply a Russian satellite. Indeed, he thought of Ukraine and
Belarus more as buffers. As for the old Austro-Hungarian threat, that has dissolved into a
melange of weak nations, none of which can threaten Poland.
Under these circumstances, many Poles would argue that the dangers of life on the North
European Plain have been abolished. From my point of view, there are two problems with this
perception. The first, as I have said in previous essays in this series, is that Germany is re-
evaluating its role within the European Union. This is not because the German leadership wants
to do so; Germany’s financial and political elites are deeply wedded to the idea of the European
Union. But as with many elites worldwide after 2008, Germany’s elites have lost a great deal of
room for maneuver. Public opinion is deeply suspicious of the multiple bailouts the German
government has underwritten and may have to underwrite in the coming years. As German
Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, Germans are not going to retire at 67 so Greeks can retire at 58.
From the point of view of Germans — and the least interesting views are expressed by the
increasingly weak elite — the European Union is turning into a trap for German interests. For the
Germans, a redefinition of the European Union is needed. If Germany is going to be called on to
underwrite EU failures, it wants substantial control over the rest of Europe’s economic policy. A
two-tiered system is emerging in Europe, one in which patrons and clients will not have the same
degree of power.
Poland is doing extraordinarily well economically for the moment. Its economy is growing, and
it is clearly the economic leader among the former Soviet satellites. But the period in which EU
subsidies will flow into Poland is coming to an end, and problems with Poland’s retirement
system are looming. Poland’s ability to maintain its economic standing within the European
Union is going to be challenged in years to come. Poland could then be relegated to the status of
I don’t think the Poles would mind being a well-cared-for client. The problem is that the
Germans and other core EU members have neither the resources nor the inclination to sustain the
EU periphery in the style the periphery wants to be cared for. If Poland slips, it will have the
same sort of controls put on it that are being placed on Ireland. One Polish official made clear he
didn’t see this as a problem. When I mentioned the potential loss of Polish sovereignty, he told
me that there were different kinds of sovereignty and that the loss of budgetary sovereignty does
not necessarily undercut national sovereignty.
I told him that I thought he was not facing the magnitude of the problem. The ability of a state to
determine how it taxes and distributes money is the essence of the sovereign state. If it loses that,
it is left with the power to proclaim national ice cream month and the like. Others, most
particularly the Germans, will oversee defense, education and everything else. If you place the
budget beyond the democratic process, sovereignty has lost its meaning.
Here the conversation always got to the essence of the matter: intention. I was told over and over
that Germany does not intend to take away sovereignty but merely to restructure the European
Union cooperatively. I completely agreed that the Germans do not covet Polish sovereignty. I
also said that intentions don’t matter. First, who knows what is on Merkel’s mind? WikiLeaks
might reveal what she has said to an American diplomat, but that does not mean she has said
what she thinks. Second, Merkel will not be in charge in a few years, and no one knows who
comes next. Third, Merkel is not a free actor, but is constrained by political reality. And fourth,
call it what you will, but if the Germans realign the structure of the EU, then power will be in
their hands — and it is power, not the subjective inclination as to how to use that power, that
Another conversation concerned Russian power. Again, officials emphasized two things. The
first was that Russia was weak and not a threat. The second was that Russian control over
Ukraine and Belarus was much less than imagined — neither is fixed in the Russian orbit. On
this, I agreed partly. The Russians have no desire to recreate the Russian empire or Soviet Union;
they do not want responsibility for these two countries. But they do want to limit Ukraine’s and
Belarus’ options in foreign policy. The Russians will permit all sorts of internal evolutions. They
will not permit politico-military alliances between the two and Western nations. And they will
insist on Russian army and naval forces’ having access to Belarusian and Ukrainian soil.
I do not find the argument about Russian weakness persuasive. First, strength is relative. Russia
may be weak compared to the United States. It is not weak compared to Europe or Russia’s near
abroad. A nation does not have to be stronger than its strategic requirements, and Russia is
certainly strong enough for those. True, Russia’s population is in decline and it is an economic
wreck. But Russia has been an economic wreck since Napoleon, if not before. Its ability to field
military power disproportionate to its economic power is historically demonstrable.
I raised the question of European, and particularly German, energy dependence on Russia, and
was told that Germany only imports 30 percent of its energy from Russia. I had thought it was 45
percent, but still, I see 30 percent as a huge dependence. Cut that percentage off and the German
economy becomes unsustainable. And that gives Russia a great deal of power. And while Russia
needs the revenues from energy, it can stand a cut in revenues a lot longer than Germany and
Europe can stand an energy cutoff.
