By Gordon M. Hahn
A relatively recent (2016) Gallup public opinion survey suggests that there are some shifting sands in Russia’s periphery and the East-West geostratic contest worth watching (“Most NATO Members in Eastern Europe See It as Protection,” Gallup, 10 February 2017, www.gallup.com/poll/203819/nato-members-eastern-europe-protection.aspx). The survey revealed that there is a series of eastern and southern European and Eurasian states with significant Slavic and Orthodox Christian populated states that are increasingly suspicious of Washington’s and Brussels’ NATO expansion policy and are favorably disposed towards Russia.
A series of majority Slavic countries regard NATO as constituting more of a threat than protector for their respective countries. These countries’ populations can be regarded as opposed to NATO expansion. Only two of the seventeen countries in Europe surveyed, Serbia and Montenegro, does a majority (64%) or plurality (29%), respectively, view NATO as a threat. In 8 of the 10 countries of Eurasia surveyed (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were not), the population saw NATO more as a threat than as protector. In two, Russia and Belarus, majorities oppose NATO, 67% and 54%, respectively, and only 3% saw NATO as a protector. In six Eurasian countries, pluralities see NATO as a threat: Kazakhstan (31%, 25% – protector), Kyrgyzstan (30%, 19% – protector), Moldova (27%, 16% – protector), Armenia (20%, 8% – protector) and Tajikistan (34%, 8% – protector), and Ukraine (35%, 29% – protector).
It is in Ukraine that we find perhaps the survey’s most important finding. Despite having lost its most pro-Russian, anti-NATO regions (Crimea, and the better part of Donetsk and Luhansk regions), a plurality of Ukrainians still sees NATO as more of a threat than protector: 35% – threat, 29% – protection, and 26% – undecided. It is in Ukraine that we find perhaps the survey’s most important finding. Ukraine’s results are perhaps the major finding of the survey; despite having lost its most pro-Russian, anti-NATO regions (Crimea, and the better part of Donetsk and Luhansk regions), a plurality of Ukrainians still sees NATO more as a threat than as protector: 35% – threat, 29% – protection, and 26% – undecided.
However, the finding that one-fourth of all Kazakhstanis view NATO as a protector may mitigate some of the good news the Ukraine finding provides for the Kremlin.
Only two of the 10 surveyed Eurasian states’ populations saw NATO as a protector – Georgia (37%) and Azerbaijan (21%). The latter, however, is one three, perhaps four Eurasian states that can be considered divided over the question. Besides Ukraine, these ‘battleground’ countries include Azerbaijan (21% – protector, 16% – threat, and 44% – undecided), Kazakhstan (25% – protector, 31% – threat, and 27 – undecided), and perhaps Moldova (16% – protector, 27% – threat, and 38 – undecided).
Another set of countries almost evenly divided between those who see NATO as more a mechanism of protection and those who see it as a threat is now found in Europe. Greece, Bulgaria, and Bosnia-Herzogovina are almost evenly divided on the issue, with pluralities of small margins seeing NATO as more protection than threat.
In sum, countries more opposed than favoring NATO expansion include 10 of the 27 countries surveyed:
3 majority opposition states:
7 plurality opposition states
Two of the seven plurality opposed states – Montenegro and Ukraine – have leaderships pressing for their countries’ entry into NATO. The Ukraine story has been distorted beyond belief by Western media and governments, as unfortunate it is to say. The Montenegrin case is less well-known. A purported coup attempt that supposedly included a plot to assassinate premier Milo Dzhukanovic was foiled on 16 October 2016, the day parliamentary elections were being held in the country. The Dzhukanovic regime’s claim of having foiled a coup was followed by claims it had been a Russian-backed plot undertaken by a group of Serbs, 20 of whom were arrested. However, the Montenegrin government has produced no proof whatsover that either a coup occurred or that Russian stands behind the plot. Even Montenegro’s Internal Affairs Minister Goran Danilovich cast into doubt the veracity of the government’s claim that there was a coup attempt. He notes that there was no session of any top government body on the day of the purported coup attempt, neither of the government, the National Security Council or the Defense Council (www.ng.ru/world/2017-03-07/100_chernogoria.html). A strange way to combat a coup attempt you will admit. Thus, it remains unclear whether there was a coup at all and whether if there was in fact one the Russian state was involved. The independent liberal Russian daily Nezavisimaya gazeta reports a third version: that the Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who played a role in financing the recruitment and deployment of Russian volunteers who joined the Donbass rebels fighting the Kiev government in Ukraine, may have organized any coup attempt that might have taken place (www.ng.ru/world/2017-03-07/100_chernogoria.html).
It should be noted that the government’s claim of a purported Russian-backed coup comes on the background of Dzhukanovic’s push for his country’s entry into NATO, which both Podgorica and Brussels are pushing to have approved at the upcoming May NATO summit in Brussels. This is being pushed, as the Gallup poll results’ show, with more Montenegrins opposed rather than well-disposed towards the military bloc. Nevertheless, the West is backing Montenegro’s membership, with 24 NATO member-states having already ratified Montenegro’s entry into NATO, and only the US and three other states left to complete the process, setting the stage for Brussels in May.
Moldova is moving in the other direction with newly elected president Igor Dodon having announced that he will not support his country’s entry into NATO and will end the presence of the NATO cooperation office in Kishinev. The remainder of the plurality opposition states as well as majority opposed Belarus are former Soviet republics and members of Russian-led international organizations, including the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Formerly Soviet Ukraine and Moldova are not.
Moldova, Ukraine, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzogovina and even Slovakia constitute the key ‘battleground’ countries torn between east and West because of geographical location, Slavic ethnic identity, and Orthodox Christian religious roots.
Moldova is a pivotal cusp state in the geopolitical battle between Russia and the West. It remains a member of GUAM – a largely pro-Western, Russia-resistant organization – along with Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. In March 2014 a measure to renounce Kishinev’s 1992 agreement to become a CIS member was introduced but failed to pass in the Moldovan parliament. Look to Moldova to withdraw from GUAM, seek a rapprochement with the breakaway republic of Transdniestr and move closer to the EEU and CSTO. With this, the potential for growing political tension and even violence is likely to grow in Moldova.
Another potential flashpoint is Kazakhstan, given its large ethnic Russian minority. This flashpoint has little to do with NATO expansion at present and more to do with Central Asia’s Muslim roots and potential tensions between Muslims and Russians. Islamic Central Asia will not produce potential recruits or applicants for NATO membership in near- to mid-term and is unlikely to do so even in the long-term. Tension in Kazakhstan over identity issues has been reflected in a creeping Kazakhstani nationalism and occasional flashes of jihadi terrorism. That one-quarter of the population looks upon NATO as a protector is a reflection of the nationalist factor. Any rising Kazakhstani nationalism will inevitably create tensions with the country’s ethnic Russian minority. This nationalist factor could be aggravated by overly robust efforts on Moscow’s part to deepen Astana’s integration into Russian-led international organizations or other tensions that force Nursultan Nazarbaev or a successor to distance himself from Moscow. In sum, the Gallup poll suggests in addition to other evidence that beyond Ukraine, keep your eyes on Moldova and Kazakhstan over the next few years in the Russian-Western geostrategic contest.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.