An East-West Bridge for Ukraine

2 April 2014, 1254 EDT

[Note: This is a guest post by Joshua B. Spero, Associate Professor of International Politics and Coordinator of International Studies at Fitchburg State University.]

Since the Russia-Ukraine crisis accelerated with Russia’s territorial consolidation in Ukraine, Europe is back on the radar screen as great powers and international institutions struggle to de-escalate this security dilemma. After President Obama’s European trip and coordination with European Union (EU) and NATO leaders on 26 March, the international community should pause to consider that, unlike classic power politics regarding heartland Europe, there might still be ways to avoid zero-sum decisions. Virtually lost in the Russia-Ukraine crisis remains the post-Cold War partnership in the heart of Central-East Europe – the Poland-Germany bridge for East and West. Given the U.S. President’s admonition in Brussels that Russia’s actions in Ukraine underscore its “regional power” status and illustrate its “weakness” toward its neighbors not its “strength,” the quarter century-old Poland-Germany crisis management mechanism anchors heartland Europe’s integration, promotes key consultation with Russia and Ukraine, and helps reduce America’s European role while still tying the U.S. to Europe.

Given potentially greater conflict and possible civil war in Ukraine, this overlooked European crisis management partnership provides a peaceful linchpin for Poland-Germany together to continue to bridge the European divide. Poland’s key front-line border with Ukraine and its strong ties with Ukraine’s post-Cold War leaders, and Germany’s unique leadership linkages with Russia, especially over this past decade, buttress the Poland-Germany partnership with Europe and the U.S. For great powers and international institutions trying to defuse the Russia-Ukraine crisis, this Poland-Germany bridge building maintains West-East consultation and economic linkages to Ukraine and Russia. Having emerged with post-Communist Poland in 1989 to play the key Central-East European role with unifying Germany for 21st Century Europe’s integration, the Poland-Germany heartland bridge greatly influences together, more than separately, the next EU and NATO moves for Ukraine and Russia.

This partnership eastward helped Europe overcome many traditional geopolitical power plays, historic divisions within Europe, and constant war that tore Europe apart. Via diplomatic initiatives for European summits, expanding EU and non-EU partnership nation trade and financing, and even training militarily across Europe thru NATO-Partnership conflict prevention planning and operations beyond NATO territory, especially in Bosnia and Afghanistan, the Poland-Germany bridge reinforces West-East consultation, coordination, and cooperation. As North, Central, East, and Southeast Europe integrate peacefully into Europe, the Berlin-Warsaw partnership promotes dialogue, projects reassurance, and enhances stability among the nations bordering Ukraine – and integral to EU and NATO longevity. And this Poland-Germany bridge offers Ukraine and Russia continued economic durability, democratization, and defensive security integral to peaceful Europe.

When Germany’s Chancellor met in Poland with Poland’s President on 12 March, their partnership demonstrated a model regionally for diplomacy, economic stability, and non-threatening security toward Kiev and Moscow. This built on crisis diplomacy from 21 February with Polish, German, and French Foreign Ministers meeting in Kiev to coalesce emerging Ukrainian opposition leadership with Ukrainian government officials. Such diplomacy not only brought the different Ukrainian sides together, but also included Russia’s Envoy in the deliberations. Their crisis management consultations helped avoid descending Ukraine into even greater violence in Kiev and beyond. Thus, as the Russian-Ukrainian crisis escalates, the Poland-Germany coordination on their linkages to help Russia and Ukraine find common ground may enable better options especially for emerging EU initiatives.

This is not to say that such a “bridge” is the be-all and end-all for European security to resolve the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Yet, Poland and Germany together have attempted to help their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts cooperate – and try to integrate into Europe. As international sanctions ratchet up, Poland-Germany crisis management may still bridge differences both to preserve West-East dialogue and diversify European heartland energy policy. Often, we hear how Russian-Ukrainian oil and natural gas pipeline politics threaten Europe’s main energy supplies. Not only has less energy moved from Russia via Ukrainian pipelines to Europe in recent years, but also Germany and Poland – and EU nations – have begun diversifying their energy sources, trying to become less dependent on Russia. Russia’s energy trade still relies heavily on European and Ukrainian purchases, and Ukraine supplies crucial agricultural products (grain) to Russia – and China. As a result, Russia needs this revenue from Ukraine and via Ukrainian pipelines – and the Poland-Germany energy partnership, developing through tough energy challenges, may yet defuse Russia-Ukraine tensions. Even under the ousted Ukrainian President Ukrainian leaders had begun working with Polish, German, Norwegian, and American gas and oil companies to develop alternate routes and different areas for non-Russian based energy supplies.

Now that the EU and Ukraine have signed the political provisions of the EU Association Agreement, it becomes incumbent on the EU particularly to lead and International Monetary Fund and U.S. financial backing on energy stabilization. Global financial infusions of credit to cover debt may stabilize Ukraine’s weak economy, at least temporarily. But, if fighting envelops Ukraine and the country continues splintering, we may witness Kiev and western Ukraine emerge as a potentially new “Ukraine” – a scenario that strategic planners, policymakers, and world leaders want desperately to avoid. At that tragic juncture, such crisis management mechanisms like the Poland-Germany bridge to Ukraine (Kiev and western Ukraine) may become fundamental to negotiating any kind of resolution with Moscow – and any hope for peaceful transition in the heart of Europe.