NATO Enlargement, Russian Revanchism & the Struggle for Neutrality

Russian revanchism and NATO enlargement threaten to all but eliminate the time-honored diplomatic practice in Europe once-and-for-all. But neutrality won’t go down without a fight.

Marko Milačić, head of the NGO, Movement for Neutrality Montenegro, being arrested by Montenegrin police.

Montenegro is a boat-sized country that straddles the eastern shores of the Adriatic. Within a year this strategically unimportant Balkan statelet will almost certainly become the 29th member of the North Atantic Treaty Organization. The decision to invite Montenegro into the alliance was taken last December. According to a Radio Free Europe article written at the time, “The alliance had linked Montenegro’s prospects to progress by the government on reforms to tackle corruption and improve the rule of law, as well as ensuring public support for joining the organization.”

There’s just one problem with this story. Public support for the alliance in Montenegro remains very low and virtually everyone I’ve consulted, from foreign dignitaries to security experts and prominent members of Montenegro’s civil society, are in widespread agreement that the country faces no significant external threat to its national security — while acknowledging that corruption and political oppression remain rife. Indeed, many perceive NATO’s invitation as a sort of diplomatic coup d’etat for reigning Prime Minister, Milos Djukanović. The move will reinforce the oft repeated mischaracterization that the Balkan strongman is a ‘pro-Western reformer’ lending him much needed legitimacy that he has not earned.

The former communist party leader has turned Montenegro into his own private fiefdom. He made a small fortune smuggling cigarettes through a UN embargo during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. As an ally of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosović, Djuknović ordered the illegal shelling of Dubrovnik in Croatia — a crime he has yet to face up to. His long reign has resulted in a classic case of rent-seeking behavior. Djukonović maintains control by dishing out rewards to a close cadre of supporters. NATO accession has yet to put a dent in this operation.

As recently as 2012, a BBC report documented a banking scandal that reportedly reaped millions of Euro for the Prime Minister and his henchmen, even while the bank was in default and refused to let ordinary people withdraw their deposits. A few activists I spoke with even insinuated that it is in Djukanović’s interest to maintain diplomatic immunity so he can’t be charged in international courts.

In short, the Prime Minister of Montenegro doesn’t sound like the kind of guy you necessarily wan’t sitting around the table at NATO’s headquarters. So what’s behind the invitation?

Podgorica, Montenegro — January 2016. ©Ryan McCarrel

Inthe waning days of the Cold War, United States Secretary of State, James Baker, took to the podium in East Berlin to chart a new Trans-Atlantic course. It was June 1991. Geopolitical events were unfolding rapidly at the time — as they are now. Eastern Europe showed signs of fracturing along ethno-nationalist lines. Meanwhile, decades of trade-imbalance between Western capitalist countries and the stagnant command economies of eastern Europe, meant that former Warsaw Pact countries and Yugoslavia, had become virtually dependent on Western aid and loans for their very survival. No one could be sure how Moscow would react to losing control over their former satellite states — especially to their former rival.

None-the-less, by the time of Baker’s speech it was clear to everyone that the Soviet Union of old was in its final death throes. What would come next was anyone’s guess. Many began questioning the purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization altogether. Without the Warsaw Pact several prominent scholars and journalists openly doubted that the alliance would remain around for long. Baker’s speech was meant, in part, to address these concerns by outlining a vision for a trans-Atlantic geopolitical order that would reinforce NATO’s importance as a political and military actor, rather than see its role in European affairs diminish.

Baker’s remarks were relatively straightforward if not characteristically euphemistic and lacking in strategic vision. Carried away in the triumphal ethos of the moment, he announced that the United States’ objective was nothing less than “a Europe whole and free and a Euro-Atlantic community that extends east from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” The Secretary of State then told his audience that this Euro-Atlantic community would be based on the universal values of the enlightenment, which he broadly took to mean individual political rights and economic liberty. Extending these values eastwards would form the central thrust of trans-Atlanticist expansion. NATO would be in the vanguard.

The ‘West,’ with NATO leading the way, would use its new found economic and political leverage to encourage countries to ‘transition’ from their socialist or communist past to market-based democracies. Meanwhile NATO’s ‘open door policy’ would encourage local politicians to continue down this path by holding out membership as the carrot at the end of the road. Joining NATO was understood as a stepping stone to membership in the European Union — giving eastern European leaders added incentive to pursue membership in the alliance. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic would be the first to join. Prominent trans-Atlanticists held out hope that Russia would follow a similar path. But there was never any reason to believe that Russia would subscribe to Baker’s universal vision.

