On June 4 President Barack Obama gave a speech in the main square outside the Warsaw Royal Castle. It was a smartly crafted and delivered address, with words Poles have waited to hear: You will never again stand alone; America’s commitment to NATO and Article 5 is unshakeable; the age of empire and spheres of influence is over. Also in Warsaw Obama met Ukraine’s newly elected President Petro Poroshenko for the first time, thus symbolically bringing Ukraine closer to America’s policy in Central Europe. There was an opportunity to talk with sundry European heads of state, ministers, and even the occasional royal, while the backdrop of the Royal Castle was the communications director’s delight. There was the earlier announcement of a billion-dollar request to Congress for U.S. aid to fund added military exercises in Europe, Navy deployments to the Black and Baltic Seas, and new initiatives to strengthen the defense capabilities of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. The President was focused and engaged, the antithesis of his detached performance in 2011.
There is a scene in the movie Braveheart in which Mel Gibson, as William Wallace, gives a rousing take on Henry V’s Agincourt address. His lieutenant then quips: “Fine speech. Now what do we do?” As I watched Obama’s Warsaw speech I could not help thinking of that Hollywood cliché. This is exactly where U.S. policy finds itself in Central Europe. The issues have been laid out, the values reaffirmed, and the expectations raised. In crisp, measured prose Obama served up his intent clearly and persuasively, and now those words need to be followed up with action. America either makes good on its commitment to shore up deterrence in north-central Europe and aid Ukraine’s new President in his effort to suppress the rebellion and stabilize the country, or it stands by while the whole idea of Central Europe unravels.
Historically, Central Europe’s security dilemma was a reflection of the region’s geopolitics and capabilities. This “dual insecurity” rested on, first, the institutional and historical discontinuity of the Central European states; and, second, their powerlessness in dealing with external threats. The second aspect, in particular, merits emphasis, as the states in the region have historically lacked autonomous capability to confront threats to their security. The two aspects of the region’s insecurity were interconnected—the history of interrupted statehood was a function of, and contributed to, the states’ weakness with respect to great powers.
Two factors have particularly contributed to the current re-mapping of Central European security: U.S. policy on NATO enlargement, and the German policy of seeking strong ties to the region within the existing institutional arrangement. The American role in this transformation has been paramount. The 1999 enlargement anchored Central Europe to the West and created the Transatlantic connection necessary for the post-communist states in the region to overcome the legacies of World War II and the Cold War. It transformed the Middle Europe of the past two centuries into the qualitatively new and rapidly modernizing Central Europe of today. NATO gave Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—and later Slovakia, the Baltic States and the Adriatic—the chance of a lifetime.
The second catalyst for change has been the unification of Germany and the policies of the Federal Republic in its aftermath. The end of Russian-German competition for the “middle” was accompanied by Germany’s reaching out to the region and offering Central Europe a path to integration with the West. The new Polish-German relationship in particular holds the key to this change. This is the “second grand European reconciliation,” comparable in its long-term impact on European security to the Franco-German reconciliation after World War II. EU enlargement became an integral part of the process, with results that are plain to see for anyone traveling in the region today.
Over the past 25 years Poland in particular, the region’s lynchpin, has leveraged this opportunity to come up with an answer to the country’s core dilemma of being a middle power. Having recovered from communism but still on-the-make, positioned the heart of “Middle Europe,” its historical destiny is seemingly no longer defined by spatial constraints and power deficiencies. Back in 1999 among all the states in the region, Poland won the real golden ticket as a result of the first round of NATO enlargement, which transformed Europe’s geographical “middle Europe” into the “Central Europe” the region is today: with allies Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic beginning to re-map their security, soon joined by others in the Baltics and in the southeast. Most importantly, NATO enlargement challenged the traditional view that the region’s security policy options would continue to fall between being in “the middle” or “on the periphery.” Institutional adjustments brought about by NATO set in motion a process that, once completed, marked a shift in the region’s security paradigm and opened the door to European Union membership in the carefully choreographed two-step of the systemic post-Cold War reconstruction. The transformation was remarkable, but it ended in 2008, when NATO refused to extend a Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia. Russia’s invasion and partition of Georgia then sealed the deal, and its seizure of Crimea and continued pressure to destabilize and bring to heel the rest of Ukraine, if successful, threatens to reverse the process of remapping post-communist Europe.
In terms of power realities, there is a somber realization in Central Europe and the Baltics that current events are continuing to outstrip Western rhetoric. The shifting regional power configuration has forced the question of whether the security gains of post-Cold War Europe will endure, or if Central Europe will slide back to the middle-ground position that has bedeviled the region for centuries. Today, more than at any point since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, U.S. decisions on how it will engage with its NATO allies will answer this question. Not to be outdone by President Obama’s Poland tour, Vladimir Putin added Iskander missile drills to the mix during an ongoing military exercise in Russia’s Western Military District. The exercise, which also featured long-range bombers, began on May 27 and ran through June 5, coinciding with Obama’s departure from the region.
