Important though the Crimean and Ukraine crises are in themselves, they are perhaps more significant as an alarm bell for the NATO alliance and for US strategy in Europe. It is hard to conceive of a geopolitical event that would more profoundly affect the long-term national security of US allies in Central and Eastern Europe (henceforth CEE) than the sight of Russian military units forcibly altering the territory of a sovereign neighbouring state, especially one with the geopolitical centrality of Ukraine. It is nothing less than a direct challenge to the post-1989 settlement in Europe.

Russia’s action in Crimea alone violates no fewer than four international agreements that underpin the stability of the post-Cold War status quo. It is a classic, predatory land-grab that inflicted humiliation and dismemberment on a neighbouring state – the second time in five years (the first was Georgia in 2008) that Russia has done so without triggering an effective response from the West.

Ukraine’s fate reinforces the demonstration effect of the 2008 Georgia War but on a grander scale. It signals the probable end of a stable territorial status quo east of Poland. It radiates insecurity into neighbouring states, again particularly Poland and the Baltic States. And it will also be closely watched as a precedent both by exposed US allies there and also by US rivals in other regions.

The biggest consumers of the instability created by Crimea are the frontline US allies in CEE. This is a region, after all, that is known for stark security dilemmas and geopolitical predicaments. The thousand miles between the Baltic and Black Seas are a historic “crush zone” from which three wars (two hot, one cold) have emerged to threaten the security of the entire world.

Yet the period since 1989 has been the golden age of nation states in the region. Modern CEE states have outlasted their interwar predecessors by five years.

And they have been successfully integrated into structures of both regional and Euro-Atlantic cooperation.

For some time, however, there have been growing signs that the post-Cold War security order was not in good repair. Russia was re-asserting itself in the region and in the neighbouring post-Soviet space. This new threat took place when the United States was reorienting itself strategically and down-scaling its military presence in  Europe. The so-called “reset” towards Russia was accompanied by a shift of US diplomatic attention to Asia. Both of these came at the expense of traditional alliances within Europe. And Europe itself was less well placed to take on the strategic burden laid down by Washington as had been hopefully foreseen in the 1990s. Beset by several Continental crises, the EU was simply not congealing as a geopolitical back-up option for the Alliance.

The response of Central Europe to these dangerous trends has been to adopt a range of strategic coping mechanisms not seen in this region in decades. They have included:

1. Increased Military Self-Help: Poland is spending $40 billion over the next decade. When this spending is complete, Poland will have the heaviest land army in Europe.

2. Intra-regional alliances: There has been a noticeable increase in regional coordination both between the Visegrád Four and between the Nordic and Baltic countries. Unlike in the past, V4 cooperation increasingly focuses on things that really matter strategically, notably defence and energy security.

3. Heightened investment in EU Security: Poland has made conspicuous investments over the last few years in encouraging a robust EU defence mechanism.

4. And prior to Crimea, there was something like Détente Light: some CEE states sought to hedge their bets and to invest in closer relations with large flanking powers – Germany or even Russia.

It is interesting how closely Central European behaviour mirrors the strategic diversification process of American allies in East Asia and the Middle East.

None of these coping mechanisms are necessarily incompatible with NATO or EU membership but they do suggest a low threshold of confidence among CEE states in the ability of the Alliance to provide for their security on a sustainable basis. In the wake of Crimea and with the broader Crimean crisis still simmering, it is likely that some of these diversification efforts will intensify.

Poland is accelerating efforts at military modernisation and shale gas development, and there are signs that it may increase financial allocations for defence. Hungary had already announced a spending increase on defence; others may follow. Most CEE states are habitual under-spenders; Crimea will probably change that.

Crimea may also focus the attention and energy of the Visegrád and Nordic– Baltic groupings of countries on defence. There will be increased cooperation as a result, but that cooperation will meet difficulties because of the different effects of geography on threat perception. Sweden is already increasing cooperation with the Baltic States, and efforts are underway to increase Polish participation in this as a bridge between the Nordic–Baltic group and the Visegrád Four. The dynamic in the V4 is more complicated than in the Nordic–Baltic countries, however, because the degree of geopolitical exposure and concern about Russia is less uniform. The Carpathian Mountains have always been a strategic Achilles Heel to V4 cooperation; not because they bar political cooperation but because the state to the north (Poland) is more vulnerable militarily than those to the south. The Crimea crisis could have a unifying effect on the region, as Marko Mihkelson argued in a recent article in Financial Times, but that remains to be seen.

Some strands of previous strategic behaviour by CEE countries may be more difficult to sustain after Crimea. Recent efforts at a Polish–Russian rapprochement were already flagging; they are now hard to envision at all. More importantly, the emphasis in Polish foreign policy on synchronising policy with Germany is likely to encounter difficulties. Though there is considerable Polish–German solidarity over the crisis now, as Foreign Minister Steinmeier expressed on his visit to Warsaw, crises like Crimea tend over time to bring more differences than similarities to the surface. Such differences, if they emerge, will likely concern perceptions of Russia, strategic interests in Ukraine, and views on energy policy.