Finally, there is the question of German and Russian cooperation. As I have discussed before, the
German dependence on Russian energy and the Russian requirement for technology has created
a synergy between the two countries, something reflected in their constant diplomatic
consultation. In addition, German questions about the future of the European Union have taken
them on a more independent and exploratory course. For their part, the Russians have achieved
the essentials of a geopolitical recovery. Compared to 10 years ago, Putin has taken Russia on an
extraordinary recovery. Russia is now interested in splitting Europe from the United States, and
particularly from Germany. As Germany is looking for a new foundation for its foreign policy,
the Russians are looking to partner with Europe.
The Polish leaders I spoke to all made it clear that they did not see this as a problem. I find it
hard to believe that a German-Russian understanding does not concern the Poles. Yes, I know
that neither Germany nor Russia intends Poland harm. But an elephant doesn’t necessarily plan
to harm a mouse. Intentions aside, the mouse gets harmed.
I think the real point the Poles are making is that they have no choice. When I pointed out the
option of the Intermarium with American backing, a senior Foreign Ministry official pointed out
that under the new NATO plan the Germans have guaranteed two divisions to defend Poland
while the United States has offered one brigade. He was extraordinarily bitter on this score.
Following on the American decision to withdraw from a commitment to construct a fixed,
permanent ballistic missile defense installation in Poland and the tentative nature of a rotational
deployment of a single Patriot battery, he saw this as a betrayal by the United States of earlier
commitments. I lamely made the argument that one American brigade is a more effective
fighting force than two contemporary German divisions, but that is debatable at best, and I
deliberately missed the point. His charge was that there was no American commitment under the
new NATO plan, or at least nothing credible.
Polish Self-Reliance and the United States
My real response to these points was something different. Poland had been helpless for centuries,
the victim of occupation and dismemberment. It had been free and sovereign in the interwar
period. It had thrown away its sovereignty by simply depending on French and British
guarantees. Those guarantees might have been dishonest, but honest or not, they could not have
been honored. Poland collapsed too quickly.
Guaranteeing Polish national sovereignty is first and foremost a Polish national issue. First, a
nation does not give away control of fundamental national prerogatives, like its economy, to
multinational organizations, particularly ones dominated by historical threats like Germany.
Certainly, a nation doesn’t do that based on its perception of German intentions. All nations
change their intentions; consider Germany between 1932 and 1934. Second, to take comfort
from Russia’s economic weakness is to deliberately misread history.
But most important, a nation’s sovereignty depends on its ability to defend itself. True, Poland
cannot defend itself from a treaty signed by Germany and Russia, at least not by itself. But it can
buy time. Help may not come, but without time, help can’t possibly come. Of course, Poland can
decide to accommodate itself to the Germans and Russians, assuming that this time things will be
different. It is a comfortable assumption. It may even be true. But Poland is betting its nation on
My reading of the situation is that both Polish officials and the Polish public understand that they
are safe for the moment but that the future is unknown. They also feel helpless. Poland is a
bustling European country, full of joint ventures and hedge funds. But all of the activity only
covers the underlying tragic sense of the Polish nation, that in the end, the idea of the Polish
nation is not in Polish hands. What will come will come, and the Poles will make a heroic stand
if worse comes to worst. Chopin turned this sensibility into high art. In the end, survival is more
prosaic, and ultimately harder to achieve, than the creation of art. Or more precisely, for Poland,
survival is harder than artistic works of genius, and more rare.
Ultimately, I am an American and therefore less taken by tragic sensibilities than by viable
strategy. For Poland, that strategy comes from the recognition that not only is it caught between
Germany and Russia, it is the monkey wrench in German-Russian entente. It can be crushed by
this. But it can prevent this. To do that, it needs three things. First, it needs a national defense
strategy designed to make it more costly to attack Poland than to find way around it. This is
expensive. But how much would the Poles have paid to avoid the Nazi and Soviet occupation?
What seems expensive can be cheap in retrospect.
Second, Poland by itself is too light. As part of an alliance stretching from Finland to Turkey, the
Intermarium, Poland would have an alliance of sufficient weight to matter that would be free
from the irrelevancies of NATO. NATO was the alliance of the Cold War. The Cold War is over,
but the alliance lives on like a poorly fed ghost administered by a well-fed bureaucracy.
