Monday, 18 October 2021
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Eastern Europe

Editor's note: This is the sixth installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

The name "Ukraine" literally translates as "on the edge." It is a country on the edge of other countries, sometimes part of one, sometimes part of another and more frequently divided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was divided between Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, it was divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary. And in the 20th century, save for a short period of independence after World War I, it became part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has been on the edge of empires for centuries.

My father was born in Ukraine in 1912, in a town in the Carpathians now called Uzhgorod. It was part of Austria-Hungary when he was born, and by the time he was 10 the border had moved a few miles east, so his family moved a few miles west. My father claimed to speak seven languages (Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish). As a child, I was deeply impressed by his learning. It was only later that I discovered that his linguistic skills extended only to such phrases as "What do you want for that scrawny chicken?" and "Please don't shoot."

He could indeed make himself understood in such non-trivial matters in all these languages. Consider the reason: Uzhgorod today is on the Slovakian border, about 30 miles from Poland, 15 miles from Hungary and 50 miles from Romania. When my father was growing up, the borders moved constantly, and knowing these languages mattered. You were never sure what you'd be a citizen or subject of next or who would be aiming a rifle at you.

My father lived on the edge until the Germans came in 1941 and swept everything before them, and then until the Soviets returned in 1944 and swept everything before them. He was one of tens of millions who lived or died on the edge, and perhaps nowhere was there as much suffering from living on the edge than in Ukraine. Ukraine was caught between Stalin and Hitler, between planned famines and outright slaughter, to be relieved only by the grinding misery of post-Stalin communism. No European country suffered as much in the 20th century as Ukraine. From 1914 until 1945, Ukraine was as close to hell as one can reach in this life.

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Editor's note: This is the final installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman wrote during his travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he shared his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and now concludes with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

I have come home, a word that is ambiguous for me, and more so after this trip to Romania, Moldova, Turkey, Ukraine and Poland. The experience of being back in Texas frames my memories of the journey. The architecture of the cities I visited both impressed and oppressed me. Whether Austro-Hungarian mass or Stalinist modernism, the sheer size of the buildings was overwhelming. These are lands of apartments, not of private homes on their own plots of land. In Texas, even in the cities, you have access to the sky. That gives me a sense of freedom and casualness that Central Europe denies me. For a man born in Budapest, with a mother from Bratislava and a father from Uzhgorod, I can't deny I am Central European. But I prefer my chosen home in Austin simply because nothing is ever casual for me in Central Europe. In Texas, everything is casual, even when it's about serious things. There is an ease in the intensity of Texas.

On my return, some friends arranged a small dinner with some accomplished and distinguished people to talk about my trip. I was struck by the casualness of the conversation. It was a serious discussion, even passionate at times, but it was never guarded. There was no sense that a conversation carried with it risk. I had not met some of the guests before. It didn't matter. In the region I was born in, I feel that I have to measure every word with care. There are so many bad memories that each word has to be measured as if it were gold. The simplest way to put it, I suppose, is that there are fewer risks in Texas than in Central Europe. One of the benefits of genuine power is speaking your mind, with good humor. Those on the edge of power proceed with more caution. Perhaps more than others, I feel this tension. Real Texans may laugh at this assertion, but at the end of the day, I'm far more Texan than anything else.

Or perhaps I speak too quickly. We were in the Kiev airport on the way to Warsaw. As I was passing through security, I was stopped by the question, "Friedman? Warsaw?" I admitted that and suddenly was under guard. "You have guns in your luggage." For me, that statement constituted a near-death experience. I looked at my wife, wondering what she had done. She said casually, "Those aren't guns. They are swords and daggers and were to be surprises for my husband." Indeed they were. While I stood in mortal terror, she cheerily chatted up the guards, who really couldn't make out what she was saying but were charmed nonetheless by her complete absence of fear. In my case, the fear came in layers, with each decade like another layer in an archaeological dig. For her, memory is a much simpler thing.

The region I visited is all about memories never forgetting, never forgiving and pretending it doesn't matter any more. Therefore, the region is in a peculiar place. On the one hand, every past grievance continues to live. On the other hand, a marvelous machine, the European Union, is hard at work, making the past irrelevant and the future bright. In a region not noted for its optimism, redemption is here and it comes from Brussels.

