The NATO members most threatened by Russia’s aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have signalled they are unhappy with the support they have been receiving from their Western European and North American allies. In an extraordinary move, the leaders of the Central and Eastern European members of the alliance held a summit meeting of their own in Bucharest on November 4 and 5 — and pointedly did not invite the United States, other allies, or even the Secretary General of NATO to attend. The Bucharest meeting was officially described as preparation for Warsaw summit scheduled for July 8-9 this year, but there has never been such “preparation” before with leaders from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania meeting apart from the other 19 allies.
The pressure has since been building for NATO to show more resolve in its defence of its eastern flank. Some steps have been taken including a large multinational exercise in Poland which had been in the planning for some time. But these may not be enough to avert a major row in Warsaw next month.
The issue in question 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 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, NATO has been shoring up its defences along its eastern flank in order to 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 that 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.
It is not likely, however, that these measures will be enough to fully alleviate the concerns of the Central and East Europeans. It will take something much more concrete before they stop worrying about whether their allies will come when they’re needed.