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Why Germany should care about B9?

The B9 is trembling ahead of the July NATO summit in Brussels. While much of the talk is about President Trump, there are some serious questions about Germany – its defence capabilities and spending, as well as commitment to its Eastern European allies.

June 29, 2018 - Saskia Kawczynski - Articles and Commentary

Exterior view of the new NATO headquarters Brussels, Belgium. Photo: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization (cc) flickr.com

On June 8th, 2018 the third summit of the Bucharest Nine (B9) – an initiative launched by Polish President Andrzej Duda and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis – was held in Warsaw. The B9 is a project launched in 2016 to create a platform of dialogue and co-operation between NATO’s Eastern flank countries (Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). The timing of the 2018 meeting was not a coincident since the next NATO Summit in July is just around the corner. Germany meanwhile, is absent from this organisation – an important partner, though not a country on the border of the Eastern flank.

The B9 was founded to harmonise the national preferences of the countries in order to ensure that a political decision is taken at the next NATO Summit that is favourable to this group. Since the crisis in Ukraine, the topics of the NATO Summits have been clear: to expand NATOs deterrence and defence policy, with the Eastern flank as a priority. The 2014 NATO summit in Wales, as well as the one in Warsaw in 2016, have bought fundamental changes to the framework of NATO. These changes include: the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), a new adaptation of the NATO command structure, and the definition of cyberwar as a field of NATO operations.

But that was only the first step to counter threats on the Eastern flank. For the B9 the risks and threats represented by the Eastern vicinity of the Alliance, is more than a counter measure of NATO towards Russia. Russia is still considered to be the biggest national security threat for most of the B9 countries. Even though the threat has shifted from military attacks to hybrid warfare or fake news, the B9 is fully aware they are not ready to handle these threats themselves. This organisation must strengthen its resilience on the Baltic Sea-Black Sea-Adriatic Sea axis, as well as partners of NATO such as Ukraine or Georgia.

Germany and the B9

As a regional initiative the B9 has the potential to make the voices from the Eastern flank heard. Policymakers in Berlin should listen carefully to the joint position of the B9. Germany is a critical partner both in the EU and NATO and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe hope to apply political pressure on Berlin. Though this tends to be easier said then done.

The dispute over a permanent military base in Poland acting as a signal to Russia that NATO is serious about deterrence is often blocked by Germany. Germany feels bound by the 1997 agreement between Russia and NATO not to have a permanent military base on each other’s borders. Poland, on the other hand, argues that after the illegal annexation of Crimea this contract is no longer valid.

Another topic of malcontent in NATO is the concept of sharing the burden, which refers to the NATO guideline that members should spend 2 per cent of their GPD for defence. As President Iohannis stated, countries need to “be serious about NATO. Being serious about NATO starts at home”. This means countries should first prepare the military readiness of their own country, in part by meeting their military financial needs. In this dimension, Germany is lacking.

The report by the German Ministry of Defence regarding the readiness of the Bundeswehr was so damaging that the ministry held back the release of the 2017 report until after the formation of the new government. The report was finally published in early 2018 and showcased the fundamental lack of equipment and readiness of German weapons systems. Another issue is the missing training personal for combat helicopters. The troops in action in Mali and Afghanistan operate on the edge of their capacities and the absence of instructors could set back the quality of military personnel in Germany for years. The report further states that the condition of arms and military equipment in Germany for NATO operations is in an unsatisfactory state. This gives the wrong signal to the Eastern flank.

The high hopes that Defence Minister Ursula Von der Leyen would implement fundamental reforms in the German Bundeswehr were dashed. Her reactions to the report were vague at best. She declared the reorganisation requires first and foremost “time and money”. Experts acknowledged it is as a good sign that the new government has reassured its commitment to spending the recommended two per cent of GDP on military defence. However, in May the German Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz suggested that there is only a limited ability for additional fiscal spending in the defence and security sector. Between 2018-2022 the governmental budget will be used to lower income taxes and invest in digitalisation. Right now Germany’s spending for defence is about 1.22 per cent of its GDP. The B9’s Estonia, Romania and Poland are three out of only five NATO countries that currently fulfill the two per cent obligations. Lithuania and Latvia reassured that by 2018 they will meet the criteria as well. This shows just about how serious the Eastern flank is about NATO.

Meanwhile the German-United States relations are marred in crisis. The latest scandals involving the Trump administration, such as the unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Deal or the unwillingness to commit to the G7 declaration, show just about how broken the transatlantic relationship really is. This leads to further insecurity for the Eastern flank countries since the US. has always been a stable and reliable guardian against Russia. The most successful military pact in history shows a landscape of fragmentation. How the NATO Summit in July will handle the dissipation is yet to be seen.

Consolidating NATO starts in Europe

The B9 and the EU are both looking to Germany for more cooperation and commitment in security and economy. Yet Germany is torn between its leadership role and its eagerness to please all sides. Germany is still unwilling to embrace its role and take concrete measures. The German relationship with Russia is further putting a strain on inter–European relations and lead to more fragmentation in an already fragmented NATO. Merkel just recently admitted that Nordstream 2 pipeline is not just an economic energy project between two countries but that it also has a political dimension. For the countries in the Baltic region or Ukraine that statement is not enough and they call for a complete halting of the project.

What NATO needs right now is a Europe that is united. Germany should reassure its commitment towards the Eastern flank with a clear position, not only to show Russia but also the US that it is a reliable partner in NATO, even in times of disagreement. The B9 is a region in upheaval that needs strong partnership and reassurance to evolve further. With Russia and China pushing into the region, and the increasing isolationist policies of the US., Germany could lose its place as a leader in this region. This would not only lead to negative political and economical consequences but also negatively impact Germany’s security. Russia has proven that they do not shy away from cyber-attacks on Germany. NATO needs to be reminded of the words of the Estonians President Kersti Kalijulaid at the B9 Summit in Warsaw, “One is safe when all are safe, and all are safe when everyone is safe”.

Saskia Kawczynski covers security issues in the EU and NATO context at the German Marshall Fund of the United States Warsaw Office

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