Today the phantasm of a united trans-Atlantic community, based on a shared set of values stretching from the Irish Sea to the Bering Strait, seems nothing if not hopelessly utopian. Russian revanchism and NATO enlargement have turned the peripheral regions of Europe into a rapidly re-militarizing geopolitical fault-line that runs from the Baltics in the North to the Balkans in the South. Meanwhile many of NATO’s new partners, and at least one of its current member-states, are led by budding autocrats who want no part of Baker’s liberal vision. For many outside observers, ruptures along this fault-line have only recently brought interest to the region. But the seeds of conflict were sewn long ago.

In 1999, John O’Loughlin, a noted political geographer based out of the University of Colorado, referred to this fault-line as the “Crush Zone.” He, along with a few other international relations scholars, foreshadowed the coming confrontation between an expansive trans-Atlantic core in the West and a much maligned if not proud Russia intent on maintaining influence over its former satellite states in the East. There was never much space in this “Crush Zone” for what we might traditionally understand as ‘neutral’ states. Utopian visions have a bad habit of excluding other possibilities from their purview — as do visions of imperial grandeur.

More than two decades after Baker shared his unversal vision of a trans-Atlantic community the Crush Zone is rapidly collapsing in on itself. States that may otherwise have charted an independent path are being challenged on two sides of a growing East-West divide. Some regimes have grown particularly apt at playing both sides to their own advantage. In this regard, the deft political maneuvering of Milos Djukanović makes for a perfect case study.

Montenegro signs its NATO accession protocol. Source: NATO

Djukanović is nothing if not a talented politician. He began positioning himself as a pro-Western reformer as far back as 1999, even while he was running his smuggling operation in contrivance of UN sanctions. By publicly speaking out about wanting to bring Montenegro into NATO’s orbit, he was able to secure the support of the United States government in backing Montenegro’s independence bid from Serbia in 2006. Since independence, the political mastermind has skillfully maneuvered between pursuing just enough reform to play up his pro-Western credentials, while continuing to consolidate political and economic control.

But Djukanović’s political maneuvering has also been to the benefit of the United State’s own geopolitical ambitions in the region. Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, once famously quipped that the purpose of NATO was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in [Europe], and the Germans down.” In the case of the Balkans, NATO’s strategy is slightly modified but remains much the same as it did back then. ‘Keep the Americans in, the Serbs down, and the Russians out.’ The over-all aim is centered on pacifying Serbia, which has taken the lionshare of the blame for the past conflicts in the region, while simultaneously keeping the Russians from interfering too much in their reform efforts. This strategy sometimes means embracing local politicians like Djukanović who they may otherwise hold at an arms-length distance.

That’s why it is no surprise that on May 19th Djukanović joined U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, and NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for a signing ceremony in Brussels. Together they celebrated Montenegro’s signing of NATO’s Accession Protocol. The protocol puts Montenegro one step closer to becoming a full-member of the alliance. Secretary Kerry made it clear that the move was meant to signal to the rest of Europe and Russia that NATO’s ‘Open Door Policy’ remains open, while at the same time insinuating that Russia’s aggressive actions wouldn’t shut the door to other aspirant countries. Montenegro’s small size and relative obscurity in Western media, makes it the perfect country to use as a geopolitical chip for the trans-Atlantic alliance, even if Djukanović isn’t the liberal reformer he’s made out to be.

Montenegro’s accession process is yet another story in the ongoing geopolitical drama rapidly enveloping Europe. In a redoux of the Cold War, societies are once again becoming polarized along an East/West axis. In the wake of this renewed confrontation, geopolitical expediency threatens to trump the West’s commitment to democracy-building and rule of law reform. Meanwhile, activists unlucky enough to be caught in-between are often marginalized as being either pro-Russian or anti-Western when they speak out against the malpractice of their supposedly ‘pro-Western’ regimes.