Poland would need to coordinate with Romania, regardless of, say, Portugal’s opinion on the
matter. This alliance requires Polish leadership. It will not emerge from it. But Poland must first
overcome the fantasy that the 18-year-old European Union represents Europe’s millennial
transformation into the peaceful Kingdom of Heaven. Eighteen years isn’t much time by
European standards, and Europe has been looking unwell of late. If Germany bets wrong on the
European Union, it will survive. Will Poland? National strategy is based on the worst-case
scenario, not on hopeful understandings with transitory leaders.
Finally, the Poles must maintain their relationship with the global hegemon. Certainly, the last
years of the Bush administration and the first years of the Obama administration have not been
pleasant for Poland. But in the end, the United States has fought three times in the 20th century
to prevent a German-Russian entente and the domination of Europe by one power, whether that
be Germany, Russia or a combination of the two. These wars were not fought for sentiment; the
United States had no Chopin. The wars were driven by geopolitics. A German-Russian entente
would threaten the United States profoundly. That is why it fought World War I, World War II
and the Cold War.
There are things the United States cannot permit if it can stop them. The domination of Europe
by one power tops the list. At the moment, the United States is more concerned about ending
corruption in Afghanistan. This fixation will not last. Of course, the United States runs by a
different and longer clock than Poland does. The United States has more room for maneuver.
Poland also has time now, but it must use it in preparation for the time when the Americans
regain their sense of perspective.
The European Union might right itself, and what emerges could be a confederation of equal
nations as originally planned. The Russians might go quietly into that good night. Whatever my
doubts, it might happen. But the problem the Poles have is what they will do if the best case
doesn’t emerge. I would argue that there is no nobility in a failure that could be avoided. I would
also argue that if you listen carefully to the Polonaise, it is an invitation not only to survival, but
The Polish margin of error is extraordinarily thin. What I found in Poland was not an
indifference to that margin, but a sense of helplessness coupled with intense activity to do well
while living well is impossible. But it is the sense of helpless fatalism that frightens me as an
American. We depend on Poland in ways that my countrymen don’t see yet. The longer we wait,
the greater the chance of tragedy. The Germans and Russians are not monsters at the moment,
nor do they want to be. But as Chopin makes clear, what we want to be and what we are are two
different things, a subject to be considered in my concluding essay.
Source URL: http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20101202_geopolitical_journey_part_7_poland
Geopolitical Journey, Part 8: Returning
Created Dec 7 2010 - 04:56
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman wrote
during his travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he shared
his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and now concludes with
reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.
By George Friedman
I have come home, a word that is ambiguous for me, and more so after this trip to Romania,
Moldova, Turkey, Ukraine and Poland. The experience of being back in Texas frames my
memories of the journey. The architecture of the cities I visited both impressed and oppressed
me. Whether Austro-Hungarian mass or Stalinist modernism, the sheer size of the buildings was
overwhelming. These are lands of apartments, not of private homes on their own plots of land. In
Texas, even in the cities, you have access to the sky. That gives me a sense of freedom and
casualness that Central Europe denies me. For a man born in Budapest, with a mother from
Bratislava and a father from Uzhgorod, I can’t deny I am Central European. But I prefer my
chosen home in Austin simply because nothing is ever casual for me in Central Europe. In Texas,
everything is casual, even when it’s about serious things. There is an ease in the intensity of
On my return, some friends arranged a small dinner with some accomplished and distinguished
people to talk about my trip. I was struck by the casualness of the conversation. It was a serious
discussion, even passionate at times, but it was never guarded. There was no sense that a
conversation carried with it risk. I had not met some of the guests before. It didn’t matter. In the
region I was born in, I feel that I have to measure every word with care. There are so many bad
memories that each word has to be measured as if it were gold. The simplest way to put it, I
suppose, is that there are fewer risks in Texas than in Central Europe. One of the benefits of
genuine power is speaking your mind, with good humor. Those on the edge of power proceed
with more caution. Perhaps more than others, I feel this tension. Real Texans may laugh at this
assertion, but at the end of the day, I’m far more Texan than anything else.
Or perhaps I speak too quickly. We were in the Kiev airport on the way to Warsaw. As I was
passing through security, I was stopped by the question, “Friedman? Warsaw?” I admitted that
and suddenly was under guard. “You have guns in your luggage.” For me, that statement
constituted a near-death experience. I looked at my wife, wondering what she had done. She said
casually, “Those aren’t guns. They are swords and daggers and were to be surprises for my
husband.” Indeed they were. While I stood in mortal terror, she cheerily chatted up the guards,
who really couldn’t make out what she was saying but were charmed nonetheless by her
complete absence of fear. In my case, the fear came in layers, with each decade like another layer
in an archaeological dig. For her, memory is a much simpler thing.
