The European Peninsula is facing two interlocking crises: first, the fragmentation in the European Union and, second, a shift in the relationship between the peninsula and the rest of Eurasia. At its core, the European Union’s crisis revolves around the challenges of diverging national interests. European nation-states joined the European Union due to its promise of prosperity, but the bloc’s integration masked an underlying reality of fragmented nations, each facing its own unique political, economic and geographic challenges.
European institutions have been unable to overcome these differences in national interests. The financial crisis and the uptick in refugee flows to Europe have led to significant disagreements among the bloc’s member states, further undermining the European Union’s cohesion. At the same time, a conflict is underway between the peninsula and the Eurasian mainland. Here, we use the term mainland to refer to the part of Eurasia that is west of the European Peninsula and dominated by Russia. Europe has sought to expand its influence into Russia’s backyard in the peninsula’s eastern region, a process that a heavily constrained Russia is at the moment unable to reverse.
Before dealing with these political and institutional issues, we need a view of the continent’s main geopolitical challenges. The European Peninsula extends from Portugal and Britain in the west to the city of St. Petersburg, on the eastern tip of the Baltic Sea, and the city of Rostov in the southeast. It stretches between the Mediterranean and Black Seas in the south to the North Sea and Baltic Sea. Access to rivers, the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic has allowed the European Peninsula to build trade routes and become one of the wealthiest and most developed places on earth.
The European Peninsula is highly diverse and fragmented. It can be divided into five areas: northern Europe, Germanic Europe, southern Europe, the eastern portion of the European Union and the eastern peninsula beyond the bloc’s borders.
Germany is situated in the northern portion of the peninsula, along the North European Plain. Its central location and flat geography has allowed the country to become a center of trade and manufacturing, but has also contributed to its vulnerability to invasion from both east and west. Germany is the most powerful country in the European Union. The country produces much more than it consumes internally and as a result exports about 45 percent of its GDP. Germany must therefore maintain a cohesive eurozone and European Union, in order to safeguard its ability to export large amounts of goods and shape the direction of Europe’s economic policies.
Southern Europe, on the other hand, is more mountainous and less easy to access, for both traders and invading armies. The Alps separate the Italian peninsula from the rest of Europe, while mountains also form a physical barrier between Spain and France. Unlike Germany, southern European countries do not benefit from the European Union’s control of monetary policy, which makes it impossible for these countries to devalue their currencies in order to protect their economies and promote social stability in times of economic difficulties.
Northern Europe, which includes France, the United Kingdom and the Nordic states, differs from its southern neighbors in both economic realities and geopolitical priorities. The United Kingdom benefits from extensive trade with the Europeans, but also wants to maintain its traditional autonomy over both political and economic decision-making. France aims to be Germany’s counterpart in leading the European Union, but lacks the economic clout and differs from its eastern neighbor on core economic questions, in particular austerity measures.
In the east are Europe’s borderlands, a region that has historically been contested by regional powers and lies from the Baltics in the north to Bulgaria in the south. The borderlands are split into two: Central and Eastern European countries that have joined NATO and the European Union, and former Soviet states — Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova — as well as most of the Balkan states that have yet to integrate with European institutions. Throughout the region, states are primarily occupied with defining their respective relationships with the peninsula and the mainland. In the Central and Eastern European countries that are already members of Western economic and defense institutions, this struggle is addressed primarily in a strategy of balancing. The focal point of competition between Russia and the European Peninsula, however, is the region that has yet to formally join the European Union and NATO. For Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are key buffer zones.
The European Union and Diverging National Interests
The European Union was designed as an economic union to help overcome national differences and bring prosperity to its members. However, for member states, diverse geographic, political and economic realities remained. During a prosperous era, these differences beneath the surface were generally glossed over. In a time of crisis, these diverging realities translated into drastically different policy preferences. The gap in underlying national challenges among European Union members means that each successive crisis impacts states in different ways.
The 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath revealed the conflicting economic structures and priorities of the EU’s members. Germany, as a creditor and export-based economic powerhouse, both sought to preserve the eurozone and impose harsh austerity measures upon debtor countries. Southern European countries, heavily in debt and experiencing dangerously high levels of unemployment, opposed austerity, fearing social unrest. While austerity programs have been implemented throughout the region, opposing interests among European Union members have led to both gridlock and ad hoc policies, undermining the bloc’s coherence.
In 2015, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees, many fleeing violence in Syria, also contributed to the erosion of the European Union. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is facing a labor shortage and an aging population and, therefore, may be able to absorb these migrants. Southern European countries, however, have relatively high unemployment rates. Moreover, Central and Eastern European workers have moved in large numbers to Western Europe following the enlargement of the European Union and this region has little experience welcoming migrants themselves. The opposition of countries like Poland and Hungary to a quota system for distributing refugees among EU members is thus a reflection of these different interests and further undermines the European Union’s ability to address the refugee crisis. At the same time, concern over terror activities is also shifting public opinion across Europe and reducing the EU’s ability to develop a coherent system for allowing refugees to enter and settle within the bloc. This also threatens to undermine one of the foundation pieces of the European Union: free movement.