Geopolitical developments have challenged the belief championed by Secretary of State Baker and his contemporaries at the end of the Cold War, that a trans-Atlantic community, with a military alliance leading the way, would be capable of transcending inter-imperial rivalry. Instead, the return of geopolitics to the continent has meant that the specter of neutrality is shrinking. Those who call for charting a neutral path are increasingly being blacklisted by the media. It is all too easy to cast them as pro-Russian pawns. But listening to their stories yields a much different story that most ‘security’ experts are wont to tell.

Tall and handsome, sporting a sharp denim jacket and a razor thin-beard, Marko Milacić is not what I was expecting the dyed-in-the-wool anti-NATO activist to look like. Marko is leading the charge in the struggle to keep Montenegro a neutral country. As director of the NGO, Movement for Neutrality Montenegro, he has been the target of special treatment by corrupt Montenegrin authorities. Police harassment, government surveillance, and ominous threats are just some of the repressive tactics that the local regime has turned to in an effort to silence him.

Last year Marko was arrested and detained before he could enter a public event held in support of NATO. His detainment drew the ire of prominent intellectuals, but it attracted almost no attention in the foreign press. His maltreatment at the hands of corrupt officials has fueled further anti-NATO resentment in a country that remains deeply divided over the question of NATO membership.

Many Montenegrins look upon the alliance with deep-rooted suspicion because of the bombing campaign it led in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. It was the first time that NATO launched a military campaign without UN Security Council approval. The U.S. and its European allies deemed the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Kosovo sufficient to warrant an intervention — Russia and China disagreed — NATO moved forward with Operation Allied Force anyways. NATO’s air campaign was mostly directed in what is now Serbia and Kosovo, but it resulted in the death of six civilians, including three children, in Montenegro’s northeast. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg apologized for the incident last June.

Opposition figures mark the anniversary of their deaths every year with a march and a small rally as part of their campaign against becoming a member of the alliance. One person I spoke with likened their activities to, “building a campaign on the corpses of those who were bombed.” Clearly the issue remains deeply divisive. Like Marko, some of the opposition figures who organize these marches have been subjected to maltreatment by the Montenegrin authorities. In January a member of the opposition showed me pictures of scars and bruises that he claims came after a savage beating he received for his views.

Marko’s organization stages a mock ISIS execution in front of the Ministry of Defense. The purpose was to draw attention to the possibility that joining NATO will make Montenegro a target of terrorist attacks. — Podgorica, Montenegro

But strong-arm tactics aimed at disrupting anti-NATO agitators haven’t proven useful when it comes to winning over Montenegrins divided on the issue. For them, repression only provides further evidence that the regime — under the questionable leadership of Prime Minister Milos Djukanović — is willing to turn to desperate measures in order to safeguard its NATO ambitions. By far the most effective means of silencing Marko and other NATO detractors, has been casting them off as being either pro-Russian or pro-Serbian or both.

Dr. Savo Kentera is president of the local of the the Atlantic Council in Podgorica. The Atlantic Council is an influential NGO based in Washington D.C. that supports trans-Atlantic integration. Kentera doesn’t mince words when he brushes off Marko as a Russian stooge. He says it’s “not a secret,” that Russia is influencing NGO’s that hold anti-NATO views. According to Kentera, “Some are more visible than others and some are not, but they definitely have a lot of them.” While he struggled to name the specific groups in question, he was sure to point to Marko’s Movement for Neutrality as an example of NGO being heavily influenced by Russia.

“Based on everything that they are doing, and how they are talking, you have to be really stupid in order not to realize who is behind them.” I asked him if there was any evidence to support these claims: “When you say evidence, what kind of evidence are you asking for? If you are you asking for evidence that the Russians are paying them, then you’re not going to find that because they are not so stupid.”

This is a charge Marko categorically denies. He says he receives no financial support from Moscow and dismisses these allegations as an attempt to delegitimize those who are against NATO membership. To-date no evidence that I am aware of has surfaced that has connected Marko to any outside influence. Indeed, despite Marko’s objections to joining NATO, his organization continues to support Montenegro’s further integration into the European Union. Marko calls this path ‘Irelandization’ to denote how a country can become integrated into the European Union without joining NATO. This is a position that a majority of Montenegrins share — as many as 60% according to recent polls.

The key question here is not whether Irelandization is a practical strategy for Montenegro, but why ‘Western security experts’ widely recognize that the domestic populations in places like Ireland, Finland and Sweden have a right to have a say in their foreign policy — often by popular referendum— while they don’t even bat an eye when Montenegro is invited into the alliance in spite of widespread popular disapproval.

