Strategic Chessboard of Eastern Europe

Author Name: Maheen Shafeeq      25 Apr 2022     Global view

The tug-of-war for power and influence between the United States (US) and Russia in eastern Europe has garnered global attention. This geopolitical location could be seen as a ‘strategic chessboard’ of present times – analogy discussed at great length by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book ‘The Grand Chessboard’ several decades ago. Even back then, he saw Eurasia as the ‘CHIEF’ geopolitical location or a ‘grand chessboard’ for the US.

A war on this chessboard due to NATO’s eastward expansion was anticipated but ignored as the latter continued to add former Warsaw Pact countries such as Albania, Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary into its circle. The matter of extending NATO membership to Ukraine added additional pressure to this matrix. Historically, since negotiations over the reunification of Germany, Russia has assumed that the US and West, constituted a promise that NATO would not expand eastwards, while the US and the West interpreted the same as ‘NATO would not expand beyond then-East Germany’. Due to the conflict of agreement on what the interpretation of then made promise was, the US and Western leaders deny having bound NATO in any legal jurisdiction that prohibits its eastward expansion – seen as its ‘encirclement’ by Moscow. This lack of clarity or mutual understanding (and drive for greater power as a bloc) has now pushed a small country like Ukraine into a ruthless war. Under such complex circumstances, when war was anticipated, it would have been ideal to practice prudence rather than provocation. President Putin cautioned about this before the war in Ukraine erupted. In fact, the Kremlin called the US’ move to deploy troops in the region a ‘destructive step’ that may escalate tensions in the region.

The US and Russia are endeavouring to hold on to their influence on this ‘Strategic Chessboard of Eastern Europe’ and are aware that direct confrontation could be messy as Russia has threatened the use of nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine. In order to avert these crises, the US and Russia repeatedly pursued diplomatic efforts to find a resolution, however, failed to achieve a successful compromise. The Russian leaders declared that their demands were not met and were continuously ignored by the West. The diplomatic effort, even prior to the war in Ukraine, was hanging by a thread as both Russia and US prepared their troops. Although US troops were shoring up in NATO countries, neither US-NATO nor Russia would have engaged directly. Nevertheless, they continued vying for influence through other means. While US-NATO’s hands remained tied as Ukraine was not yet part of the Treaty Organization, they continued to provide support to Kyiv to deter Russia. For instance, the US provided military support through anti-aircraft systems, tactical unmanned aerial systems, ammunition, helicopters, patrol boats, machine guns and electronic warfare systems, while NATO, in addition to providing military hardware, agreed to add the future of relations with Russia in NATO’s next Strategic Concept which will be finalised in June 2022.

This Russia-Ukraine crisis also saw the employment of asymmetric warfare with cyber operations against key installations conducted by Moscow. These attacks were not only targeted against Ukraine but also NATO countries. Consequently, their impact was felt worldwide. It has been reported that while Russia was ‘rather slow’ in this area, one reason for delayed cyber tactics could be to give Russian cyber operatives time to ‘infiltrate various adversaries and gain footholds’ and then launch a cyber-attack. In addition to cyber, information warfare was also waged by Ukraine through the use of social and electronic media. Regardless of the reasons, the conflict has highlighted that Kremlin’s warfighting strategy remains traditional. The use of Russian tanks on the battleground instead of unmanned vehicles is indicative that perhaps the character of war has not changed as much as experts had imagined.

US’ refocus on Eastern Europe’s ‘Strategic Chessboard’ is an attempt to salvage its degrading hegemony and status quo. However, with the world shifting away from unipolarity and numerous emerging centres of power, it would be a challenge to maintain greater influence in this theatre. Although Washington may continue to influence and build alliances, the conflict could linger on as Russia does not seem willing to back down just yet. What is clear from this conflict is that the Cold War, assumed to have ended in 1989, did not end after all.

Maheen Shafeeq is a researcher at Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. She holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Sheffield, UK. She can be reached at

Image Source: Pulani Sami, 2020. "Opinion – Emerging Elements of a New US-China Cold War." E-International Relations, September 2020. 



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