One geopolitical result of the Ukraine crisis is likely to be the return of Poland to classic middle-power diplomacy. Poland has historically done best geopolitically when it has had two advantages: a strong outside benefactor and strategic depth in its own region. Today Poland has serious problems in both respects.

Poland’s recent paradigm shift in foreign policy (towards conspicuous investment in its German relationship and strong support for EU integration, and movement away from an “Intermarium” approach to Polish foreign policy) was possible only insofar as a relatively quiet geopolitical environment to the East made it possible. If Crimea means that Poland and Germany (and Western Europe generally) develop asymmetric threat perceptions, that will make this course more difficult to sustain.

Overall, the position of Poland and Central Europe after Crimea is that of a group of states wedged between a stalled EU and a revisionist Russia while relying for security on a distracted US.ItisinthecollectiveWesterninteresttoseethat this re-sharpened Central European security dilemma resting on a reactivated strategic frontier be effectively mitigated.

One positive effect of the crisis is that it ends the unnatural quarter-century exclusion of this region from US strategy. Events in Ukraine should clarify and amplify the region’s place as a global region in American geostrategic thinking. There has been an almost theological character to discussion about Central Europe in Washington since the Cold War. Suspension of normal security considerations has hampered efforts to do what is necessary from a geopolitical standpoint. It has helped to create the vacuum and vulnerability that Putin is now exploiting. Now, however, the Ukraine crisis places Central Europe where it properly belongs – as one of the handful of global regions where local outcomes determine global power relationships. We cannot afford to fail there – irrespective of what happens in other regions.

It is not a strategic “given” that Central Europe should remain a quiet front so that Washington can focus on Asia. What is imperative after Crimea is to permanently and effectively close off the East-Central portion of the European landmass from the return of active geopolitics. We did so effectively after 1989 in ideational and/or ideological terms, but we did not do so militarily. After Crimea we need strategy, not merely crisis management. Our strategic goal should be two-fold:

1. To create an effective deterrent against Russian opportunistic revisionism in Central and Eastern Europe.

2. To address the roots of political vulnerability in Eastern member states of Europe.

On the first of these, we have to end the present two-tier structure of the NATO alliance. The original sin of NATO after enlargement was that the alliance offered different terms of membership, spiritually and materially, for those states that entered after 1989/90. They received the promise of Article 5 but not the embodiment of that commitment. That was rather like offering benediction without sacraments. No alliance can survive that way for long if it is creatively challenged. And Russian strategy is now doing just that: quick land–grabs that establish a political fait accompli. Reliance on extended nuclear deterrence is ineffective for guarding against Crimea-style moves. We therefore need a preclusive strategy that raises the military costs of adventurism throughout the region.

Such a strategy would include such measures as strengthening conventional deterrence by placing NATO infrastructure and personnel in CEE countries; doing in this region what the US has done with allies in East Asia – namely, creating beefed up frontline states  and establishing what some analysts call “access-denial bubbles” capable of effectively countering Russian military incursions. The alliance should be bolder in reconsidering the post-1997 self- imposed moratorium on placing both conventional and nuclear weapons in CEE member state territory. Doing so would help to address the current imbalance in NATO’s strategic posture, which concentrates 2/3 of the alliance’s military forces and virtually all its major infrastructure in states west of Germany. Such a setup leaves CEE member states vulnerable to military pressure and – in the case of the Baltic States in particular – potential Crimea- and Georgia-style Russian tactics.

We also need the active geo-politicisation of American energy reserves. Admittedly, there are few methods at US disposal that would immediately alleviate the exposure of Central European countries to Russian energy pressure. Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) is seen as a long-term rather than short-term solution – and that is true in terms of delivery. But political signalling on LNG can have an immediate effect. Since the key is to shift expectations of future supplies, Washington can signal the export availability of LNG by simplifying the conditions for export.For example, an executive order by the President temporarily removing the Department of Energy from the LNG export permit process could both help to free up needed capital for the completion of LNG terminals and shake Russian confidence in the sustainability of pipeline politics as a source of long-term leverage in the region.

In both military and energy affairs the key is that we need a strategy. The West has been failing to actively utilise our natural strengths for years. We have allowed deep erosions of the post-1989 order. Ukraine is now the second price we have had to pay for that. Crimea was a calamity, but it was also a wake-up call. And we should use it as an impetus to consolidate NATO and get serious about the importance of Central and Eastern Europe in America’s global strategy for the 21st century.

* Article adapted from comments delivered at the 13 March 2014 Washington conference “Ukraine: Implications for Central Europe and the NATO Alliance”, hosted by the Hudson Institute and Danube Institute.

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