Why Russia Needs Eastern Europe
Russia’s border with Europe is the bloodiest place in the world. Caught between the major powers of the West and the might of Russia, the region has seen some of the worst conflicts in history.
During World War ii, roughly 17 million soldiers lost their lives in battles on the Eastern front. This doesn’t include the huge number of civilians who lost their lives in the Battle of Stalingrad, the Siege of Leningrad and other horrific clashes. By comparison, add up all the famous battles in the West—including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge—and there, fewer than 4 million soldiers died.
The numbers for World War i are also appalling: Rough estimates indicate that the Eastern front claimed 5 million soldiers’ lives.
Conflicts between Europe and Russia are bloody and frequent. This history gives the context necessary to appreciate what is happening in Ukraine, and how Europe will react.
Why Eastern Europe Is Shaken
In historical terms—even recent history—the freedom Eastern Europe currently enjoys is unusual. For most of the 20th century, the whole region was ruled by Russia. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland spent only 30 of those 100 years self-governing and free.
The countries of Central and Eastern Europe can exist independently only when the surrounding powers are weak. The last time this was the case for an extended period was in the region’s earlier history. In the 13th century, the Mongols conquered Russia from the east, keeping the country enthralled for over 200 years. Meanwhile Germany was yet to unite and become mainland Europe’s major power.
The vacuum allowed Poland to thrive in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Sweden was also a major power in the area, while German knights ruled the region that is now Estonia and Latvia. Without a threat from the East, Poland was able to hold its own.
In the south, the vacuum was filled by the Ottoman Empire. Bulgaria, followed by Moldavia (as Moldova was then known) and Romania, fell to the Ottomans.
Once a strong Russia arrived, all this changed. Poland tried to take advantage of Russia’s weakness at the start of the 17th century, but soon its opportunity was gone. Territory in Ukraine began flowing out of Polish hands and into Russia’s. The area that is now Estonia and Latvia fell to Russia at the start of the 18th century, and Poland became a vassal state, dominated by Russia. By the end of the 1700s, it disappeared entirely, divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia.
Russia continued to clash with Sweden in the north and with the Ottoman Empire in the south. But few of the countries in the middle could be free. They simply did not have the power to hold out against the competing empires.
The countries of northeastern Europe did not gain their freedom until after 1917, when the war-weary Russian empire collapsed in the Bolshevik Revolution. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland won their independence from Russia. Several nations in the Caucasus tried to break away but failed. Ukraine was also unable to break away, though Poland took some of its western territory.
A few decades earlier, Bulgaria and Romania had also become free—gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire with Russia’s support in the late 19th century. Russia did not take them over because it feared Europe’s Western powers. Moldova gained its freedom after World War i and voted to join Romania.
This period of Russian weakness lasted only 20 years; during World War ii, it took back all these nations. Poland was once again divided before being conquered entirely by Russia. Abandoned by the West, it was forced to spend the next 40 years under Russia’s control.
The lesson for Eastern Europe is simple: It can only be free when Russia is weak. The crisis in Ukraine shows that, once again, Russia is growing strong.
Eastern Europe suffered terribly under Communist dominion. The most famous atrocity is the Holodomor from 1932-33—the deliberate starvation of peasants in Ukraine. The Black Book of Communism estimates that over 6 million people were murdered. And murder is the right word here: Russian authorities deliberately withheld and even exported food while they knew the peasants were starving. They also forcibly prevented the peasants from leaving their lands to buy food elsewhere.
The rest of the region also suffered. From 1940 to 1953, Russian authorities deported 200,000 people from the Baltic states; they imprisoned 75,000 others in the gulags. Ten percent of the entire adult population was imprisoned or deported. In Moldavia, 120,000 were deported—7 percent of the population. During this time, 300,000 were deported from Ukraine.
When Russia conquered eastern Poland at the start of World War ii, it deported around 1 million Poles. One hundred thousand died in prison camps or on the way to their new destinations; 30,000 were shot.
Six hundred thousand people were deported from Hungary; around 750,000 were imprisoned. The numbers are equally horrifying for the other countries dominated by the Soviet Union. The Black Book of Communism estimates 1 million people died due to Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
It’s easy to let these numbers become mere statistics. But what they mean is that within living memory, huge proportions of these countries’ peoples were deported, locked up or worse. Once-free countries were forced to live under this repressive regime. Soviet domination has left scars that have not yet healed.
What Russia Fears
But Russians too have suffered horribly in recent memory. By 1953, under the Soviet Union, 14 million were locked in gulags. On the Eastern front in World War ii, around 14 million civilians died. Over 11 million were Soviet civilians (based on pre-war borders). When military deaths are included, around 15 percent of the Soviet Union’s entire population died in World War ii.
This war was not the first time Russia played a vital role in defeating a European tyrant at a monumental cost. In 1812, Napoleon launched his disastrous invasion of Russia. He lost half a million men in the campaign, shattering his aura of invincibility. But Russia also took a major hit.
Russia also has learned an important lesson from this region’s history: European powers will periodically threaten to completely destroy Russia, and the only way it can defend itself is to keep these powers as far away from the heart of Russia as possible.
Napoleon began his invasion 550 miles away from Moscow and 420 miles away from St. Petersburg. Hitler began his invasion from a similar distance. Would Russia have survived if these invasions had been launched from Ukraine, which is under 300 miles from Moscow, or Estonia, which is under 100 miles from St. Petersburg?
