Robert Anderson in Bratislava -
Central European security experts argue that the West should give up trying to co-operate with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and must knuckle down for a long confrontation.
“[Ukraine] was not an episode,” said Slovak President Andrej Kiska in a keynote speech to the Globsec security conference in Bratislava on June 20. “It is something far more complex and far more dangerous. It is a new reality, a new trend that undermines stability and prosperity in Europe, attacks sovereignty, and challenges our values. Instead of dialogue and co-operation we face revisionism aimed at eroding our way of life.”
“It’s ended our vision of a strategic partnership with President Putin’s Russia – at least for the expected future,” he said. “There is no point pretending otherwise,” added the independent president, whose advisers are close to the previous centre-right government.
Among the most alarmist voices was Robert Pszczel, the outgoing Polish head of the Nato Information Office in Moscow, the “man with the worst job in the world”. He told a panel that a Martian observing events in Moscow would assume “this looks like a country preparing for war”. “This is dangerous stuff,” he warned.
Atlantacist Central Europeans feel that their suspicions of the Russian bear, deeply rooted in their history, have been vindicated. So-called "Putinversteher" – Germans who make excuses for the Russian president's actions – in particular came in for heavy criticism at the leading security conference among the new member states of Central Europe.
Outgoing Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said the West had not wanted to see Putin’s real intentions. “Misunderstandings led the Western world to go down a blind alley,” he told a panel discussion.
It was only to be expected that there was virtually no discussion of how to build bridges with Moscow among the typically hawkish participants at Globsec. However, the mood among the New Cold Warriors was far from triumphalist. Instead many fear that the West is still not facing up to the Russian threat. Given that, the focus should be on how to build stronger defences, rather than roll back Moscow’s advance into Ukraine.
Former US presidential candidate John McCain warned that, “Vladimir Putin will continue to take small bites out of Ukraine”.
Mustafa Naiiem, the onetime Ukrainian journalist whose Facebook post launched the Euromaidan protests, said: “I want to see that red line from Europe. Without that statement, we allow Putin to go further.”
Sense of realism
Komorowski said the West must consolidate Ukraine as a democracy and thus move the Western “tectonic plate” right up to Russia’s border. “Ukraine needs to get a usable roadmap for EU membership,” he said during a panel discussion.
But there was a sense of realism about what more the West could offer Ukraine. There were few open calls for Ukraine to be granted Nato membership, or even given heavy arms.
McCain and two fellow Republican senators said they would return to Washington DC to try to persuade the White House to offer arms, but they didn’t seem to hold out much hope.
No leading figure from President Barack Obama’s administration bothered to come to Globsec, making the US appear more marginal than ever to the region’s problems. Without the US, the region’s Atlantacists seem to have lost their mojo.
If the West has established a precarious foothold in Ukraine, elsewhere the feeling was that it was on the back foot, all the way from the borderlands of the Caucasus, to Southeast Europe, up to the Baltics.
Moldova was a particular worry, as a banking and political crisis has boosted support for pro-Russian parties and reduced backing for EU membership. On top of that, there is growing ethnic Russian agitation in some regions, and, last but not least, Russia is threatening to re-supply its troops in the enclave of Transnistria regardless of Ukraine’s withdrawal of permission to cross its territory.
Mikheil Sakaashvili, the former Georgian president who has just been appointed governor of the Ukrainian province of Odesa, painted a lurid picture of Russia machinating to control the whole of the Ukrainian Black Sea coast from Mariupol to Moldova, leaving the country “surrounded from East and West”.
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish foreign minister, concurred: “More attention needs to be paid to Moldova. If it goes wrong, it will have substantial implications for the rest of Ukraine.”
Potential Nato member Macedonia, which is currently wracked by ethnic and political conflict, was also seen as ideal territory for Russian mischief-making. In what appears to have been an attempt to curry favour with the country’s embattled government, in May Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of whipping up tensions there.
