S3 E13. Hot Spots, Part IV – Eastern Europe

The Iron Curtain fell three decades ago. But liberty in the former Soviet sphere remains elusive.

Two Ukrainian soldiers patrol the mountains along the border with Russia. Over the past month, the Russian military has been amassing a force of more than 100,000 troops nearby in preparation for a possible invasion. Pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine have been battling government forces since the 2014 revolution that overthrew the country’s Russia-backed leader. That same year, Russia annexed Crimea in an effort to extend its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Now Vladimir Putin is demanding that Ukraine, a former Soviet state, slam the brakes on its growing ties to the European Union — and refrain from any move to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

The drumbeat of war is sounding at the doorstep of eastern Ukraine. In Poland, desperate migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan had to flee from tear gas and water cannons. And Hungary’s right-wing dictator is cracking down on any hint of dissent. Liberated from the grip of authoritarian rule 30 years ago, Eastern Europe has become a tinderbox — and a headache for U.S. diplomats. Two seasoned experts on the region discuss the latest on these dilemmas, and what America’s role in solving them might be.

The disputed region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine is pictured in the summer in this panoramic shot. The Donets river valley stretches along the border with Russia — over meadows, through forests and between rolling hills.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

Heather Conley and Stephen Mull, both foreign policy analysts and former diplomats, say Russia’s efforts to destabilize democratic institutions in countries that once lay behind the Iron Curtain represents a serious threat to peace and security in Europe. And while war in their view is not a viable option for Western powers to protect vulnerable democracies in this neck of the woods, they do say the United States and its allies must act to apply pressure against Russian hostility in every other way possible — including stiffer economic sanctions and obstruction of the Nord Steam 2 pipeline extension under the Baltic Sea.

About our guests

Heather A. Conley is the outgoing director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. In January, she will become the president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank that focuses on transatlantic security. Conley began her career at the U.S. Department of State, where in the early 1990s she helped coordinate assistance to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. She is a frequent commentator on foreign policy for CNN, the BBC and NPR. Conley recently coauthored the CSIS report “America’s Arctic Moment: Great Power Competition in the Arctic to 2050.” Follow the German Marshall Fund @gmfus.

Stephen D. Mull is the University of Virginia’s Vice Provost for Global Affairs. Mull has had a long career in the U.S. Foreign Service and in national security roles, including two terms as ambassador — to Lithuania from 2003 to 2006; and to Poland from 2012 to 2015. He also coordinated President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, and served as Acting Under-Secretary for Political Affairs in the State Department during Mike Pompeo’s tenure. Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton honored Mull with the department’s Distinguished Honor Award. Follow Mull on Twitter @SteveMullUSA.

This episode was released on Dec. 15, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guests

In her time at CSIS Conley has coauthored a number of reports on European affairs and America’s role in the region, including “The Kremlin Playbook” in 2016 — about Russia’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe — and a follow-up study published in 2019, examining the Russian government’s “enablers” across the region.

Not long after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Conley and her colleagues offered some recommendations about how the U.S. military might posture itself against Russian forces in the post­–Cold War era.

In 2018, Conley evaluated Europe’s response to massive migration to the continent over the previous four years. In that period, 1.9 million people arrived in Europe and EU member states processed 3.6 million first-time asylum applications, driving political strife in many countries.

When Mull arrived at the University of Virginia, he spoke with UVAToday about his many decades in public service, from the late 1980s when he was accused of running a spy ring in communist Poland, to his work managing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s travel to 112 countries.

From around the web

A pro-Russian separatist in Donetsk holes up for battle against the Ukrainian army. Rebels backed by the Kremlin have been fighting government forces for more than seven years.


Photograph by Artur Bekmatov via Shutterstock.com

Below, Middle-Eastern and Afghan migrants trapped in Belarus are gathered in a makeshift “logistics center” last month. Outside the center, a father and son stand in the cold, awaiting word on their fate. Many refugees have returned home.

Photographs by Djordje Kostic via Shutterstock.com

Ukrainian troops will spend the holidays dug in trenches in the freezing cold as Russia continues its military buildup. As Conley argues on this week’s episode, this posturing has as much to do with geopolitics as it does with the Kremlin’s ideology about “historic Russia” and its ethnic ties with Ukraine.

The European Union sanctioned Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko essentially stole the country’s election in 2020. In retaliation, Lukashenko manufactured a migrant crisis — enticing thousands of refugees to travel through Belarus toward Poland and Lithuania. Polish officials responded harshly, forcing many migrants back across the border in a horrifying game of human ping-pong.

Dejected, hundreds of Iraqi asylum-seekers have returned home; many of them are still vowing to get to Europe one way or the other.

After Alexander Lukashenko’s fraudulent victory in Belarus’s 2020 election, thousands of citizens took the streets. Many protestors were beaten and tortured.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party, in power since 2015, has fomented a domestic culture war amid to the country’s changing social landscape, and boosted its profile in opposing an influx of refugees.

Still, Polish officials remain among those in Europe who have taken a hard line against Belarus and supported its opposition. Last week, Polish President Andrzej Duda met with exiled Belarusian politician Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to discuss their common interests.

Tsikhanouskaya competed against Lukashenko in Belarus’s election last year. She claimed victory but then was forced flee her country out of safety concerns. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband was not so lucky. Sergei Tsikhanouskaya faces 18 years in prison after leading mass protests.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at the National Conservativism Conference in Rome on Feb. 4, 2020.

Photograph by Alessia Pierdomenico via Shutterstock.com

In Hungary, far right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has held on to power since 2010, during which Hungarian democracy has been in a deep freeze. But there is hope that the country’s diverse range of opposition parties, recently united behind a conservative nominee for prime minister, might defeat Orbán in the coming spring.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

Heard on the show

Our theme music is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

About this series

With this episode, we’ve rounded out Season Three, as well as our a tour of democracy hot spots both abroad and close to home. We began in November with an examination of the effort in our own hometown to hold far-right extremists to account for the violence inflicted during the “summer of hate.” Then we turned to Cuba and put the unprecedented July 11 protests on the island into historical context. Last week, we heard from a Burmese pro-democracy activist who had to run for his life after the military coup in February.

Coming soon during our post-season break: a look back at the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol one year on. In the meantime, check out our emergency episode released in the wake of that insurrection.

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