Biden wants Poland’s opinion — but he still has the power

Biden wants Poland’s opinion — but he still has the power
Опубликовано: Monday, 20 February 2023 14:47

NATO’s eastern flank suddenly has the ear of traditional Western powers, but it doesn’t yet have the weapons and money that drive decisions.


MUNICH — NATO’s eastern flank has found its voice — but Joe Biden’s visit is a reminder that Western capitals still have the weight.

After Russia bombed its way into Ukraine, the military alliance’s eastern members won praise for their prescient warnings (not to mention a few apologies). They garnered respect for quickly emptying their weapons stockpiles for Kyiv and boosting defense spending to new heights. Now, they’re driving the conversation on how to deal with Russia.

In short, eastern countries suddenly have the ear of traditional Western powers — and they are trying to move the needle.

“We draw the red line, then we waste the time, then we cross this red line,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference, describing a now-familiar cycle of debates among Ukraine’s partners as eastern capitals push others to move faster.

The region’s sudden prominence will be on full display as U.S. President Joe Biden travels to Poland this week, where he will sit down with leaders of the so-called Bucharest Nine — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

The choice is both symbolic and practical. Washington is keen to show its eastern partners it wants their input — and to remind Vladimir Putin of the consequences should the Kremlin leader spread his war into NATO territory.

Yet when it comes to allies’ most contentious decisions, like what arms to place where, the eastern leaders ultimately still have to defer to leaders like Biden — and his colleagues in Western powers like Germany. They are, after all, the ones holding the largest quantities of modern tanks, fighter jets and long-range missiles.

“My job,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in Munich, is “to move the pendulum of imagination of my partners in Western Europe.”

“Our region has risen in relevance,” added Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský in an interview. But western countries are still “much stronger” on the economic and military front, he added. “They are still the backbone.”

They’re listening … now

When Latvian Defense Minister Ināra Mūrniece entered politics over a decade ago, she recalled the skepticism that greeted her and like-minded countries when they discussed Russia on the global stage.

“They didn’t understand us,” she said in an interview earlier this month. People saw the region as “escalating the picture,” she added.

Latvian Defense Minister Ināra Mūrniece | Gints Ivuskans/AFP via Getty Images

February 24, 2022 changed things. The images of Russia rolling tanks and troops into Ukraine shocked many Westerners — and started changing minds. The Russian atrocities that came shortly after in places like Bucha and Irpin were “another turning point,” Mūrniece said.

Now, the eastern flank plays a key role in defining the alliance’s narrative — and its understanding of Russia.

“Our voice is now louder and more heard,” said Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu.

The Bucharest Nine — an informal format that brings together the region for dialogue with the U.S. and occasionally other partners — is one of the vehicles regional governments are using to showcase their interests.

“It has become an authoritative voice in terms of assessment of the security situation, in terms of assessment of needs,” Aurescu said in an interview in Munich. NATO is listening to the group for a simple reason, he noted: “The security threats are coming from this part of our neighborhood.”

Power shifts … slowly

While the eastern flank has prodded its western partners to send once-unthinkable weapons to Ukraine, the power balance has not completely flipped. Far from it.

Washington officials retain the most sway in the western alliance. Behind them, several Western European capitals take the lead.

“Without the Germans things don’t move — without the Americans things don’t move for sure,” said one senior Western European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

And at this stage of the war, as Ukraine pushes for donations of the most modern weapons — fighter jets, advanced tanks, longer-range missile systems — it’s the alliance’s largest economies and populations that are in focus.

“It’s very easy for me to say that, ‘Of course, give fighter jets’ — I don’t have them,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters earlier this month.

Asked if his country would supply Kyiv with F-16 fighter jets, Morawiecki conceded in Munich, “we have not too many of them.” | Omar Marques/Getty Images

“So it’s up to those countries to say who have,” she said. “If I would have, I would give — but I don’t.”

And even some eastern countries who have jets don’t want to move without their western counterparts.

Asked if his country would supply Kyiv with F-16 fighter jets, Morawiecki conceded in Munich, “we have not too many of them.” He did say, however, that Poland could offer older jets — if the allies could pull together a coalition, that is.

Another challenge for advocates of a powerful eastern voice within NATO is that the eastern flank itself is diverse.

Priorities vary even among like-minded countries based on their geographies. And, notably, there are some Russia-friendly outliers.

Hungary, for example, does not provide any weapons assistance to Ukraine and continues to maintain a relationship with the Kremlin. In fact, Budapest has become so isolated in Western policy circles that no Hungarian government officials attended the Munich Security Conference.

“I think the biggest problem in Hungary is the rhetoric of leadership, which sometimes really crosses the red line,” said the Czech Republic’s Lipavský, who was cautious to add that Budapest does fulfill NATO obligations, participating in alliance defense efforts.

Just for now?

There are also questions about whether the east’s moment in the limelight is a permanent fixture or product of the moment. After all, China, not Russia, may be seizing Western attention in the future.

“It’s obvious that their voice is becoming louder, but that’s also a consequence of the geopolitical situation we’re in,” said the senior Western European diplomat. “I’m not sure if it’s sustainable in the long run.”

A second senior Western European diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal alliance dynamics, said that the eastern flank countries sometimes take a tough tone “because of the fear of the pivot to China.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has also reiterated that western alliance members play a role in defending the eastern flank | Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Asked if the war has changed the balance of influence within the alliance, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said: “Yes and no.”

“We have to defend our territories, it is as simple as that,” she told POLITICO in Munich. “In order to do so we had to reinforce the eastern flank — Russia is on that part of the continent.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has also reiterated that western alliance members play a role in defending the eastern flank.

Asked whether NATO’s center of gravity is shifting east, he said on a panel in Munich that “what has shifted east is NATO’s presence.”

But, he added, “of course many of those troops come from the western part of the alliance — so this demonstrates how NATO is together and how we support each other.”

And in Western Europe, there is a sense that the east does deserve attention at the moment.

“They might not have all the might,” said the second senior Western European diplomat. “But they deserve solidarity.”

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