Faced with the shrinking zone of democracy and continuing Russian political and military pressure, the G7 must persevere in building strategic stability in this vital region, says Aurel Braun, professor of international relations and political science, University of Toronto
With all the key issues to be addressed at the G7 Biarritz Summit, security concerns regarding the vast region stretching from the Baltics to the Balkans and east to Ukraine may not be the top priority. There are, however, security threats within and to the region that need to be confronted.
Just a few decades ago, what we see today would have seemed inconceivable. Most of the states in this heterogeneous region were members of the Warsaw Pact, firmly in Moscow’s grip, while Ukraine and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia appeared irredeemably part of the Soviet Union. Today, the former Warsaw Pact states and the three Baltic countries are not only members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but also the European Union, and have committed themselves to a democratic political order. Other ex-Soviet republics and ex-Yugoslav republics are aspirants to these European bodies.
Yet the euphoria of 1989 and 1991 and confidence that liberal democracy would prevail proved ephemeral. The transition to democracy has turned out to be exceedingly difficult and certainly not irreversible. Russia, which under Boris Yeltsin seemed committed to democracy and friendship with the West, has become a military rival and, in certain respects, an ideological and cultural one.
Consequently, the G7 members – all committed democracies and, with the exception of Japan (which has a bilateral alliance with the United States), members of NATO – face two key, interconnected security problems in the region. The first relates to the shrinking zone of democracy. The second involves continuing Russian political and military pressure, which in its most virulent recent manifestation saw Moscow illegally annex Ukraine’s Crimea region.
Retrenchment of the democratic order
In a region where for many decades people desperately longed for democracy and freedom, now there is a dangerous retrenchment in the democratic order, especially in Poland and Hungary. Anti-democratic parties are challenging or undermining the rule of law, and the populist Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has expressed his preference for ‘illiberal democracy’. Corrosive and pervasive corruption is also undermining the prospects for democracy in Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Bulgaria. In Eastern Europe, the zone of democracy is shrinking in a way that should concern the G7.
Nowhere, though, is that contraction more worrisome than in Russia itself, which relates to the second major problem. Domestic and external variables are tightly and almost inextricably intertwined in Russia. As the Putin government has increasingly centralised power, its domestic programme, predicated on a tacit trade-off between economic progress and popular political acquiescence, has been unravelling. Russia’s unidimensional economy, dependent on energy, has become stagnant and Putin’s popularity has significantly declined. Unwilling to risk political liberalisation or true economic diversification, his government tries to compensate domestically by promoting Russian ultra-nationalism and Russian orthodox culture as an alternative to what it claims is a decadent West. This ploy in itself is inadequate unless it is continuously fuelled by external ‘successes’ as a means of boosting national pride and diverting attention from the unresolved fundamental problems at home.
It is no coincidence then that Russia probes and pokes western defences and relentlessly seeks to manipulate politics in the former Soviet states and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Moscow has employed cyber warfare against Estonia, invaded Georgia and, in Ukraine, challenged the post–Cold War order and assaulted international law – all portrayed by Moscow as unalloyed successes.
Fortunately, the G7 has enormous soft and hard power that it can bring to bear on these problems. First, as successful advanced democracies, G7 members possess the power of moral suasion to help the democratic forces in this region and can back this up with unparalleled economic resources. G7 countries collectively produce a substantial share of global gross domestic product. The 2019 GDP estimate of $21.34 trillion for the United States contrasts sharply with Russia’s relatively minuscule GDP of $1.61 trillion.
Second, the G7 has not hesitated to condemn Russian aggression. In November 2018, G7 foreign ministers sharply deplored Moscow’s actions in the Kerch Strait (and the capture and holding of Ukrainian sailors) and reaffirmed their “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Furthermore, the G7 can indirectly also exert military pressure on Russia via NATO and through continuing economic sanctions to try to deter aggression in the region. Members of the G7 can work with states in the region (many of which have significantly increased their defence expenditures) through NATO, and also with regional groupings such as Visegrád.
None of these are painless tasks for the G7. But it may be easier to build a consensus and formulate policies that range from persuasion, using economic incentives or punishment, to forms of military deterrence, since Russia is no longer a G7 member. Perhaps paradoxically, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, resulting in its suspension from the G8, may now also present the G7 with a renewed opportunity to help democracy and strategic stability in this vital region of the world.