The events in Ukraine have had a deep political and emotional impact in Central and Eastern Europe. Countries from Estonia on the Baltic Sea to Bulgaria on the Black Sea have several reasons to be worried about a more assertive Russia. During the Cold War, the region comprised Soviet satellites, and the Baltic countries were even part of the Soviet Union itself. After the collapse of the USSR, these countries saw EU and NATO accession as a way to ensure economic development and military protection.
History and geography have put Poland first on the list of countries worried about Russia's actions in Ukraine. Over the past three centuries, Russia (as well as Germany and Austria) has repeatedly invaded, occupied and partitioned Poland. This has forced Poland to multiply its military alliances. Following its accession to NATO in 1999, Warsaw also sought to strengthen its links with its neighbors in Central Europe. The creation of the Visegrad Group, which also includes the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, is part of this strategy.
But Poland has two problems. First, not all of its partners share its sense of urgency when it comes to Russia. Second, most of Poland's neighbors have actually been lowering their defense expenditures. This trend began more than a decade ago, when Russia was weak and NATO was seen as a solid military umbrella. The economic crisis made things worse because these countries had to decide whether to buy tanks and missiles or pay pensions and unemployment benefits. The EU crisis adds another layer to the problem; with the major economies in Western Europe unwilling or unable to invest in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia becomes a more attractive source of foreign investment.
In addition, all of Poland's neighbors depend on Russian energy to some extent, making them very cautious about any moves toward regional integration that could jeopardize their relations with Moscow. For example, on May 21, the Czech government rejected Poland's idea to create a single body to buy natural gas on behalf of the 28 EU members, arguing that it would probably not lead to lower prices.
Poland looks at its neighborhood and sees two things: to its east, a more assertive Russia; and to its west, a fragmenting European Union and a worryingly quiet Germany. Warsaw expected Berlin to take a more active stance on the events in Ukraine. It also expected more support from the rest of its European counterparts on the plan to create an energy union to curb Russia's influence in Europe. Poland has realized that Germany's strong energy and investment links with Russia will prevent Berlin from confronting Moscow. And so Warsaw considers it vital to expand its network of alliances.
Romania could become a key ally for Poland. Before the Ukrainian crisis, Bucharest had cold relations with Moscow due to Russia's support for the breakaway region of Transdniestria. Russia's annexation of Crimea only made things worse because Bucharest is now also worried about Russia's enhanced presence on the Black Sea. A number of shared interests could prompt Romania and Poland to expand their ties. For example, both have borders with Ukraine and want to see a stable (and if possible, pro-European) government in Kiev. Both are also worried that Russia's actions in Crimea could presage actions in other places where ethnic Russian minorities live, from Moldova to the Baltic countries.
Romania's neighborhood is also problematic; an unstable Ukraine and a potentially explosive Moldova to its east and an unreliable Hungary to its west surround Romania. The most interesting case in some ways is to the south in Bulgaria.
Sofia has similar concerns regarding Russian activity in the Black Sea, but it tries to balance its foreign policy between Moscow and Brussels. Bulgaria depends heavily on EU money (from cohesion funds to agriculture subsidies) but also tries to attract as much Russian investment as possible, especially in the energy sector. Sofia will selectively challenge the European Union on issues that are important for its national economy, such as the South Stream pipeline, but it cannot afford to leave the European Union or to alienate the Russians and lose their energy and money. This means that Bulgaria will not join any anti-Russian alliances unless it gets enough guarantees from its partners that energy and money will keep arriving in the country.
The main thing Bucharest can offer Sofia is the promise of a large coalition, ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Poland and Romania are the key pieces for the development of a sea-to-sea alliance, and if Romania is able to form an alliance with Poland, it will become more attractive to Bulgaria. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria are desirable but not essential players. If Bucharest and Warsaw strengthen their ties, the others will probably follow at some point. Turkey, another significant actor in the Black Sea area, would also be a key player in this potential alliance.
Even without an alliance, Poland and Romania are trying to get ready for a more active Russia. Poland is currently building a liquefied natural gas facility on the Baltic Sea and trying to attract investors to develop its shale gas resources. On the military front, Poland is one of the few members of the European Union that has actually expanded its military budget despite the economic crisis. To an extent, Romania is doing something similar. In recent months, Bucharest changed its position on shale gas and allowed foreign companies to start exploring the country's energy resources. Romania also announced that it would increase its military budget.
But even if Warsaw could offer some guidance to Bucharest on military and energy issues, Poland is also a cautionary tale on the limits of this strategy. Several foreign companies have abandoned shale exploration in Poland because of the country's uncertain regulatory system and difficult geology. In Romania, too, legal uncertainty often prevents investment in the country, and Bucharest has a long way to go before it becomes a more reliable partner for foreign investors.
The Necessary U.S. Role
An additional obstacle preventing a stronger Central and Eastern European alliance is that these countries are still more interested in developing strong bilateral ties with the United States than with one another. Every time there is a crisis, they reflexively look to the White House for answers. This puts the United States in a difficult position: On one hand, it feels that it needs to reassure its allies in Central and Eastern Europe about the United States' commitment to the region. On the other hand, the United States is trying to push its partners to do more to protect themselves.
In other words, this alliance cannot work without greater involvement from the United States. All of these countries need modern military equipment, particularly air defense, anti-tank and mobile infantry. It will ultimately be up to the United States to supply these weapons, to strengthen pro-U.S. political forces in each country and to help create an environment where Western investment can take place.
The strategy would also require substantial investment on energy projects, both to bring natural gas from other countries (such as Azerbaijan) and to build the necessary infrastructure at home. The promise made May 21 by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that the United States will help Romania develop its energy sector is a signal that the White House is interested in assisting Central and Eastern European countries on this issue, but concrete action needs to follow. U.S. President Barack Obama himself will visit Warsaw on June 3, and his Polish hosts will be keenly interested in what the United States is willing to do to help its allies.
The United States, Poland and Romania are the most important actors to watch. Germany will continue to prioritize its ties with Russia and remain trapped in the internal tendencies that favor stasis. The smaller countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, will require more assurances that a stronger stance against Russia would not affect their energy security and the arrival of investment. The interest in developing stronger bilateral ties is already there in Poland and Romania. But ultimately, it will be the United States' decision whether to provide the economic and military assistance that this alliance needs to be born.