Central and Eastern European members of Nato and the European Union have often felt ignored by the older member states of Western Europe if they try to speak up. When they supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, then French President Jacques Chirac infamously told them that they “missed a great opportunity to shut up”.
But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago, the countries on Nato’s eastern flank believe they are now leading the debate on how to confront the Kremlin, as demonstrated recently in the row over the provision of modern battle tanks to Ukraine, in which Germany eventually agreed to supply its Leopards.
The newer member states argue that for many years they have been warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not a man the West could or should do business with.
“They have been saying for a very long time that Russia was a threat,” Pavlina Janebova, research director at the Czech foreign affairs think-tank AMO, told bne IntelliNews in a telephone interview. “I think they had a sense that as new member states they were not being listened to as much as older member states.”
The former Warsaw Pact satellites in Central and Eastern Europe claim they have a special insight into Moscow’s modus operandi, having suffered more than 40 years under the Kremlin’s rule. “We have the experience and knowledge of Russia that we can provide for Nato,” says Janebova.
Geographically, they have been on the front line as Putin tested Nato’s resolve, first by invading Georgia in 2008, and then in attacking Ukraine in 2014. The Baltic states in particular – which only won their independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 – have faced regular harassment since Putin’s rise to power in 2000.
“All three Baltic states have been litmus tests for Russian attacks,” Adris Pabriks, former Latvian deputy prime minister, told a London School of Economics webcast on the Baltic states on January 24, listing cyber attacks, disinformation and the manipulation of energy dependence as Moscow’s weapons of choice.
They have tried to turn this experience to their advantage. Since Moscow’s cyber attack on Estonia in 2008 – seen as one of the first major instances of cyber warfare – Estonia has become one of the leaders in cyber defence, hosting CCDCOE, the Nato cyber defence centre of excellence.
The Baltic states were also among the first EU countries to prioritise reducing their dependence on Russian energy by establishing LNG terminals and building cross-border connections.
“We were constantly diversifying before it was cool,” Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Jonas Survila told the LSE webinar. “This is a thing we should now fast-track on the EU level.”
Yet for much of the time since they joined first Nato from 1999, and then the EU from 2004 onwards, Western European leaders have dismissed the views of the Balts and other former Communist member states as ridiculously alarmist and hawkish when it comes to Russia.
The West ignored the eastern member states’ calls for more Nato military deployments on the eastern flank, for arming Ukraine, and for wider and quicker Nato and EU enlargement, while Germany dismissed concerns that Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipelines would deepen Western dependence on Moscow for energy supplies.
However, on all these issues the eastern flank states have been proved right, and Nato and the EU are now scrambling to do what the new members have been demanding for years.
Now it is countries like Germany that are looking absurd for their previous courting of Moscow and for their current painful reluctance to provide Ukraine with the military help it needs.
The Polish government – which has its own disputes with Germany – has seized every opportunity to maximise Berlin’s embarrassment as its policy of engagement with Russia collapsed in ignominy.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the Polish news agency on January 22: “[Germany’s] policy went bankrupt, and the Germans still find it hard to admit they were wrong.”
“We will not passively watch Ukraine bleed to death,” Morawiecki warned. “The Ukrainian people are fighting for our freedom…The decision to support Ukraine is justified both politically and morally.”
“I hope the Germans will understand this sooner rather than later,” he added. “Ukraine and Europe will win this war, with or without Germany. It is up to Germany whether they want to join the mission to stop Russian barbarism or whether they will…be on the wrong side of history.”
Leading the way
The Czech Republic played a leading role in marshalling EU sanctions and help for Ukraine as the EU rotating president in the second half of 2022. In March 2022 Prime Ministers Petr Fiala and Morawiecki were among the first political leaders to visit Kyiv to show their support after the invasion. The Czech Republic was also among the first countries to provide so-called “offensive weapons” to Ukraine by sending its Soviet-designed T-72 tanks. Among EU countries, it has also taken in the most Ukrainian refugees in proportion to its own population.
Many eastern flank countries are now increasing defence spending way above Nato recommendations of 2% of GDP, with the Balts aiming to spend 3%, while Poland is targeting 4%.