Ultimately this strategy could backfire. An unclassified U.S. diplomatic memo from 2007 concluded that anti-NATO protests are directed as much at the oppressive regime in Podgorica than against the ‘West.’ According to the cable: “THE OPPOSITION ATTACKS ARE NOT MOTIVATED BY ANTIPATHY TO NATO AS MUCH AS ENMITY TOWARDS THE GOVERNMENT.” As the opposition comes to see NATO as an actor supporting Djukanović’s illiberal regime, opposition to the alliance and the ‘West’ more generally will no doubt grow.

Regardless, Marko’s pleas for being taken off the media’s ‘black list’ reserved for Putin apologists have fallen on deaf ears. By suggesting the father and husband is a loyal proprietor of Russian propaganda — a stooge doing Putin’s bidding — his credibility suffers an irredeemable blow in the eyes of Western media. This is why you will never read a quote from Marko in the New York Times or the Washington Post, even though his views are widely shared by many Montenegrins. This raises serious questions about the media’s capacity to report objectively on events in the ‘Crush Zone’ during a time of heightened geopolitical rivalry.

In the ‘Crush Zone’ there is a thin line between propaganda and public diplomacy. In Montenegro, this line is often decided based on your political leanings rather than any objective measure. If the message is in support NATO, it is public diplomacy. If not, it is treated as Russian propaganda.

Local elites play this polarization to their advantage by casting everyone in the opposition as Russian agitators. They use this tactic to justify the excessive use of force when they put down the opposition’s protests and when they suggest that some things should simply not be subjected to democratic approval for fear of Russian influence — NATO membership included. That this opposition is made up of a wide-range of actors who hold very divergent views makes no difference to foreign observers once they’ve been deemed ‘untrustworthy Serbs’ or Putin propagandists.

It might be true that some NGO’s are receiving some kind of assistance from abroad, or are somehow being unduly influenced by Russia — indeed some I spoke with openly admit to wanting closer relations with Moscow— but the fact is, that exaggerated claims about this influence are disproportionate to the evidence at hand. That much media reporting and most ‘security experts’ are so easily writing off the concerns held by a majority of Montenegrins based off of what amounts to mostly unsubstantiated claims seems brash and more than a little short-sighted. Inviting a country, no matter how small it is, into a military alliance that functions on the basis of consensus, without the popular support of its people can easily turn out to be a recipe for future antagonisms.

A billboard advertises NATO membership on the road between Kotor and Budva, Montenegro.

The flip side of the story is the undeniable influence that Western countries have had in pushing Montenegro down the path to membership. For several years now, the Montenegrin government, with substantial help from NATO’s Public Relations division, has engaged in an expensive ‘public diplomacy’ campaign designed to shore up support for NATO.

At its height, the government’s campaign involved a TV show called ‘The Challenge’ dedicated to European Union and NATO integration- the show aired on public broadcaster RTCG which is itself embroiled in a scandal that has drawn the attention of the European Union commission as it effectively operates as the mouthpiece of the regime; a radio show called ‘NATO Info’; a free magazine, Partneri, full of information on NATO; TV spots and radio jingles; interviews with high-level staff and security experts; a NATO information office; staged debates; and outreach directed specifically at high school children.

These activities were partially funded and supported by the U.S. Government and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Norwegia’s MFA provided the government with 1.8 million NOK in support of their ‘NATO Communication’s Team.’ In turn, the NATO Communications Team would provide financial support to local NGO’s and the media in order to report on Montenegro’s accession process.

In Montenegro, the longstanding financial relationship between the government, the media, and NGO’s has effectively blurred the line between civil society and the state. Montenegro’s government would work closely with D.C.-based NGO’s like the Jefferson Institute and the Atlantic Council to craft their messaging and strategy. Part of the campaign involved excessive monitoring of media reports and extensive polling. The purpose of polling was to determine which arguments people would be most receptive to in order to get them to support NATO membership — in other words, not to determine whether or not people in Montenegro really wanted to be part of the alliance. That’s how talking up NATO’s ‘economic benefits’ became a cornerstone of the Public Relations strategy, though the evidence for this assertion for remain sparse.

