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How Biden can help revive Eastern Europe

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President-elect Joe Biden is committed to restoring trans-Atlantic relations because a more united alliance can better handle a plethora of global problems. One of his biggest challenges will be in Eastern Europe, a region that is vital for the continent’s security but faces both internal and external assaults on sovereignty and democracy. This extensive region is not monolithic but includes consolidated democracies, states where democratic norms are under threat, countries with disputed borders, states whose governments are subject to Russian capture and countries whose territories are occupied by Russian forces. An effective U.S. strategy must focus on strengthening national sovereignty and regional security without alienating any ally or partner.

In states where democratic norms are endangered, as in Poland and Hungary, the U.S. administration needs to encourage pluralism and the separation of powers but not to ostracize freely elected governments and potentially weaken NATO. Poland in particular has a strong tradition of resisting autocracy and has become a front line defender of NATO against Russia’s revisionism. The White House may also need to explain America’s own democracy deficits, including partisan based Supreme Court selections, the rejection of the simple majority principle in electing presidents and the problematic transition between administrations.

In countries with disputed borders, Biden’s national security team can help reinforce their sovereignty and integrity. In the Western Balkans, it must finalize the Serbia-Kosova talks with a roadmap for inter-state recognition. U.S. leadership in the dialogue necessitates working closely with the EU and preventing Belgrade from delaying or diverting the discussions. The absence of agreement assists Moscow’s subversion, while a bilateral deal will open up avenues for regional economic development and EU integration.

The Biden administration also needs to tackle the main impediments to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s progress into Western institutions. Constitutional changes are necessary for the central government in Sarajevo to make crucial domestic and foreign policy decisions. Above all, persistent threats against Bosnian integrity by nationalist politicians must carry penalties, as they limit economic development, curtail foreign investment, promote inter-ethnic discord and endanger the survival of the state.

For countries whose governments are subverted by Russia and increasingly beholden to Chinese investment, the U.S. must devise a strategy of liberation. It will need to work closely with the EU to preclude the takeovers of key economic sectors while creating better conditions for private and public investment. This is especially urgent given the negative long-term impact of the pandemic in the region even after a vaccine is distributed. 

The Biden White House can also promote a multi-national front against Russia’s subversion. It will need to focus on crucial vulnerabilities that the Kremlin exploits, particularly in Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia, including disinformation, corruption and the funding of rightist and leftist extremism. Moscow’s influence can also be undercut by helping to facilitate faster EU integration for all the Western Balkan states.

Washington can also play a constructive role in Belarus, but not by sealing off the state from the West through economic and diplomatic sanctions that will simply push it into Russia’s orbit. It must work closely with Poland and Lithuania in a longer-term effort to bring the country closer to Western institutions. Warsaw’s proposal for an EU mini “Marshall Plan” of economic assistance and developing contacts with all political actors is a valuable starting point.

In countries whose territories are occupied by Russian forces, the White House must strengthen their defenses by providing weapons systems that will deter further aggression. Additionally, Ukraine needs a roadmap to NATO entry, while Georgia has already qualified and should start the accession process. Moscow’s threats do not escalate into military intervention when independent states are under NATO’s umbrella. This has been clearly evident with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after they joined the alliance.

To be successful Biden’s policy toward Eastern Europe must be undergirded by a strong NATO and a firm approach toward Russia. NATO’s eastern flank needs fortification in the Black Sea region by enhancing maritime defenses and capabilities in Romania and Bulgaria. Washington’s relations with Ankara must be rebuilt on the foundations of Allied security, as Turkey is an indispensable NATO bulwark against Russia and Iran. And in the wake of the latest war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, America’s role as an honest broker should aim to pull both countries closer to the West.

Biden must also avoid any “reset” traps with Moscow in the fruitless hope that America’s chief adversary can be transformed into a genuine partner. A more assertive U.S. policy can spotlight Russia’s vulnerabilities, including its economic weaknesses and growing domestic turmoil. International democracy initiatives proposed by the president-elect should zero in on the Russian Federation by supporting human rights, political pluralism, ethnic equality and genuine federalism in this increasingly unmanageable state. Russia’s offense against the trans-Atlantic alliance can be turned into a more difficult defense. 

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” is co-authored with Margarita Assenova.

Tags 2016 Russian election meddling Biden foreign policy European integration Joe Biden Moscow NATO Russia Russian-US relations

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