The EU’s increasing inability to effectively resolve new crises has contributed to the strengthening of nationalist and anti-integration movements across the continent. These movements range from anti-austerity parties in southern Europe to far-right parties, such as the National Front in France and Jobbik in Hungary. Moreover, political movements outside of the traditional political spectrum are playing an increasingly important role, not only by winning elections for public office on both the local and national level, but also by influencing the policy agendas of mainstream parties. This influence has placed pressure on political parties to adopt policies that oppose the integration of refugees, implementation of austerity measures and European Union membership. The presence and growing influence of nationalist and anti-system groups makes it more difficult for national governments to agree to compromises on the European level, leading to more gridlock and incoherent European Union policies.
European Peninsula vs. Eurasian Mainland
The peninsula’s relationship with Russia hinges on Europe’s underlying strategic realities. Russia’s western borders, on the North European Plain, are highly vulnerable to invasion. Russia’s best defense is depth: the country’s leaders have learned from experience, ranging from Napoleon to Hitler’s invasion, that armies attempting to reach Moscow struggle when their supply lines stretch across large distances. Russia’s chief priority, therefore, is to protect and expand its buffer zones along Europe’s eastern border. Securing influence in Belarus, Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, the Baltic states is key to this strategy. The expansion of the European Union and NATO to the Baltic states, as well as to former members of the Warsaw Pact, was regarded by the Kremlin as the West intruding into a sphere of influence critical to Russia’s security.
Russia lost its position of influence in the Baltics and much of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1990s, when it was undergoing a period of economic and political instability. The European Union’s Eastern Partnership program, designed to help countries such as Ukraine and Moldova move toward integration with European institutions, was conceived in 2008 and presented a new threat for Moscow. By the late 2000s, however, Russia was stable and economically secure. The Kremlin was not prepared to lose influence in Ukraine, a key buffer zone. Consequently, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and sponsored a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine to weaken the new pro-Western government in Kiev, deter the U.S. and European Union from militarily aiding Kiev, and protect its naval base in Crimea.
Competing with Europe and the United States for influence further afield in Central Europe and the Balkans, in countries such as Serbia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, is also among Russia’s aims. The Kremlin has used energy and investment to boost its position in these borderland states. However, lower global energy prices, European efforts to integrate energy markets and energy diversification efforts have eroded the Kremlin’s levers in the region. At the same time, Russia’s internal financial problems are reducing the amount of funds it can allocate toward maintaining its influence in Central Europe and the Balkans.
Russia is constrained, both militarily and economically. Logistically, Russia cannot launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and would struggle to even take control of major cities in eastern Ukraine. Recent economic troubles, stemming largely from the drop in the price of oil, are also limiting the Kremlin’s options.
The response in the European Peninsula to Russia’s moves in Ukraine has taken several forms. Germany has close economic ties to Russia, but at the same time Berlin fears increased Russian influence in the borderlands, as greater Russian presence on the North European Plain constitutes a strategic threat to Germany. The country has thus supported sanctions against Russia and secured cooperation from other European Union members for these measures. However, Germany has also played a role in mediating between Russia and Ukraine, in an effort to lessen tensions in the region.
In Central and Eastern Europe, along NATO’s eastern edge, countries reacted to Russia’s actions by increasing defense cooperation among the region’s countries, especially the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. NATO, as well as the U.S., has increased its presence along its eastern periphery, expanding troop rotations and boosting the alliance’s rapid reaction capabilities. A strategic alliance is emerging in the intermarium — running from the Baltics in the north to Turkey in the south — to contain Russia.
The U.S., which prioritized preventing the rise of a hegemon in Eurasia, is taking a central role in defining the future of the borderlands. The emergence of an alliance in the borderlands, as well as increased U.S. presence in the area, presents a threat to Russia. This explains why, for Russia, the status of Ukraine remains a top strategic concern.
A Fragmented Peninsula and Constrained Mainland
The European Peninsula is fragmented, with each new crisis further undermining the bloc’s coherence and highlighting the fundamental diverging challenges and realities facing each of its members. At the same time, the mainland is facing its own internal economic crisis.
Nevertheless, Russia’s need to secure its western buffer zones is driving the Kremlin to find ways to ensure that U.S. or NATO forces do not have a permanent presence in Ukraine. The European Peninsula is looking inwards, preoccupied with the shortcomings of its institutions and the clashing interests of its members. Russia, despite its constraints, is still looking to the borderlands. When it comes to the balance between peninsula and mainland, Moscow is becoming increasingly involved and influential in the region.
It is this shift in the balance between the peninsula and the Eurasian mainland that is drawing U.S. attention to the region. With the peninsula unable to confront Moscow, Washington has stepped in. A constrained Kremlin is using all tools at its disposal, from involvement in Syria to its control of separatists in Ukraine, to boost its leverage in the negotiations. There is an emerging understanding between the U.S. and Russia over the future of Ukraine, and while countries like Germany are playing a role in finding a settlement, it is the U.S. leading the way in managing the relationship between the European Peninsula and the Eurasian mainland.