Nov 23, 2010 | 12:45 GMT

6 mins read

Central Europe Reacts to NATO's Strategic Concept

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
As capitals around Europe continue to digest the new NATO Strategic Concept, the mood in Europe on Monday suggests the ultimate manner in which NATO's mission statement — and the organization itself — will be interpreted. First, Russia has begun to interpret its potential role in the NATO ballistic missile defense (BMD) as an implicit acceptance of its post-Soviet sphere of influence by the Western powers. Second, Poland moved toward a closer bilateral defense relationship with the United States right before the NATO summit, suggesting a future model for other Central European states. 
 A day before the NATO summit, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said his country would "accept the U.S. proposal of hosting rotating F-16 and Hercules aircraft and their crews." That the statement came one day before the NATO summit should have been no surprise. Throughout the long negotiating process that produced the NATO Strategic Concept, Central Europeans, led by Poland, have been clear that they wanted NATO to clarify its guarantees to their defense and reaffirm NATO's character as a collective self-defense organization. The 2010 Strategic Concept was drafted with that concern in mind, since nearly every section of the document begins with a reaffirmation of NATO's primary directive: self defense against conventional armed threats. 
 The pen, however, is not always mightier than the sword. Poland and its Central European neighbors need more than a token verbal or written reassurance, and it will definitely take more than conceptual organization of a mission statement to satisfy them. Poland took matters into its own hands prior to the summit, and many will follow its model. With NATO providing very few formats under which its security relationship with the United States can grow without interference from Western Europe (particularly Paris and Berlin, who want to deepen relations with Moscow), Poland is pushing for bilateral deals with Washington. 
 The rest of Central Europe will likely follow Poland's logic. In Romania, an op-ed article printed in the Romanian daily Romania Libera right after the summit ended, which was entitled "The 'West' is Dead! Welcome to the Nineteenth Century," called for greater security collaboration directly with the United States. For Central European countries, the BMD has always been about the relationship with Washington: Many in the region want to tie their security to the United States via the BMD. This is clear, since for Poland and Romania, Iranian missiles are of no concern. The NATO summit, however, decided to invite Russia to participate in a NATO-wide BMD. As far as the Central Europeans are concerned, the BMD is about a U.S. security relationship that would be an assurance against a potential Russian threat. It is therefore not surprising to see many in Central Europe downplay the NATO-wide BMD and seek side deals directly with Washington. 
Poland and its Central European neighbors need more than just a token verbal or written reassurance, and it will definitely take more than conceptual organization of a mission statement to satisfy them. As far as Russia is concerned, its participation in the BMD is vague, as decreed by the summit. It will apparently have no part in the joint control of the NATO BMD project, and so its role may be symbolic. Full details will not be known until June 2011. However, Russia is satisfied overall with the summit. On the question of future NATO enlargement, the alliance stated that it would maintain an "open door" policy toward potential members — such as Ukraine and Georgia — but that they would be held to strict membership criteria. Moscow hopes that — at least for now — this means it will have a lever on any future enlargement in its sphere of influence. A country with serious territorial disputes is not going to be accepted as a NATO member state unless there is a serious break with the current protocol (and there won't be as long as Turkey has something to say regarding Cyprus). This is a problem for Georgia, considering that Russia has troops on roughly a quarter of its territory. With Ukraine being ruled by a pro-Kremlin government, Kiev is not even considering membership, but if it did, Moscow could easily find a territorial dispute that could present a problem for its candidacy as well (Think: Crimea). 
 Moscow even seems content with the vague offer of participation in the NATO BMD program. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said Russia's invitation illustrated "principles of equality, transparency, adaptability and having responsibility for the solution of certain problems." He added that he "proposed creating a so-called 'sectoral' defense."
 This last point is crucial. Moscow is calling for a "sectoral approach" for control over the new NATO-wide BMD system. Russian NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin later expanded on the concept, saying that it reminded him of "two knights fighting back to back, facing outward against threats. 
" But as well as being outward facing, the sectoral approach would mean giving control to Moscow over its "sector." On paper, that leadership would be nothing but NATO's acquiescence to Moscow's power over command-and-control of the missile systems pertaining to the defense of Russia's sector. However, as far as Russia is concerned, it would signify a tacit acceptance of its sphere of influence in the former Soviet sphere via a NATO mandated program. 
 Ultimately, the take-home message of the Lisbon NATO summit is that Central Europeans are walking away unimpressed. In an ironic twist, the BMD system that was supposed to give Central Europe implied security guarantees against Russia is being reinterpreted by Moscow in a way that would force the West to tacitly acknowledge its sphere of influence. This is happening right on Central Europeans' borders and with encouragement of supposed NATO allies Germany and France. As a result, it is no wonder that Central Europeans are going to look more and more toward bilateral security deals with the United States. 
 The problem for the alliance is that there is no longer a unifying fear tying its member states together. The Central Europeans still fear Russia — even if they don't say it — to which Western Europeans respond that Prague and Warsaw have an unhealthy paranoia. This brings us back the original question that NATO leaders tried (and failed) to answer in Lisbon: What is NATO's mission?

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