NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg delivered his Annual Report, referring to 2014 as a ‘black year’ for European security, and announcing a number of measure that are to make the Alliance more secure.
One of these included the creation of NATO Command Centres in the Baltic and Central Eastern Europe. These are a result of a compromise between NATO members, particularly between those most concerned about Russia’s actions and those seeking dialogue with Moscow rather than further confrontation. Poland, for example, months ago called for a full NATO military base on the ‘eastern front’, although this was rejected by Germany and some other states.
Choice of the six countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria) is not surprising at all. Nevertheless, there are two distinct reasons for this. Firstly, these members of the Alliance are generally calling for greater NATO presence in the region. The Baltic States traditionally feel insecure about Russia, and the Baltic Air Policing Mission is already ten years old, and the size of the mission has been tripled. But this strengthening of NATO’s eastern capacity is not about increasing military presence, but rather greater preparedness for a potential Russian threat in the east by creating infrastructure to accommodate any troop deployment in the future. In a way, this compromise move is echoed in the frustration of former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, who was caught in leaked tapes calling NATO alliance worthless, and creating a false sense of security.
However, it would be unfair to say that NATO has done nothing to address the concerns of those eastern members who feel increasingly insecure. In fact, the creation of these six Command Centres is also in line with a wider NATO forward planning and increased number of joint military exercises. For example, US Army Europe is currently surveying locations in these six countries for placing equipment storage facilities to support a heavy rotating battalion. According to US Army Europe chief, Lt. Gen Ben Hodges, as well as the creation of the Very Rapid Reactionary Force, the aim is to eventually expand US capabilities to brigade level, therefore, not only increasing the number but also the capacity to hold a larger number of US or NATO troops throughout Central Eastern Europe for training or mission purposes.
On one hand, this is a clear tactical move as it helps to cover both the northern and south-eastern flank of NATO’s ‘eastern front’. It means that NATO is able to have reachable presence throughout the region. Nevertheless, the ‘gap’ in Central Europe is also striking, especially when it comes to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. Although Slovakia is making some initial preparations and it is said that Hungary will follow soon overall, these countries show little enthusiasm for greater NATO presence on their territory, which was echoed by Prime Minister Fico’s famous remark comparing the presence of NATO troops to August 1968 invasion – words for domestic consumption that have, however, reached the walls of Brussels and Mons.
This also highlights the political stance of the three countries in the European Council when it comes to dealing with Russia. Not only critical of sanctions against Russia, they have also argued for greater engagement with Moscow and generally see the presence of NATO in Central and Eastern Europe as contradictory to this aim.
This may be true, because it is hard to imagine that Kremlin will respond positively to any moves. Nevertheless, Kremlin’s increasingly hysterical stance against NATO means that even the most limited of moves will provoke a reaction. Yet, it is unrealistic to expect NATO to leave its eastern front uncovered, especially in light of increasingly destructive war in Ukraine and Russian troop movements. There is an increasing feeling of insecurity in Europe and NATO has a primary role in containing this. To expect NATO to do otherwise is essentially to accept Sikorski’s pessimistic view of European security guarantees. Of course, nobody wants to feel threatened – but then, nobody likes to feel insecure either. This is a major dilemma, and it is a dilemma that has existed in international relations for millennium.
Igor Merheim-Eyre, Global Europe Centre, University of Kent
This post was originally written for the Slovak Daily Pravda, and published in the Monday 02/02/2015 edition of the newspaper (For online edition, see www.Pravda.sk )
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent