Lines of Interest in Central and Eastern Europe
The Ukrainian crisis highlights how the United States is constrained to a role imploring others to help solve geopolitical problems in spaces where it only signals its desires. Thus, increased European resolve and a strengthened Euro-Atlantic partnership are the only ways to protect governments from future malevolent Russian meddling.
To appreciate American constraints, one should remember that America’s will and ability to deter is not questioned over the commitments it does guarantee. Instead, the absence of a commitment in countries where the US only signals its wishes and intentions prompts men like Vladimir Putin to act.
To separate commitments from intentions, one should examine the commitments. Since the annexation of Crimea, the United States has demonstrated belated but important costly signals towards Russia in an effort to reassure its more jittery NATO allies.
For example, though the United States’ contribution to the NATO exercise Steadfast Jazz in 2013 was notably underwhelming, it is now planning large future exercises in and around the Baltic. Moreover, in March, it amplified its presence by sending 12 F-16 fighters to Poland and ten F-15s to the Baltic states. Vice President Joe Biden also spoke in Poland on March 18 to reiterate that America’s commitment to NATO’s Article 5 remained “iron-clad”.
Countries such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine lack NATO membership and bilateral security agreements and thus fall under the United States’ wishes and intentions. It is apparent based on President Obama’s clear unwillingness to send troops to Ukraine that these areas will not become tangible commitments in the near future.
Therefore, when thinking of how to prevent future crises in areas where American intentions are not connected to commitments, one must envision how to protect these fledgling democracies without weakening or destroying US and NATO credibility.
The answer involves strategic planning that will counter Vladimir Putin’s realist tendencies and consolidating and strengthening both the European Union and NATO.
Certain European states have taken to the latter idea for some time. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk even acknowledged that “only Euro-Atlantic solidarity will allow us to prepare sufficient and strong reactions to Russia’s aggression”. His words mirror actions as Poland is one of the only European countries to respond to repeated American appeals by planning to spend $30.1 billion on defense by 2022.
However, Poland as well as the Baltic states may turn out to be like mythological Cassandras, having their warnings unheeded while they plan against a surreptitious and aggressive neighbor.
The evidence of greater European inaction and disinterest is widespread. Ahead of crucial May elections to the European Parliament, the far right is politically rising and connected to Russia. Europe still receives 40 per cent of its imported fuel from Russia and countries like Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria are exceptionally energy dependent on Gazprom. Defence spending is at paltry levels among the vast majority of NATO members. Cypriot banks remain worryingly overexposed to Russia, London remains open for business to its oligarchs and Greece is more worried about losing Russian tourists via sanctions than ensuring that the principle of democracy, a principle it claims ownership to, is safe throughout Europe.
Though the EU did bring limited sanctions against Russia following the invasion Crimea, even this ostensible success cloaks the political, economic and military disunion throughout Europe. It is this exact dissonance and lack of resolve which have allowed Vladimir Putin to manipulate Europe so frequently in the past.
Simply, Europeans must now strengthen their resolve. This can only be done with strong leadership and by fostering greater European unity. A consolidated Europe will deal more strategically with entities like Gazprom, begin to make better long-term economic decisions, better represent the security interests of the EU’s east, and increasingly support its eastern neighbours that are actively fighting for the values Europe claims to represent.
The diagnosis for the lack of resolve, and its prescription, are not new: Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski stated in 2011 that German inaction remains scarier than German leadership. The extremely capable Angela Merkel must forgo her domestic leadership style based in consensus-building. She must begin to favour a more direct and expansionist approach in leading Europe. Similarly, she must promote like-minded and strong leaders in crucial positions such as the next president of the European Commission and the next high representative for foreign affairs.
Meanwhile, countervailing steps can be taken by the United States and NATO including moving forces and bases east and increasing total troop levels. The former is long overdue, and the latter sends fundamental signals to Russian military planners. Moreover, actively spreading western values and promoting economic opportunities in Europe via organizations like USAID would yield valuable results in the face of ceaseless Russian propaganda.
In the short term, the West will need to continually diplomatically and economically support the governments in Tbilisi, Chisinau and Kyiv as they face coercive pressure from Moscow and take on the challenges of building viable democratic institutions.
However, while recognising that the West is currently only offering its best intentions, steps can be taken to plan for future commitments that will make Europe whole and free. The crisis in Ukraine has made clear such commitments can only come from a strengthened Europe and a reinvigorated Euro-Atlantic partnership.
Ian Hansen is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council. He has worked and lived in Poland, Georgia and Ukraine. He is a recent international affairs graduate of Texas A&M University.