Montenegro has a long-standing trade imbalance with the European Union, while many of its major business partners are from non-NATO countries. Whether or not NATO membership will actually improve the economic prospects for those living in Montenegro remains to be seen, but given that unemployment wavers between 13% and 19% and that many Montenegrin’s are struggling to get by, the argument is a powerful one that people grab onto.

In the lead up to NATO’s invitation, the government’s public relations campaign reached comical heights.

Given the remarkable pervasiveness of this internationally orchestrated public relations campaign, it is hard not to take Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comments at Montenegro’s accession protocol signing in Brussels without a tinge of irony. Kerry underlined, that “Montenegro’s accession underscores once again our determination to be able to make membership decisions that are free from outside influences.” Influence is clearly treated selectively, to mean Russia, while neglecting to mention the United State’s own role in trying to shape public opinion and mould Montenegrin society to fit its particular political and economic interests.

Despite NATO’s recent invitation Marko hasn’t given up the fight to keep his country neutral. He, along with a coalition of political parties and others in the opposition, are calling for a referendum to decide the issue. But so far their calls for a referendum have been categorically rejected by the regime. They have been told by the government that referendum is off the table. This was not always the case, and if a referendum isn’t held, it will be because the ‘Public Diplomacy’ campaign failed.

In a diplomatic cable written in 2007, just prior to the PR campaign taking off, U.S. Embassy staff in Podgorica suggested that, “If and when the day comes for Montenegro to consider an offer to join NATO, a referendum on the question is very likely.” The cable’s author noted that, “members of the President’s office and MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs]” had told the political officer at the Embassy, “that the government would likely accept the request when it became timely.”

Back then the Montenegrin government was at least partially convinced that they would be able to turn public opinion in favor of NATO membership — but public opinion has yet to reach more than 50%, and in-all-likelihood it never will. According to the same diplomatic cable: “The strongest opposition to NATO comes from self-described serbs, supporters of the political opposition. They view NATO as either the military organization that bombed Serbia […] in 1999; or as a military alliance that does America’s bidding — or both.” This much has not changed. And it would appear that no amount of public relations wizardry will change their minds.

In the Western media, calls for a referendum are treated as part of a broader geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the West. Focusing only on this aspect of the story is indicative of a broader tendency to downplay the concerns of people living in the Balkans altogether. The Balkans have traditionally been treated as the ‘backwards corner of Europe.’ The people living here are generally written off as ethno-nationalists incapable of handling their own affairs without the help of Brussels or Washington D.C.. It’s an easy narrative to return to, but it’s also one that plays into the corrupt hands of those in power.

OnDecember 2nd 2015, to the surprise of many of those in attendance, Jens Stoltenberg, publicly announced that Montenegro would be issued an invitation to join the alliance despite low public support. Only a few months before, French President, Francoise Hollande, had all but eliminated the prospect of Montenegrin membership, when he said that for the foreseeable future France’s position was against NATO expansion altogether. Clearly geopolitical events have played a role in changing the French position. Russia has responded with its obligatory bellicose rhetoric.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Secretary General Stoltenberg insisted that the decision had little to do with Russia. Instead it was about Montenegro pursuing a sovereign choice after hard-earned reforms. Anyone who has bothered to pay attention knows that this is not the case. Regardless, Stoltenberg’s sentiments were echoed in a recent article written by Robbie Gramer for Foreign Affairs. Gramer argued that Montenegro deserves membership for succesfully completing several democratic and defense related reforms. Writing warmly of the invitation, he opined:

That a newly independent country could reach these standards in such a short time frame speaks to the enduring and powerful draw of the Euro-Atlantic community. In that sense, this remarkable success story comes at an opportune time — it is a bright spot in Europe’s otherwise dark political terrain of internal strain, the refugee crisis, and the war in Ukraine.

It is worth mentioning that Gramer, is an Associate Director at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council — the same Atlantic Council that was part of Montenegro’s public relations campaign and is avidly in support of NATO enlargement. As with most reporting on Montenegro and NATO, the crux of his argument remained essentially geopolitical. Tiny Montenegro was to be ‘The New Thorn in Russia’s Side,’ regardless if people living there had agreed to be chess pieces in a brewing geopolitical match between D.C. and Moscow or not.