“Macedonia has a history of violent ethnic tension and it’s not difficult to reactivate this history and use it for political purposes,” Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, told bne IntelliNews in an interview. “Russia has declared that the intention of Macedonia and Montenegro to join Nato is a threat to itself and they see it as legitimate to do whatever it takes to stop that.”
Representatives from the Baltic states at Globsec continued to bang the drum for increased Nato men and equipment on the ground to protect them from ever more blatant Russian sabre rattling.
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said he was more worried by the possibility of a conventional attack, rather than a hybrid one. “We are not facing a little green man scenario at all,” he told a panel discussion.
Recent Nato moves to move heavy equipment to the region and to speed up the response times to any future crisis were enthusiastically welcomed by participants.
The conference seemed even more worried by the insidious threat of an information war against the West and the bordering states. In an online vote during a panel discussion entitled “Propaganda: exploiting the underbelly of democracy”, almost two-thirds of Globsec participants said the West was losing the information war.
Russian propaganda was rarely persuasive, speakers admitted, but that was not the point: its lies were aimed at spreading confusion and distrust of elites. “The disinformation campaign has one clear goal: to destroy unity in the EU,” President Kiska said in his keynote speech. “It aims to paralyse decision making by importing confusion.”
Pszczel called for Nato to fight back with the same tools the Russians were using. “The most important thing is to talk back and to take off the gloves,” he told the panel discussion.
Many speakers seemed oblivious to the irony that, just as Russia sees the hand of the West everywhere in popular uprisings, the West now risks seeing the Kremlin’s handiwork in places where there were very good reasons for domestic unrest.
Thankfully though, there were no calls for censorship, and most participants were fully aware of the need for the West to preserve its values while beefing up its own information offensive.
Behind all the gloomy discussion of the West’s weakness in the face of the Russian threat, the lack of unity of Central Europe itself was an ever present – though rarely openly voiced – concern.
Poland and the Baltic States have consistently struck a hawkish stance, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been far more cautious – much to the dismay of their security experts at Globsec – while Hungary has moved closer than ever to Moscow. “We have to overcome our own weakness,” said Kiska.
Polish security experts are also still seething about the Czech Slavkov initiative to hold occasional meetings with the neighbouring Social Democrat leaders of Slovakia and Austria. They see this as an attempt to circumvent the longstanding Visegrad Group (which also includes Poland and Hungary, but not Austria) where the Poles have been pushing for a tougher line on Russia. “They spoiled the atmosphere in a very unnecessary way,” said Zaborowski.
“The unity is not strong at all,” McCain complained about Central Europe at a press conference. “The reason is the dependence on Russian energy. Its shameful.”
Earlier, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico had implicitly confirmed this by declaring that he had made his recent controversial trip to Moscow to “assess the threat” of Slovakia losing the Russian gas pipeline transit revenues if the Kremlin follows through with its plans to reroute the gas through Turkish Stream and Nord Stream. “We would lose huge income from this,” he said.
Nevertheless, all the Central European countries continue to vote for sanctions, even if their rhetoric to domestic audiences says the opposite. “There is constant discussion over sanctions, but in practice everyone votes for sanctions and Slovakia provides Ukraine with energy life support,” said Zaborowski. “Rhetoric is one thing, reality is another.”
But it will be very difficult for Central Europe to move beyond that, in terms of higher military spending or even US bases. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary all spend just 1% of GDP on defence, half the level recommended by Nato. And significant increases are unlikely because they are struggling to keep budget deficits within the EU limit of 3% of GDP. All are also not keen on allowing US bases because there is no popular backing for it.
Watching Globsec, therefore, is a fascinating window on the connections between Central Europe’s security establishment and that of the West, but the discussion remains curiously divorced from the gritty political realities of the countries of the region. Much of it is preaching to the converted, while those who they need to convert – leftwing politicians, more mainstream civil society groups – stay away or are not invited in the first place.
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