As far back as the late 1990s, the distinguishing characteristic of the eastern European countries whom were courted in the Partnership for Peace initiative (of which, at II MEF in 1998, I was a participant) was the individual and collective views of their common neighbor to the east, Russia. Even then, while Russia lay economically prostrate and was seemingly no longer a threat to the West, those nations whom shared a common border, or whom had been a part of the Russian Empire, or more recently, the Soviet Union, cast mistrustful eyes at the Russian Bear.
This differed markedly from military and political thought in the United States in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War. There was a palpable sense to the Americans that Russia was now to be a long term friend who needed us, and could be cultivated based on now-common national goals. In our uniquely American way, we declared “the end of history” and “everything’s different”. In doing so, we discounted a half dozen centuries of national and cultural experience with Russia that had shaped our new Partnership for Peace allies.
This morning, George Friedman of STRATFOR has penned a superb and thought-provoking piece regarding a burgeoning military alliance among Russia’s neighbors in, as Putin describes it, the Near Abroad, which Friedman summarizes thus:
On May 12, the Visegrad Group announced the formation of a “battle group” under the command of Poland. The battle group would be in place by 2016 as an independent force and would not be part of NATO command.
First, Russia has changed dramatically since the Yeltsin years. It has increased its power in the former Soviet sphere of influence substantially, and in 2008 it carried out an effective campaign against Georgia. Since then it has also extended its influence in other former Soviet states. The Visegrad members’ underlying fear of Russia, built on powerful historical recollection, has become more intense. They are both the front line to the former Soviet Union and the countries that have the least confidence that the Cold War is simply an old memory.
Second, the infatuation with Europe, while not gone, has frayed. The ongoing economic crisis, now focused again on Greece, has raised two questions: whether Europe as an entity is viable and whether the reforms proposed to stabilize Europe represent a solution for them or primarily for the Germans. It is not, by any means, that they have given up the desire to be Europeans, nor that they have completely lost faith in the European Union as an institution and an idea. Nevertheless, it would be unreasonable to expect that these countries would not be uneasy about the direction that Europe was taking. If one wants evidence, look no further than the unease with which Warsaw and Prague are deflecting questions about the eventual date of their entry into the Eurozone. Both are the strongest economies in Central Europe, and neither is enthusiastic about the euro.
Finally, there are severe questions as to whether NATO provides a genuine umbrella of security to the region and its members. The NATO strategic concept, which was drawn up in November 2010, generated substantial concern on two scores. First, there was the question of the degree of American commitment to the region, considering that the document sought to expand the alliance’s role in non-European theaters of operation. For example, the Americans pledged a total of one brigade to the defense of Poland in the event of a conflict, far below what Poland thought necessary to protect the North European Plain. Second, the general weakness of European militaries meant that, willingness aside, the ability of the Europeans to participate in defending the region was questionable. Certainly, events in Libya, where NATO had neither a singular political will nor the military participation of most of its members, had to raise doubts. It was not so much the wisdom of going to war but the inability to create a coherent strategy and deploy adequate resources that raised questions of whether NATO would be any more effective in protecting the Visegrad nations.