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NATO's Eastern Countries Fractured Over Response To Russia

  • Robert Coalson

Vladimir Putin (right) looks on as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico addresses a joint news conference after a meeting in Moscow in 2009.

Vladimir Putin (right) looks on as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico addresses a joint news conference after a meeting in Moscow in 2009.

Czech President Milos Zeman sparked a testy exchange with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt this week at the NATO summit in Wales, declaring that Prague had not yet seen "clear proof" of Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

"President Zeman should ask his own people," Bildt retorted. "I don't know if the Czech Republic has an intelligence service. It does? Then he should ask them."

The spat underscores a development that has surprised many in the West: Some countries on NATO's eastern fringe seem decidedly unconcerned by Russia's intervention in Ukraine and its generally belligerent stance.

The Ukraine crisis has fractured the so-called Visegrad Group -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. From alarmist Poland to Kremlin-friendly Hungary, the group runs the gamut of possible positions. And their disunity is one factor making it difficult for the European Union and NATO to adopt a unified response to Moscow.

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As tensions between Russia and the West have risen, it has become clear that the Visegrad Four have starkly varying perceptions of the threat posed by Moscow. And for Budapest, Bratislava, and Prague, economic considerations are driving their calculations as the EU tries to reach consensus on tough Russia sanctions.

Expanded economic cooperation with Russia in the region since the 1990s has "undermined the strategic thinking in these countries," Marian Majer, senior fellow for security and defense at the Central European Policy Institute in Bratislava, tells RFE/RL.

"The Ukraine crisis has [shown] us that strategic thinking and threat perception are different in these countries, and in some of them, economic arguments are prevailing [over] strategic arguments and a long-term vision of the future," Majer says.

Edward Lucas, senior editor at "The Economist" and author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West," agrees.

"Poland is taking a tremendous lead as the unquestioned leader of the ex-Communist world," Lucas says. "Elsewhere, it is a very different picture. Slovakia seems to have taken, initially, a kind of almost pro-Putin line or, at least, anti-sanction. The Czechs also, particularly Zeman, have taken a similarly, I think, deplorable line."

Lucas describes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as the "worst of the lot," citing his "explicit rejection of the liberal-democratic principles that the rest of Europe regards as mainstream."

"I think it has put a huge strain on the whole idea of Visegrad as a geopolitical or diplomatic actor," Lucas adds.

'Post-Atlanticist Age'

The diversity of views strikes many as odd since all four countries directly experienced Soviet aggression between 1939 and 1968. The disunity contrasts starkly with the alarm bells ringing in all three Baltic countries.

The Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian governments are dragging their heels as Europe discusses the so-called third wave of harsh, sectoral sanctions against Russia.

The coalition government in the Czech Republic has been more open to stiffer sanctions. But it is carefully monitoring its own bottom line and has said it would like to tailor new sanctions to minimize harm to Czech industries. The leftist Social Democrats -- a key coalition member -- oppose stronger sanctions against Moscow.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said on August 31 that his government could "reject certain sanctions that would hurt national interests."

Orban, Hungary's nationalist prime minister whose style and tactics have been compared to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s, says it is "self-delusion" to believe sanctions will alter Russia's behavior.

Russia has hinted that it might ban the import of European cars, a measure that would hit Hungary and Slovakia particularly hard.

There is no obvious explanation for the differences in how the Visegrad Four members perceive potential threats from Moscow.

It is unclear whether the governments and publics in these countries, excluding Poland, really do not see Russia as a threat or whether they are hedging due to uncertainty about NATO protection in the event of a serious confrontation.

"Central and Eastern Europe simply do not trust the allies, fearing that they will fail to fulfill their promises in a moment of crisis," Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov wrote on September 4.

In July 2009, a group of leading intellectuals and former politicians from across Central and Eastern Europe, including all of the Visegrad countries, wrote an open letter to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, warning Washington not to take the region's "transatlantic orientation" for granted.

The writers warned the region could cease to be a "pro-Atlantic voice within the EU" under pressure from a "revisionist" Russia that is "pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics."

Russia "uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests and to challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe," the letter states.

Former Czech Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra, a signatory of the letter, says he and his co-authors were seen by many in the West as "confrontational neocons." At the time, the West was coping with the global economic crisis, and the Obama administration was committed to its "reset" policy in relations with Russia.

"Rereading the 2009 open letter five years after," Vondra wrote in July, "I would not change a word of it. All six of its recommendations remain unaccomplished. All our arguments remain valid. Time has proven we were right."

Some of the “negative predictions” in the 2009 letter have come true, Vondra added.

"The 2014 European Parliament elections have confirmed the risk of growing nationalism in Europe, and some statements from the new generation of politicians who incline to realpolitik in Prague, Bratislava, Budapest or even Warsaw have shown that even in those parts of Europe, a pro-Atlantic stand should not be taken for granted," he wrote.

Lucas of "The Economist" agrees that the 2009 letter was prophetic.

"They warned against taking the Atlantic alliance for granted, and since then everything has really gotten worse," he says. "The reset with Russia didn't bring much in retrospect -- the gains were really temporary. The damage to the alliance has been deep and, I fear, even permanent. And what we are viewing is a sort of post-Atlanticist age."

Pro-Western and Atlanticist sentiment is still strong among the publics in the region, especially in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, notes Majer, the analyst with the Central European Policy Institute.

Average citizens, he says, are certain about their countries' pro-Western course and are not interested in returning to Russia's orbit.

However, this unity breaks down when specific policy measures and sacrifices are discussed.

"I think, in general, the position is the same, the feelings are the same," Majer says when asked about the 2009 letter. "But there might be some slight differences, and that might be problematic when getting such a letter today, five years later."​

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