The great game revived – power politics in the ex-East Bloc I.


Doctor Somkuti is joining us as a guest author.  We welcome this Hungarian point of view.  pl


"The russians are coming in, the americans are slowly getting out, and the germans are already up."


by Balint Somkuti, PhD


The below essay focuses on foreign powers’ intentions and actions toward the former central European communist countries. The conclusions presented below are solely mine, and do not represent any governmental or other bodies’ views. These are admittedly from a Visegrad 4, or to be more precise a Hungarian point of view, our fellow Czech, polish, and Slovak allies may disagree with some, but definitely not most points. In the first part of the essay Russian methods and interests are examined, the 2nd will be treating US steps, and the final concluding one will discuss German and local actions taken.   

So let’s start with the Russians. For them, elite and society alike, grandeur and the self image of a great power is self evident. Only the most devoted, and ardent anti-Russians try to deny it, which is as foolhardy as it seems especially regarding the cca. 2000 nuclear warheads Russia possesses, as well as a seat at UN Security Council. Yet this position is precarious to say at least since this huge destructive power is coupled with a secondary economical power. The Russian leadership is completely aware of that ambiguous situation, meaning they know that a classical military conflict does not favour them even in the abysmal status of European military forces.  

Yet 2 factors determine their thinking.

  1. Millions of ethnic Russians inserted mostly by the communist regime into previously ethnically more or less homogenous areas. This system is not new, all multi-ethnical empires did the same, e.g. the Austrian Habsburgs. This is how serbs got into northern Hungary, Slovaks into the south etc. The related term used in conjunction with them ‘close abroad’ speaks for itself.
  2. The former central European communist countries for whose conquest hundreds of thousands of Russians gave their life. The vehemently defended monuments erected in all  conquered capitals are a testimony for this. 

The first is not difficult to understand, although does not affect us directly, but the second in my opinion is widely misunderstood. Our region is not primarily interesting for them because of influence, and especially sphere of influence, since these have a significant soft power/cultural aspect and who wants to live like contemporary average Russians do. (As a side note looking at the current terror and social situation in France and Germany or Sweden illiberal states DO have an appeal.) I think it has more to do with the general Russian paranoia about invaders, and foreign powers’ meddling into their affairs.  The further a possible staging area is from their borders the better. Not to mention modern intelligence and information gathering methods in which the NATO and especially the US excels. A Joint STARS, or a Rivet Joint plane can „eavesdrop” into hundreds of kilometers into foreign territory even when flying comfortably deep in own territory.

Russian grand strategy seems to be aimed at maximal return at minimal investment, and they dug deeply in their pocket only when it is really compulsory. A good example is the Nabucco gas pipe line. When its building was started to bring Azeri/Iranian gas into Europe in order to decrease dependence on Russian natural gas, the terminal point of that line, the Austrian Schwechat gas depot was already in Russian hands. How and why? Very simple. Pres. Putin offered a helping hand to the beleaguered Austrian govt. which were at the time under joint European and US embargo due to their coalition with Freiheits Partei Österreichs (a clearly anti-emigrant party), a coalition partner of the christian democrats in 2000. Buying the privatized installation was a brilliant move.  Although not a surprising one when someone wrote his thesis on enabling Russian influence in Europe through the use of energy sources, which allegedly Pres. Putin did.  

When Hungary accepted Russian govt offer about a loan of 10 billion Euros to build the second phase of the only local atomic power plant a series of minor diplomatic and internal scandals erupted. These were covered in detail by a watchdog, openly financed by George Soros (more on this in the next part). One of the issues were the planned sole use of Russian technology. After US and French firms receiving big chunks of that business voices against this investment weathered down. So much about value driven diplomacy. In the second published case a Russian company wanted to forcibly take over a joint, local firm, with 50-50 ownership also related to the nuclear power plant. The Hungarian owners took the case to the court and won, which the Russian company grudgingly accepted. 

Oddly enough Russian influence in Hungary was not an issue during the social democrat-liberal government of PM Gyurcsány, who as an ex-communist was heartily welcomed by Pres. Putin in his dacha, near Moscow, basically the Russian counterpart to US Camp David. Such was Gyurcsány’s position within western decisionmakers, that he even got away with the fact that he used Russian intelligence personnel (!) to personally and locally scour after opposition (conservative) aligned members among the ranks of Hungarian intelligence, and other national security officers.  Have I said something about value-driven foreign policy of the EU or the US?

These stories clearly show the limits but also the possibilities of Russian influence in a NATO and EU member country. To me it seems that the Russians are after getting back some of their economical positions in their former satellites, with the help of clever political maneuvering and clandestine methods among the growing frustration of the ivory tower Eurocrats and their American counterparts.

Russian influence of course varies in V4 countries. For example under prime minister Meciar, Russian influence was significantly stronger in Slovakia, and was always present to some extent in the Czech Republic for historical reasons. In Poland after 120+45 years of Russian occupation /1795-1919, 1945-1990/ there is a clearly anti-Russian sentiment, which is highly unlikely to disappear, especially after the highly controversial Smolensk air disaster in 2010. Speaking of history. Living historical memories is another regional aspect often overlooked by outside viewers. We are not like western people, who tend to view their past with a ‘get over it’ feeling. Borders are non-existent for people over the Leitha as we say, since decades, yet are still a living thing here. Not to mention who has fought whom, and what result. I always keep saying (ceterum censeo) that you are cautious with a great power you fought 5 times in the last 150 years /1849,1914-18, 1919, 1941-45, 1956/.  Yet thinking similarly russians seem to understand local sensitivity (see Pres. Putin's words on borders in 2016 in a Bloomberg interview).  

To sum it up Russian decisionmakers seem to know their limits in this region. Apart from the occasional political meddling, and diplomatical show of force their intentions seem to be to remain on the markets, and to hinder yet another military attack from the West against their Motherland.

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