The NATO members most threatened by Russia’s aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have signalled they are no longer prepared to leave their fate to the vagaries of their allies in North America and Western Europe. At Warsaw’s initiative, the leaders of the Central and Eastern European members of the alliance are holding an extraordinary summit meeting in Bucharest on November 4 and 5 to concert policy towards Russia — and they have not invited the United States or any other members.
The summit has been in the works since March and has been described as preparation for the full NATO summit scheduled for Warsaw in July 2016. But there has never been such “preparation” before and the meeting is being chaired by Poland and Romania not by the Secretary General of NATO, who is not attending. This is the first time that Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have met apart from the other 19 allies.
The issue that has prompted the summit is one that goes to heart of why NATO exists. Do the leading members of NATO consider the Central and Eastern European countries just a “buffer” between Western Europe and Russia, or do they see them as full members of the Alliance and hence entitled to the full protection of the Alliance? Many in Central and Eastern Europe suspect it’s the former, and they are putting NATO on notice. As President Duda of Poland has bluntly observed, “Today, when we look at the dispersion of bases … the borderline is Germany. NATO has not yet taken notice of the shift … of Poland from east to west. NATO is supposed to be here to protect the Alliance. If Poland and other Central European countries are actually NATO’s flank, I think it’s natural, as a logical conclusion, to open bases in these countries.”
That’s an idea some allies have opposed and continue to stymie. Leading the opposition has been Germany, which has argued that the permanent location of NATO bases and multinational forces in Poland or other eastern member-states would contradict a 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia that the alliance would refrain from such moves. Eastern members respond that circumstances have changed and that Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have rendered the almost 20 year-old agreement moot.
In fact, some steps have been taken recently to shore up NATO’s defences along its eastern flank and enhance deterrence. Small outposts, formally known as NATO Force Integration Units, are being set up in six eastern member-states to improve the organization’s ability to better prepare for the military exercises which NATO now regularly conducts in these countries. The units do not appear to be designed to command troops but to ensure effective logistical arrangements are in place as and when required. If the unit in Lithuania is representative, each will have some 40 personnel, half from the host country and half from other alliance members. Coupled with other measures NATO is taking, such as an increased exercise schedule, the creation of a new NATO multinational rapid-reaction spearhead force, and the US military reportedly planning to pre-position heavy weapons and equipment in some eastern member-states, NATO has raised the stakes for any Russian effort to intimidate any of the newer members of the Alliance.
But it’s going to take more to reassure those newer members — as the meeting this week demonstrates.