The region I visited is all about memories — never forgetting, never forgiving and pretending it
doesn’t matter any more. Therefore, the region is in a peculiar place. On the one hand, every past
grievance continues to live. On the other hand, a marvelous machine, the European Union, is
hard at work, making the past irrelevant and the future bright. In a region not noted for its
optimism, redemption is here and it comes from Brussels.
Here is the oddity. The Cold War ended about 20 years ago. The Maastricht Treaty was
implemented about 17 years ago. By European — or any — standards, both the post-Cold War
world and the European Union in its contemporary form are extraordinarily new inventions.
People who still debate the ethnic makeup of Transylvania in 1100 are utterly convinced that the
European Union represents a permanent and stable foundation for their future. The European
Union will, so they say, create prosperity, instill democracy and produce a stable system of laws
that will end corruption, guarantee human rights and eliminate the Russian threat.
It is almost impossible to have a rational discussion about the European Union. The paradox
between memories going back millennia and tremendous confidence in an institution less than 20
years old could have been the single most startling thing I found. People whose historical
sensibility ought to tell them that nothing this new can be counted on are sincerely convinced
that the European Union works and will continue to work.
Another oddity was that my visit coincided with the Irish crisis. At the heart of the crisis is
Germany’s recognition that the way the European Union is structured is unsustainable. The idea
that countries that get help from the European Union might have a different voting status than
those that give help profoundly reshapes the union from a collection of equal states to various
classes of states, with Germany inevitably in the dominant position.
I noted that countries already in the European Union, like Romania and Poland, did not find this
a troubling evolution. Poland might have a rational reason for this view, since it is doing fairly
well at the moment, but
Romania has no reason to be
confident. For the Romanians,
it is as if it doesn’t matter what
their status is in the European
Union so long as they are in the
union. They see it as a
benevolent entity in which the
interests of some countries will
put others at a disadvantage.
Even more interesting are the
many Moldovans and
Ukrainians who still think they
are going to get into the
European Union and focus on
where they are in the accession
process. My view is that they
are exactly nowhere, because the Greek and Irish crises, plus whatever comes next, will change
and probably limit who will be permitted to become a member. It is impossible for me to
imagine circumstances under which either of these countries becomes a member. I can more
easily imagine expulsions and resignations from both the eurozone and the European Union than
I can imagine continued expansion.
In this region, in spite of the Irish crisis, almost no one drew a connection between the ongoing
financial crises, doubts about the future of the European Union, questions about whether EU
membership is desirable, questions about whether the rules are going to change in some
unbearable way, or questions about whether the rest of Europe will want to be associated with
them regardless of what they do. The EU crisis simply has not affected the perception.
I think there are two reasons for this. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the
contemporary European Union coincided. For most of these countries, liberation from the
Warsaw Pact coincided with the rise of the union. It and NATO were tickets out of the hell of
Soviet domination. These countries have no vision of what they will be if the European Union
changes. Starting a discussion of this would create a fundamental political crisis based on the
question of national identity. No one wants to have that conversation. Therefore, it is better to
pretend that what we see in the European Union are passing clouds rather than an existential
crisis. Far better to postpone the conversation on what Romania or Poland is if the union
becomes something very different than to have the conversation now. Therefore, it is declared,
ex cathedra, that the European Union is not facing redefinition.
The second reason has to do with Germany. All of these countries lived through nightmares in
World War II. For all of them, allied with or enemies of Germany at the time, Hitler led to
national catastrophe. Germany has re-emerged as the dominant European power and EU center.
If the memories rule, these countries should be panicking. They do not want to panic. Therefore,
they have created for themselves a picture of a Germany whose very soul has been transformed
since 1945, a Germany that has no predatory interests, poses no threats and will solve all EU
There is a Germany between monster and saint that they don’t want to deal with. Germany is a
democratic country, and the German public is not enamored with the idea of being Europe’s cash
machine. The German elite have things under control for now, but if things get worse, Germany
has elections like any other country. Germany does not have to be a monster in order to be
unwilling to underwrite Europe — certainly not without major political and economic
concessions. The tension between the German elite and the German public is substantial, and if
the German elite are broken in the political process of a democratic country, the European Union
can change. Europe is democratic, and it is not clear that the European public has an unshakeable
commitment to the European Union.
