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Long-Distance Friendships

An ambivalent relationship among some NATO allies feeds a sense of insecurity in Central Europe.

by Martin Ehl 15 April 2014

A politician stands in front of a gleaming fighter plane in a hangar. In front of him is a lectern with a microphone. He is telling the soldiers gathered around him with clear and determined words that he welcomes them and that because of them not only he but the whole nation feels safe.


It could be a picture from a Hollywood blockbuster if this scene had not taken place recently at the Polish military base in Lask, if the Polish eagle were not on the lectern, and if the politician were not Prime Minister Donald Tusk, thanking the American soldiers whose squadron of F-16 fighters has now been based in Poland for a month – officially for training.


“Your presence in Lask gives us a greater sense of security in today's difficult times. This is very important to us,” Tusk said. He thus expressed relatively clearly the view not only of Poles but also of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians.  These NATO allies are also expanding their regularly alternating patrols over the Baltics, for which, in addition to the existing base in Siauliai, Lithuania, the Estonians have offered the new, modernized airport at Amari.


A scene similar to Lask is hard to imagine in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Hungary, but it is very conceivable in Romania, which hosts part of the U.S. anti-missile defense system.


Czechs, who do not have external borders of the EU or NATO (not counting Austria), are somewhat removed from the Ukrainian crisis, but the Poles, not to mention the Baltic states, are much more aware of what is at stake. According to a survey conducted by the CBOS agency in the first half of March, 88 percent of Poles were interested in the situation in Ukraine and 82 percent considered local developments there important for Poland. That compares with two-thirds of respondents in the Czech Republic who said in a different poll that they were interested in events in Ukraine, and 73 percent who said those events are important for Czech society.


The response to the Ukrainian crisis reveals something about countries’ relationships with their NATO allies and especially with the United States only five years after President Barack Obama canceled the planned deployment of the U.S. missile defense system in Central Europe. And only a year after the Americans took their last battle-ready tanks out of Europe (this February, 29 of them returned to Germany for training exercises).


If Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians can be considered lukewarm NATO allies when it comes to confrontations with Russia, then the alliance and its leading states have not offered much more in return: a few airplanes, strong words, and sanctions against one bank and fewer than 30 prominent Russians.


Last week, Ian Brzezinski, an American analyst at the Atlantic Council and the son of a famous father, clearly stated things in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Central European allies need more than just the symbolic support of the alliance. NATO and the United States must now endeavor to counterbalance any impression of helplessness because Moscow, as it seems, does not understand anything else. “President Putin's strategies are the objectives of the 20th century promoted by 21st century technology along with old-fashioned brute force,” Brzezinski said.


According to Brzezinski, Washington should stop the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe and send an army brigade to Central Europe. Washington must simply show that the United States is capable of standing up to Putin. Otherwise the Russian leader will act more aggressively, plunge farther into Ukraine, or once again try to occupy Georgia or Moldova.


The game is not about anything less than a unilateral attempt to change borders under the pretext of protecting ethnic minorities. In the last century, this policy led Europe into wars with tens of millions of victims. Unlike the Czechs, Poles and Estonians realize this much more dramatically as a result of their historical experiences. This is why they are also more active even though they have much deeper economic ties with Russia than the Czech Republic. Estonia, where hundreds of thousands of citizens go shopping in the neighboring Leningrad region, is still a member of the western Russia electrical grid, from which it will be able to unfasten itself only next year when a second underwater cable to Finland is finished. However, Tallinn spends 2 percent on defense, and Estonian politicians such as President Toomas Hendrik Ilves consistently reiterate their concerns about Russian “aggressiveness and revanchism.”


Just last week in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Ilves admitted that more U.S. troops in the Baltics and Poland would be the best response. To the argument that NATO still has not planned for the defense of its Baltic members – because of their geographical “indefensibility” – Ilves had a clear answer: “Berlin was never defendable. Ever. There was no concept of defending the allied sectors of Berlin. But what defended it was the idea that if you come in, there is gonna be a whole lot of smoke and ashes elsewhere.”


We are now waiting in Central Europe during this tense, evolving situation for a corresponding formulation from the mouths of our Western allies. So far in vain. 

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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