External Publications

August 10, 2016

Forsaken Territories? The Emergence of Europe’s Grey Zone

Chapter Ten of The Eastern Question Russia

John Herbst laments the lack of effort made to develop a consistent Western policy for the six nations of the “grey zone” between NATO and the EU on the western side and Russia on the eastern side – especially with regard to the states that truly wish to establish open societies: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine


John E. Herbst is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. He served for 31 years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State. Among his many assignments, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and to Uzbekistan, led the U.S. government’s civilian capacity in societies in transition from conflict or civil strife and oversaw the establishment of the Civilian Response Corps of the United States as the State Department’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. He also served as U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem; Principal Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large for the Newly Independent States; the Director of the Office of Independent States and Commonwealth Affairs; Director of Regional Affairs in the Near East Bureau; and at the embassies in Tel Aviv, Moscow, and Saudi Arabia. After retiring from the State Department he served as Director of the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the National Interest, and Foreign Policy. He earned a bachelor of science in foreign service from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a master of law and diplomacy, with distinction, from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He also attended the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Bologna Center.

Over the past two years, the security situation in Europe has deteriorated sharply. The Kremlin’s seizure and “annexation” of Crimea, followed by its not-so-covert hybrid war in the Donbas, has prompted the United States and the EU to level economic sanctions on Russia and to provide some military assistance to Ukraine. It has also prompted NATO to deploy fighters and armor to the Baltic states and other eastern members of the alliance and to deploy to the Baltic a battalion on a rotating basis. These last steps were designed to bolster deterrence against any Russian aggression or further provocations in the eastern states of NATO.

The sanctions and the strengthening of NATO in the east have not been lacking in controversy. A number of member states opposed sanctions by the EU and cautioned NATO against “overreacting” to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Some Western observers accept the Kremlin argument that the West “provoked” Russia by expanding NATO to include former Warsaw Pact members and even parts of the Soviet Union (the Baltic states), and by considering NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia (at the NATO summit of 2008). In that same spirit, some have criticized the EU for its Eastern Partnership Program and particularly for the trade deal with Ukraine (and Georgia and Moldova) that first sparked the crisis in Ukraine in November 2013.

Two years into this crisis, it is apparent that NATO is taking steps to protect its eastern members from – and to deter – Kremlin aggression. It is also clear that NATO nations are not going to send their troops to protect countries outside of NATO facing Kremlin aggression.

But neither is the West giving Moscow a free pass in Ukraine. Moscow was expelled from the Group of 8; sanctions were levied multiple times and renewed; Ukraine has been offered limited military assistance, and substantial but not sufficient economic aid. Still, the policy toward Ukraine has been developed ad hoc; and no effort has been made to develop a consistent policy for Ukraine and certainly not for all six nations of the “grey zone” between NATO and the EU on the western side and Russia on the eastern side; or even for the three states in the grey zone that would like to establish open societies and integrate into the Western world – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus are the other three countries.  

This chapter takes a look at the post-Cold War emergence of the grey zone, the clash between Russia and the West in this area, Moscow’s policy instruments to dominate the region, and how the West should respond.


Bibliographic data

Chapter 10 of The Eastern Question: Russia, the West, and Europe’s Grey Zone, co-published by the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), 2016, 264 pp. The publication was generously supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.