Hence Russia’s actions in Ukraine today. Putin is not panicking. He does not see a Napoleon in Europe—a leader capable of bringing European armies to Moscow—but he knows the potential is there. You cannot defend a nation just by hoping the bleakest parts of your nation’s history never happen again. So Putin is making sure Europe is kept away from his borders.
Which brings us to the current impasse. Eastern Europe has a long history of domination by Russia. Yet this domination saved Russia twice in the last two centuries. The space Russia created by pushing westward meant that any invasion had to cover so much territory that a European army would inevitably face a fearsome Russian winter. This reality is the reason that Russia’s push east will not easily be turned aside: It is a matter of Russia’s survival. It will take more than a few protesters in Kiev to make Russia give up.
So while Russia keeps pushing, Central and Eastern Europe—with their long history of suffering at Russia’s hands—continues resisting. But they know they cannot resist alone. Without a strong foreign backer, the independent states of Central and Eastern Europe will confirm their status as nations that cannot last more than a short time while Russia remains intact and next door.
In Search of Allies
There are two possible sources for the help these nations seek: the United States, and the rest of Europe. In recent years, America has repeatedly shown itself unwilling to stand up for this region. However, with Russia’s latest push, these nations are once again trying to persuade America to support them.
Although the European option has shown little promise, the nations of Eastern Europe can influence it. They’re trying to forge the EU into the power they would like it to be, and making sure they are at the heart of that power.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently called for Europe to form a united energy market to break Russia’s “energy stranglehold” over the Continent. He has also said Poland should consider joining the euro. While Poland is wary of the economics of the euro, it is more worried about the nation’s defense.
“From a strategic perspective, eurozone membership would be another anchor grounding Poland in the group of the most important Western countries and improving our security,” Tusk said in an interview published in Polityka on April 9. “Sooner or later, we will have to return to this discussion.”
In fact, this region’s proximity to Russia is the biggest factor in euro membership. Estonia and Latvia, which border mainland Russia, have joined the euro. Lithuania, which doesn’t, has not.
Europe has shown some limited signs of action. The EU crisis is “a wake-up call,” said the deputy head of the EU’s external action service, Maciej Popowski, on April 15 at a meeting of EU defense ministers in Luxembourg, adding that “now we need to get serious about defense.” EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton asked the group, “If Ukraine is not a trigger to get serious about [military] spending, about pooling and sharing, about smart defense, then what more do we need to get real?”
But talk is cheap. The EU has done little beyond talk. nato has only deployed token forces into Eastern Europe. For nations like Germany, sending even a handful of planes into Eastern Europe is a big step. But for nations in the east, it is nowhere near enough.
“There is a deep sense of betrayal in Central Europe,” wrote U.S. intelligence company Stratfor. “The Polish government that asked for massive and permanent nato protection received none. … The countries from the Baltics south to Bulgaria feel that the European institutions they had counted on—and we can include nato in this—have failed.”
Eastern Europe needs something far more drastic than what we’ve seen so far. For these nations, Russia’s invasion of Crimea has thoroughly shattered the “end of history” illusion—that at the fall of the Soviet Union we somehow entered a magical new epoch where war is a thing of the past. To be secure, Eastern Europe needs a military force stationed in its countries that is capable of preventing an invasion.
The nato members of Eastern Europe are probably safe from Russia for now—though “probably safe” isn’t all that reassuring when your nation’s existence is on the line. nato has not stationed any meaningful military forces in Eastern Europe. The U.S. can retreat from the region with just a speech or piece of paper. Without a meaningful number of boots on the ground, guarantees can be withdrawn in an instant. nato guarantees probably are good today. But what about in five years? Or even sooner? America has broken promise after promise. No wonder Eastern Europe fears that America’s word will not protect it much longer.
So Eastern Europe wants more drastic action. The pleas to the U.S. for help will continue, but at the same time, these countries will make a serious and sustained push for Europe to get its act together. To them, this means French, German and hopefully British troops stationed in their counties. It means some kind of European army.
Eastern Europe’s history shows that the survival of these countries could be at stake, and they know it. On March 14, Associated Press surveyed the mood in these countries. Here’s how they summed it up:
Broken promises of help from the West. A tragic history of Russian invasion that goes back centuries. A painful awareness that conflicts in this volatile region are contagious. These are the factors that make nations across Eastern Europe watch events in Ukraine—and tremble.
This same fear comes across in Jeremiah Jacques’s recent interview with the Lithuanian ambassador to the U.S. “Since things are becoming more like the 19th or 20th centuries now, we need to be brave,” the ambassador said. “We need more strategy.”
The EU moves slowly, but over the weeks and months ahead, Central and Eastern Europe will conduct a sustained push for a greatly united Europe. Putin may escalate the Ukrainian crisis. Or it could leave our headlines. But it will not leave the minds of those who live so much closer to Russia. The Crimean crisis sent a jolt through Europe, but we haven’t even begun to see the lasting changes it will bring about.
These are changes that the Trumpet and its predecessor the Plain Truth have forecast for decades. Both magazines have long said that a united Europe, with both an eastern and western leg, will emerge.
Today, the eastern leg has a strong desire for this European superpower—a will to create this power that we’ve never seen before. These Eastern European countries know their own history; they know this is a matter of life and death.
This history means we can expect a determined Eastern European response—not something that will peter out after a few months. Some may try to form a deal with Russia, but those who suffered the most under Soviet rule will turn to Europe with renewed vigor.
What will Europe’s response be to these pleas for help? For the answer, read editor in chief Gerald Flurry’s cover article in the latest print edition of the Trumpet, “The Crimean Crisis Is Reshaping Europe!”