Gramer’s rosey picture contrasts sharply with people living under the regime of Djukanović. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project recently named Djukanović their 2015 Man of the Year in Organized Crime. One prominent Montenegrin activist went so far as to claim that Djukanović is Europe’s ‘last dictator’. The European Union’s own monitoring mission concluded that there are major discrepancies between Djukanović’s rhetoric and his actions.

Their report cites evidence of widespread electioneering, including the use of disappearing ink at the ballot box. Freedom of the press is also undermined by the regime. A recent Freedom House report ranked Montenegro only ‘Partly Free.” The media watchdog group noted that in Montenegro, “Journalists face threats, attacks, and vandalism of their property, with new incidents reported each year, leading to increased self-censorship.” They added that, “While technically transparent, media ownership structures are widely believed to mask the true power forces involved.”

None of this seems to bother the small cadre of vocal security experts who cover the Balkans — including Dr. Kentera in Podgorica. When pressed on Djukanović’s less-than stellar reputation as corrupt politician, Dr. Kentera of was adamant that it didn’t matter so long as he continued the pro-Western path towards NATO.

“This is the very first time that we are actually moving towards the West. It’s a historical change […] In that respect I don’t care what Djukanovic was doing before, what he is doing right now, if he is corrupt or not […] He made a very good choice that wasn’t easy, and he has to deal with that right now. He turned his back to them [the russians]. He’s not a partner to them anymore. Until a year ago we didn’t know if we were going to be part of the West or not.”

As for the possibility of Montenegro remaining neutral:

“Whoever thinks that there are neutral countries today is deeply wrong. There are no neutral countries in a practical sense […] I don’t think so. No way. Just a matter of time when they have to decide on which chair they are going to have to sit.”

Security experts favor NATO expansion almost without exception. They are convinced that expanding the trans-Atlantic core with NATO at the vanguard is in the interest of everyone involved. For most of them neutrality is not an option. In the long run they may well be right — increasing political and economic interdependency on a transnational basis is making it difficult to determine whether a country really is neutral or not — while geopolitical rivalry is putting pressure on countries to choose sides. But the fact that so many security experts who favor trans-Atlantic expansion, are so willing to make compromises along the way points to a striking contradiction between the democratic values they supposedly hold and their ability to write off these values when they see fit.

Trans-Atlanticist voices have come to dominate the debate on NATO enlargement — you will find them quoted in the same New York Times articles that categorically avoid talking to people like Marko. In this way, Western media have become part of the Montenegrin government’s strategy of securing NATO membership without popular approval — while simultaneously feeding the popular perception among average Montenegrins, that the West doesn’t really care about the universal values Secretary Baker laid out in his speech in Berlin so long ago.

Ironically, ignoring the concerns of average Montenegrins plays right into the hands of those who would use Western ambivalence to agitate for far-right politics and closer ties with Russia. In other words, it adds to the very problem that many of them are so determined to avoid. No one can be sure what that will mean for the alliance once Montenegro becomes a member, especially if the opposition is eventually succesful in ousting Djukanović.

Russia has been lining up in support of a referendum on NATO expansion for obvious geopolitical reasons. What’s not obvious is what would happen to the alliance if and when these opposition parties ever came to power — especially if they remain inimical to NATO and feel as if the accession process was not fair. What would it mean for an alliance that operates mostly on the basis of consensus, to have a Montenegro suddenly favorable to Russian interests sitting at the table in Brussels Headquarters? In Gramer’s terminology, ‘Tiny Montenegro’ could become a thorn in NATO’s side.

This might not seem all that likely a scenario for the time being, but the fact is that the enormity of the decision to invite a new member into the alliance, and all of the difficult questions this decision typically engenders, are being downplayed in the name of geopolitical expediency, while objective analysis is rapidly being caught up in renewed East-West rivalry. In this geopolitical environment, we would do well to pay increased attention to the peripheral regions caught in the Crush Zone and to those activists and members of civil society who are closest to the situation. Even if they aren’t successful in their struggle for neutrality — their story reveals much about Europe’s current geopolitical landscape.

Ryan McCarrel is a Ph.D. Candidate at University College Dublin’s School of Geography where he focuses on geopolitics, borders and world (dis)order. He’s written articles for Foreign Affairs, The Diplomat,, and Open Democracy. He blogs at the Accidental Geographer. You can follow him on twitter @ryanmccarrel


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