The European Union’s eastern bloc finds the ongoing refugee crisis annoying but is far more worried about Russia. Geopolitics expert George Friedman says the formerly Soviet-dominated nations see Russia gaining strength but don’t know if NATO will defend them in a crisis.

Speaking in a Mauldin Economics video, Friedman had Europe on his mind as he prepares for consultations in Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. He expects to find a very nervous audience when he gets there.

Caught in the Crossfire

Western Europeans and Americans know little of the East. The region was under either Soviet or Nazi domination for most of the 20th century and is still working to catch up economically with the West.

Poland, Romania, and others in the region gladly aligned with the EU and NATO after the Soviet Union collapsed, but even today they still feel like outsiders. They see the great powers squaring off in Ukraine and don’t want to be a battleground again.

Eastern Europe knows that Vladimir Russia is powerful enough to take them. Unsure whether NATO would risk war to defend them, Eastern European states are holding their breath—and keeping channels to Moscow open.

The US in Transition

The United States is in a transition period for its foreign policy. As the globally dominant power, it has interests everywhere. Yet the US can’t exercise its power everywhere at once. It has to set priorities and has not decided what the priorities will be.

This leaves the rest of the world uncertain where it stands with the US. Nations like Slovakia and Lithuania can’t be sure whether Washington will always shelter them under its defensive umbrella.

Europe on Its Own?

Meanwhile, political and economic realities are forcing the US to reassess NATO. Established to defend against the Soviet threat, the alliance has struggled to find a new purpose. Now, Russia may be giving it purpose again.

The problem here is that Europe almost completely disarmed itself after the Soviet Union fell. Only the UK and France still have significant military power, but even that is not enough to repel any Russian threat.

US officials look at Europe and see a continent with a much larger population and a regional economy as large as North America’s. They see no reason why Europe can’t share the defense burden more equitably.

Even more alarming to Europe are statements by Donald Trump questioning whether the US commitment to NATO makes sense in today’s world. For now, the answer is yes… but Europeans are not sure it will stay that way and Eastern Europeans even less so.

George Friedman is editor of Mauldin Economics' This Week In Geopolitics.

This article was originally published at Mauldin Economics.