The Eastern Europeans are confident that this won’t happen in Germany. The only exception, of
course, is Turkey, which is officially eager for membership in the European Union and quite
prepared to go forward without it. Turkey was the wild card on this trip, the country that didn’t
fit. It is therefore not surprising that Turks should have a unique view of the European Union.
They are doing well economically, and while the union might have a political and cultural
attraction to many Turks, it is not in any way the existential foundation of the Turkish nation. To
the contrary, like Germany, Turkey is at the center of its own emerging region. This makes it
difficult to think of Turkey as part of this journey, with one exception. If my idea of the
Intermarium is to have an anchor, that anchor would have to be Turkey. I think Turkey needs a
relationship with Europe, and the concept I have been putting forward is an alternative to the
Polish and Romanian political leaders refer to their close relationships with German leaders.
They don’t want to think about a wholesale cleansing of the German leadership. They may be
right. It may not happen. But it is not something that can be excluded or even seen as unlikely.
There is a combination of unwillingness to think of the consequences of this crisis and a sense of
helplessness. Memories reverse here. Every house is filled with memories. These memories have
been declared abolished by official decree. All is well.
The Question of Russia
Then there is Russia. Here there are fewer illusions, but then less time has passed. Everyone
knows the Russians have returned to history. Far more than the Americans, they know that Putin
is a Russian leader, in the full meaning of that term. The Ukrainians and Moldovans are divided;
some would welcome the Russians, some would want to resist. The Turks, having never been
occupied by the Russians but having fought many duels with them, depend on them for energy,
feel uncomfortable and look for alternatives. The Romanians hope for the best with occasional
combative outbursts. But the Poles have the cleverest response, actually dueling with the
Russians in Belarus and Ukraine while simultaneously maintaining good relations with Moscow.
I am not saying that they are effective, just that they are not passive.
But they also comfort themselves about Russia as they do about Germany. The Russian economy
is weak. This is true, but it was weak when the Russians beat Napoleon and weak when they
seized Central Europe. Russian military and intelligence capabilities have frequently outstripped
the country’s economic power. The reason is simple: Given its security apparatus, Russia can
suppress public discontent more than other countries can. Therefore it can compel the public to
exist with lower standards of living without resistance and divert resources to the military. With
Russia, you cannot correlate economic power and military power. Everyone has written Russia
off because of its demographic problems. Russia is too complex a country to reduce its future to
that. Russia tends to surprise you when you least expect it.
Of course, this is something that former members of the Warsaw Pact understand. There is
genuine concern about what Russia will do in Poland and west of the Carpathians. Here, many
look to NATO. Again, to me, NATO is moribund. It has insufficient military force, it has a
decision-making structure that doesn’t allow for rapid decisions, and it doesn’t have a basing
system. In addition, it has the Germans inviting the Russians into a closer relationship with
NATO that everyone applauds but the Americans and Eastern Europeans. To me, NATO is no
longer a defensive alliance; it is a gesture toward having a defensive alliance.
NATO is designed to come to the aid of Poland or the Baltics in the event of the unexpected and
inconceivable, which would be Russia taking advantage of NATO weakness to create a new
reality. For NATO to have any chance of working, it not only has to reach a unanimous
agreement but it must also mobilize and move a multinational force while the Balts and Poles
hold out. As in 1939, the issue is that they must remain effective fighting forces with the ability
to resist and have a military capability of this generation and not the last. If the Russians are not
going to attack, then there is no point in having NATO. Let it die and let the diplomats and
bureaucrats go on to other careers. If there is a threat, it comes from Russia, so integrating Russia
into NATO would make no sense, nor does the current NATO force structure.
A decision has to be made but it won’t be. It is too comforting to think of NATO as an effective
military force than to do the work needed to make it one. And when the bill is presented, it is
easier to dismiss the Russian threat. Yet none of these countries will take the logical leap and
simply state that NATO has no function. That’s because they know better. But knowing better is
not the same as going to the effort.
The problem is Germany. It is moving closer to the Russians and does not want a NATO focused
on the Russians. It wants no part of a new Cold War. And no one in the countries I visited had
any desire to challenge the Germans. And so the question of Russia is out there, but no one wants
to state it too boldly.
The Invisible Americans
There is one country I haven’t mentioned in all of this: the United States. I’ve remained silent on
this because virtually everyone I talked to on my trip was silent about the United States. It is
simply not a factor to these countries, except Turkey. I found it striking that Eastern Europe is
not making calculations based on what the United States will or won’t do. Perhaps the
disappearance of the United States from the European equation was the most startling thing on
this trip, one I didn’t realize until I returned.
