Ukraine's Crisis Gives New Impetus to the Visegrad Group

6 MINS READMar 7, 2014 | 16:23 GMT
Ukraine's Crisis Gives New Impetus to the Visegrad Group
The prime ministers of the Visegrad Group countries (L-R, the Czech Republic's Bohuslav Sobotka, Poland's Donald Tusk, Hungary's Viktor Orban and Slovakia's Robert Fico) at a news conference in Budapest on Jan. 29.

Since the beginning of the decade, concerns about political fragmentation in the European Union, the emergence of a more assertive Russia and the commitment of NATO and the United States in Central Europe have given new life to the Visegrad Group. Foreign ministers of the group — a platform of political and military cooperation among Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary — met with their counterparts from the Nordic and Baltic states in Narva, Estonia, on March 6-7 to discuss ongoing issues, including the situation in Ukraine. Foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia condemned the violation of Ukraine's sovereignty by Russia.

The events in Ukraine confirm that the factors driving the establishment of the Visegrad Group are still in place, but the group is still limited in what it can accomplish. Different threat perceptions, bilateral tensions and conflicting priorities continue to undermine the cohesion of the group.

The Visegrad Group was created in 1991 with the main goal of establishing a forum of cooperation for former Soviet satellites in Central Europe. At the time, its members had many things in common: They were all former communist nations with relatively similar levels of economic development, and they were transitioning to liberal democracy and market economy and realigning their foreign policies to NATO and EU membership. But once this goal was achieved — Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary joined both organizations between 1999 and 2004 — the group ceased almost all activity. Members favored direct cooperation with the United States and the largest economies in the European Union, most notably Germany, over deepening ties with each other.

Visegrad Re-emerges

Several events recently changed this situation. Europe's economic crisis led to economic stagnation and political fragmentation in the European Union. The re-emergence of Russia as a more assertive player in Eurasian affairs — clearly highlighted by the Georgian war of 2008 — reignited long-standing fears of Russian military, political and economic influence in Central Europe. Finally, there was a perception that neither NATO nor the United States was as focused on Central European affairs as they were in the preceding decades.

This gave new life to the Visegrad Group, which became more active in the early 2010s. Its members designed new plans for political, military and economic cooperation and even proposed the creation of a joint battle group of some 3,000 troops from the four member states. This battle group is expected to be ready in 2016. In the meantime, the Visegrad Group countries are planning to hold their first joint military exercises in 2015.

The renewed interest on the Visegrad Group is highly representative of the political fragmentation in the European Union and NATO. Divisions in those groups are making their member states seek supplemental alliances and platforms for cooperation. That the Nordic states are also moving forward with their plans for enhanced military cooperation confirms this trend. In 2009, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland created the Nordic Defense Cooperation, a platform to join efforts in enhancing defense collaboration.

Obstacles to Cooperation

Despite its ambitious plans, there is only so much the Visegrad Group can realistically accomplish. Its most serious obstacle is the different geopolitical priorities of its member countries. Russian forces occupied all four Visegrad states after World War II, but geography gives them a different perception of threats and different assessment of the regional impact of a more assertive Russia. Because of its position at the heart of the North European Plain, Poland has been considerably more exposed to Russian invasion than its neighbors in the south. As a result, Warsaw is more anxious about the Russians and more assertive in leading efforts to counter them, while the other Visegrad countries have recently sought Russian investment and closer ties with Moscow in areas such as nuclear energy.

Visegrad Geopgraphy

Visegrad Geopgraphy

Related to their different perceptions of threat is their different approach to military spending. Poland's military expenditure, which constitutes roughly 2 percent of gross domestic product, is higher than that of the other three countries (they between 0.8 percent and 1.1 percent of GDP). The Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia were substantially reducing military spending even before the European crisis, while Poland has actually increased it. This has led to friction as Poland — which probably hoped to get more support from the United States in fortifying the Visegrad Group — believes its Visegrad partners are not serious about integration, and many of the planned activities, including pooling and sharing resources, have stalled. 

A growing number of European countries are seeking to join efforts to harmonize their military structures and pool resources and military procurement. British-French cooperation and Nordic cooperation are significant examples. But so far, differences in strategy and political tensions have prevented the members of the Visegrad Group from making substantial progress. Poland boasts the largest economy of the group, and thus Warsaw sees itself as the natural leader — something that generates conflict with the other three members. There are also bilateral tensions between Budapest and Bratislava because of the status of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia.

To some extent, the future of the Visegrad Group will be connected to events in Poland. Because of its geographic position, Poland is both a Central European and a Baltic actor. As a result, it sees Germany, the Baltics and Nordic Europe as viable political and military partners. In an increasingly uncertain European political scenario, Poland is likely to look for military and political cooperation outside the Visegrad Group and show growing interest in getting closer to the other potential partners. Finally, Warsaw will keep seeking a closer alliance with the United States, which it considers a key element in its national security, particularly as the European Union weakens and Russia becomes more assertive.

The recent experience of the EU Eastern Partnership program is a significant example of how Poland looks for partners outside the Visegrad Group. Poland and Lithuania are the main proponents of the initiative, with significant backing from Sweden. In the wake of Russia's seizure of Crimea, Poland and the Baltics criticized Moscow's moves and participated in the diplomatic efforts to provide Western support to the new government in Kiev.

Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, on the other hand, have not been as vocal. Budapest has promised to protect the Hungarian minorities in Ukraine and offered assistance to people crossing the border, but it was largely silent about Russia's actions in Crimea. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban criticized Russia only recently because he was under pressure from his political opponents. The Czechs have called for the preservation of Ukraine's territorial integrity but have also warned that economic sanctions against Russia would hurt Europe because of the strong economic ties, a concern echoed by Slovakia.

The crisis in Ukraine is a reminder of how far Russia is willing to go to protect its strategic interests. It is also a reminder of the limits that Western European nations face when dealing with Moscow. In that way it confirms for Central and Eastern European nations their need to reassess their priorities and develop new areas of cooperation to compensate for the fragility of the European Union and the indecisiveness of NATO.

Events in the east and the west of Europe are making the countries in the middle (a line of nations from the Baltics to Hungary that Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski defined as "Intermarium") increasingly nervous. The summit in Estonia highlights the interest of these countries to further strengthen regional cooperation. In the coming years, we will see more attempts by countries in the region to develop stronger ties, and the United States could decide to strengthen smaller groups to bypass NATO's incoherent posture toward Russia. But lingering differences in strategy and priorities will keep this process slow and difficult.

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