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Editor's note: This is the fifth installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

We arrived in Istanbul during the festival of Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael on God's command and praises the God who stayed his hand. It is a jarring holiday for me; I was taught that it was Isaac whom God saved. The distinction between Ishmael and Isaac is the difference between Hagar and Sarah, between Abraham and the Jews and Abraham and the Muslims. It ties Muslims, Jews and Christians together. It also tears them apart.

Muslims celebrate Eid with the sacrifice of animals (sheep and cattle). Istanbul is a modern commercial city, stunningly large. On this day, as we drove in from the airport, there were vacant lots with cattle lined up for those wishing to carry out the ritual. There were many cattle and people. The ritual sacrifice is widely practiced, even among the less religious. I was told that Turkey had to import cattle for the first time, bringing them in from Uruguay. Consider the juxtaposition of ancient ritual sacrifice so widely practiced that it requires global trade to sustain it.

The tension between and within nations and religions is too ancient for us to remember its beginnings. It is also something that never grows old. For Turkey, it is about a very old nation at what I think is the beginning of a new chapter. It is therefore inevitably about the struggles within Turkey and with Turkey's search for a way to find both its identity and its place in the world.

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Editor's note: This is the fourth installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

Moldova is a country in need of explanation, two explanations in fact. First, there is the question of what kind of country Moldova is. Second, there is the question of why anyone should care. Oddly, I went to Moldova thinking I knew the answer to the second question but not the first. I came away unsure of either. Let's begin with the second question: Why does Moldova matter?

The second article in this series, "Borderlands," described the re-emergence of Russian regional power following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russian national security is dependent on two countries that became independent following the collapse. Belarus is the buffer between Russia and Europe on the North European Plain. Ukraine is the buffer between Russia and the Carpathian Mountains. From the Russian point of view, dominating these countries is less important than Europe and the United States not dominating them. The Russians have achieved this and perhaps more.

Ukraine is Russia's southwestern anchor and its Achilles' heel. It is difficult for Russia to be secure without Ukraine both for economic and strategic reasons. Russia would be hard to defend if Ukraine were under the control of a hostile power. What Ukraine is to Russia, Moldova is to Ukraine. It is a salient that makes Ukraine difficult to defend, and if Ukraine can't be defended Russia can't be defended either. Or so my reasoning went at the beginning of my visit.

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Editor's note: This is the seventh installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman is writing as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he shares his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and will conclude, in the next installment, with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

To understand Poland, you must understand Frederic Chopin. First listen to his Polonaise and then to his Revolutionary Etude. They are about hope, despair and rage. In the Polonaise, you hear the most extraordinary distillation of a nation's existence. In the Revolutionary Etude, written in the wake of an uprising in Warsaw in 1830 crushed by Russian troops, there is both rage and resignation. In his private journal, Chopin challenged God for allowing this national catastrophe to happen, damning the Russians and condemning the French for not coming to Warsaw's aid. Afterward, Chopin never returned to Poland, but Poland never left his mind.

Poland finally became an independent nation in 1918. The prime minister it chose to represent it at Versailles was Ignacy Paderewski, a pianist and one of the finest interpreters of Chopin. The conference restored the territories of Greater Poland, and Paderewski helped create the interwar Poland. Gdansk (the German Danzig) set the stage for Poland's greatest national disaster when Germany and the Soviet Union allied to crush Poland, and Danzig became the German justification for its destruction.

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Editor's note: This is the third installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

In school, many of us learned the poem Invictus. It concludes with the line, "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." This is a line that a Victorian gentleman might bequeath to an American businessman. It is not a line that resonates in Romania. Nothing in their history tells Romanians that they rule their fate or dominate their soul. Everything in their history is a lesson in how fate masters them or how their very soul is a captive of history. As a nation, Romanians have modest hopes and expectations tempered by their past.

This sensibility is not alien to me. My parents survived the Nazi death camps, returned to Hungary to try to rebuild their lives and then found themselves fleeing the communists. When they arrived in America, their wishes were extraordinarily modest, as I look back on it. They wanted to be safe, to get up in the morning, to go to work, to get paid to live. They were never under the impression that they were the masters of their fate.

The problem that Romania has is that the world cares about it. More precisely, empires collide where Romania is. The last iteration was the Cold War. Today, at the moment, things seem easier, or at least less desperate, than before. Still, as I discussed in Borderlands, the great powers are sorting themselves out again and therefore Romania is becoming more important to others. It is not clear to me that the Romanians fully appreciate the shift in the geopolitical winds. They think they can hide in Europe, and perhaps they can. But I suspect that history is reaching for Romania again.

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