The European Union dominates all minds. NATO is there as well, a distant second. The Russians
are taken into account. But the United States has stopped being a factor in European affairs. It
does not present an alternative, and those countries that looked at it to do so, like Poland, have
been bitterly disappointed in what they have seen as American promises and a failure to deliver.
For other countries, like Romania, Israel offers a more interesting relationship than the United
The decline in American influence and power in Europe is not due to the lack of American
power. It is due primarily to America’s absorption in the wars in the Islamic world. To the extent
the Americans interact with Europe it is all about requesting troops for Afghanistan and
demanding economic policies that the Germans block.
The United States has fought two bloody and one cold and dangerous war in Europe in the past
century. Each war was about the relationship among France, Germany and Russia, and the desire
of the United States not to see any one of them or a coalition dominate the continent. The reason
was the fear that Russian resources and Franco-German technology (particularly German) would
ultimately threaten American national security. The United States intervened in World War I,
invaded Northern Europe in 1944 and stood guard in Germany for 45 years to prevent this. This
was the fixed strategy of the United States.
It is not clear what Washington’s strategy is toward Europe at this point. I do not believe the
United States has a strategy. If it did, I would argue that the strategy should consist of two parts:
first, trying to prevent a Russo-German entente and, second, creating a line running from Finland
to Turkey to limit and shape both countries. This is the Intermarium strategy I wrote about earlier
in this series.
This strategy is not, in my mind, impossible because the countries involved are uninterested. It is
impossible because Washington seems to believe that the fall of the Soviet regime changed
America’s fundamental strategic interest. Washington is living an illusion. It is the belief that the
hundred-year war in Europe has been replaced by a hundred-year war in the Islamic world. It
may have been supplemented but it has not been replaced.
In talking to people in Washington and Europe, I am made to feel anachronistic, raising issues
that no longer exist. I will argue that these people are out of touch with reality. The dynamics of
the last hundred years in Europe have always changed but have always returned to the same
fundamental questions, just in different ways. The strategy of the Cold War cost far fewer lives
than the strategies of World War I and World War II. By intervening early, war was avoided in
the Cold War. It avoided a slaughter at a fraction of the cost. My countercharge to being
anachronistic is that those celebrating the European Union and NATO are willfully ignoring the
fundamental defects of each.
I suspect the Intermarium will come, at a time and in a way that will combine all the risks with a
much higher human price. Perhaps I am wrong. I have been before. But this I am certain of: The
United States is a global power, and Europe remains a critical area of interest. I have never lived
in a period when the United States was less visible, less well-regarded and less trusted than at the
current moment. Democrats will blame Bush. Republicans will blame Obama. Both are
responsible, but the ultimate responsibility lies with us.
Just as the Eastern Europeans are having an identity crisis, so too are the Americans. The Eastern
Europeans and Turks are trying to define their place in the world after the end of the Cold War.
So are the Americans. America has not disappeared because it lacks power. A country that
makes up one quarter of the world’s economic activity and controls the seas is hardly weak,
although many would proclaim the American decline. The United States simply hasn’t figured
out how to handle the enormous power it has. With each succeeding president, it seems to get
Americans take the Romanian position, hoping for the best and rationalizing away their lack of
exertion. I am reminded, on Dec. 7, of the price we paid for a similar indifference in 1941. At
that time, the Great Depression was our excuse for inaction. Today it is the Great Recession. In
the end, we had the Depression and war.
One thing that you learn in Eastern Europe is that you don’t get to choose how you live. Others
frequently choose for you. That is because Eastern European countries have been weak and
divided. Now it is because they are trying to unite with powers in the European Union that are
greater than they are. The United States, in a very different way, faces the same problem, not
from weakness but from strength. Strength limits options just as weakness does.
I have come from there and am now here, a journey I have completed many times and one that
always brings the singularly human pleasure of being home again. Much has changed in Eastern
Europe, but, oddly, very little has. These are countries for which others define the rules. I am
convinced that it doesn’t have to be this way, but they are not. For them, it is the perpetual search
for the other who will make rules for them. At home, I live in a country and place where resisting
the rules, particularly those imposed by others, is a national obsession, but then American history
has been about this sort of resistance.
I am convinced that the fate of the region I was born in and the country I grew up in are
intimately linked. Neither my government nor theirs seems aware of this fact. I don’t think either
will understand this until history’s crank turns once more, and the post-Cold War world is
replaced by the next phase of history, one that will be both bleaker and more dangerous than the
prosperous interregnum of the last 18 years.