President Obama’s key message in Poland was that the age of empire and spheres of influence is over. And yet Washington’s diffidence on whether to establish permanent bases in Poland and the Baltics, and the staunch opposition by key European governments to the idea, do not agree with the rhetoric. Worse still, thus far Germany seems to have chosen its commercial relations with Russia over the risks the Ukrainian crisis has posed to the order in Europe. Germany’s position is in effect both undercutting any prospect for a collective response from the European Union and preventing a debate over U.S. and NATO military deployments to shore up the northeastern flank. Other European states, both old and new EU members and beyond, have also prioritized their commercial ties with Russia above the common security interests one hears spoken about so eloquently in various meetings in Brussels. In Europe these days, allied solidarity seems to be plentiful in public statements and warnings to Russia, but in short supply when it comes to action.
So it is up to the United States to lead NATO in crafting a coherent response to Russian aggression that will deter Moscow’s pressure against the northeastern flank, thereby opening up opportunities to focus on the unfolding drama in Ukraine. The devil of course is in the details—as we know how Congress will respond to the funding request. And most importantly, we have reached a point where the idea of basing U.S. and other NATO troops in Poland and the Baltic States has become “when and how” rather than “if.” The preferred solution would be to keep matters simple: move at a minimum one American brigade combat team, preferably two, into Poland; and one into the Baltic States. The total troop commitment could be kept at about 15,000, or possibly 20,000, should the Administration decide to augment its deployments with one or more units going to Romania to offset rising Russia activity in the Black Sea. But in the current climate we may need to get creative and consider other options and configurations. It should be clear that, contrary to oft-repeated arguments from the Obama Administration these days, a rotational training arrangement will not suffice as a deterrent to Russia. In fact, the basing mode—that is, permanent deployments of U.S. military in Poland and the Baltic States—is more important than the actual size and scope of those.
The timer is ticking down for Washington to clearly communicate what it is planning to do; otherwise there will not be enough time to work out competing agendas in Europe before the upcoming NATO summit. If there is a serious follow-up commitment to put U.S. military assets along NATO’s northeastern periphery, then Obama’s Warsaw visit and his speech in Royal Castle Square will have been truly transformative. If not, his visit to Poland will be seen as another public relations exercise with little backup. The President’s firm declarations of America’s resolve now need specific steps to bring U.S. military installations into the region, and equally importantly, a U.S.-led effort to change NATO strategy to provide for credible deterrence along the northeastern flank and to foster stability in Eastern Europe—especially Ukraine, but also in Moldova, Georgia, and other post-Soviet states looking West. This will not be easy, for Moscow’s paramount objectives today are the pursuit of hegemony among the Soviet Union’s former republics and the creation of an 18th-century-style sphere of influence—what then-President Dmitry Medvedev referred to back in 2008 as a “sphere of privileged interests.” Obama’s task is further complicated by European disunity over the response, and especially the opposition of key Western states, especially Germany, to any permanent U.S. military presence in Poland and the Baltics.
Russia plans to continue to devote a large portion of its GDP to military modernization over the next ten years. Putin’s military modernization has already ineluctably shifted the regional power distribution in Russia’s favor. If America does not respond, that equation will continue to tilt against NATO, with more instability along NATO’s periphery to follow further north and south. Russia’s military modernization program conclusively demonstrates its determination to increase its great power status in the coming decades: in Europe, in Central Asia, in the Asia–Pacific, in the Arctic, and in the Middle East. And in Eastern Europe in particular, the clock is running on the Poroshenko government to purge, consolidate, and modernize the Ukrainian army even as it also suppresses the rebellion. If it fails, it will forfeit its goal of stabilizing the country.
On May 28, 2011 I watched from the window of the Bristol Hotel in Warsaw as The Beast carrying President Obama drove along the Royal Track on the way to a meeting with Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski and others gathered for the occasion. The city was deserted. There was no public speech or sign of enthusiasm, but almost a collective gasp of disbelief that U.S.-Polish relations could ever be framed as issue-oriented, transactional cooperation. This time in 2014 the experience was different, with strong messages of reassurance to friends and warnings to foes. That 2011 visit was very much in line with Obama’s “reset” narrative, which implied that Central Europe and Europe in general could be scratched off the “to do” list and safely neglected. Today it is clear that the frontier will reemerge unless the United States makes the shoring up of Europe’s northeast an integral part of its policy.
In other words, fine speech, Mr. President; now what do we do?