The Baltic states have also downgraded diplomatic links by forcing Moscow to reduce the bloated size of its embassies, long suspected of being spy nests.
The eastern flank countries have also been leading the way in helping Ukraine defend itself from Russian aggression. The three Baltic states and Poland occupy the top four spots in terms of aid in relation to GDP.
It has also recently been revealed that Bulgaria – one of the Nato states that was traditionally less hawkish towards Moscow – played a vital role in secretly supplying Kyiv with ammunition and fuel in the early months of the invasion.
Poland has been acting as the main logistics hub for Western help to Ukraine, while taking in around a million refugees. For their part, the Baltic states have become the main bases for Russian and Belarusian opposition movements.
“We have been showing what we can do,” says Pabriks. “We have been an example for others.”
Free the Leopards!
Poland took the lead in the campaign to put pressure on Berlin to send its modern Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, or at least give the required permission for other countries to export their tanks there, amid fears that Russia is gearing up for a spring offensive.
Poland had even threatened to bypass Germany and send its Leopards without permission.
“We will not stand by idly and watch Ukraine bleed to death. If we don’t get German agreement on the Leopards, we will build a ‘smaller coalition’ of countries ready to donate some of their modern tanks to a fighting Ukraine,” Morawiecki tweeted on January 22.
To exert pressure on Germany, on January 21, 11 countries, including the three Baltic states, Poland, Czechia and Slovakia, met in Tallinn to sign the “Tallinn Pledge” to give more aid to Ukraine.
The eastern Nato members dismiss arguments that sending the most modern “offensive” Western weaponry to Ukraine could escalate the war or even lead to confrontation between Nato and Russia. “Any weapon that is used for the defence of Ukraine is a defensive weapon,” Pabriks told the LSE webinar. “Putin’s appetite is simply fed by our indecision and delays,” he added.
Berlin finally buckled on January 24 and pledged to send one company (14 tanks) and allow others to send their Leopards. Poland will match this commitment, while Spain will send 53 Leopards, Netherland 18, Portugal 4, Norway 8, Canada 4, and Sweden an unspecified number of its Stridsvagn 122 model, based on the Leopard.
The US has promised to send 31 M1 Abrams tanks, the UK will send one company of its Challenger 2 model, while France will provide an unspecified number of its Leclerc tanks. Ukraine says it needs 300 tanks to secure victory over the Russian invasion force.
What is debatable is how influential this pressure from Poland and the other Tallinn Pledge states was in persuading Germany to change its mind. Arguably, much more important was Berlin securing a promise from the US that it would commit its Abrams modern heavy battle tank, enabling Germany to depict this as a united Nato move.
The occasionally self-righteous and often aggressive tone of Poland and the Baltic states in the dispute over the tanks may even have had the opposite effect, making Berlin yet more obstinate in its initial refusal to send its heavy tanks. “The very critical stance that some actors have taken was perhaps rather counter-productive,” Janebova told bne IntelliNews.
It is also an open question whether the eastern flank states will now be able to use their victory to influence Nato and EU policy towards the war going forward, or whether their demands have now become just too ambitious. They continue to call for more military aid – with fighter jets next on the wish list – and yet tougher sanctions.
“We are still not using our full potential in helping Ukraine. If we increase it this would lead to a Ukrainian victory,” Survila told the LSE webinar. “We could have been much faster. It’s still slow. We would prefer it to go faster,” he added.
At the same time the Balts in particular are adamantly opposed to any negotiations with Putin that could lead to a face-saving peace settlement for the Russian dictator.
“Putin should be prosecuted and not negotiated with,” Survila says. “We should not aim for talks with a war criminal.”
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins told the Globsec security forum in Bratislava in June: “Anything else than a clear loss for Russia would mean [Putin] waiting a few years and trying again. If we want peace, Putin has to lose…It will end when he loses.”
Nevertheless, the higher profile of the eastern flank states in the Ukraine conflict may still turn out to be a watershed in their relations with the rest of Nato and the EU.
Czech premier Petr Fiala, whose right-wing Civic Democrats have traditionally taken a Eurosceptic stance, told the Aspen Central Europe Institute annual conference in December that the Ukraine conflict had made the continent more united than ever before, as the West has come to understand the concerns of its eastern half. “Since we have been confronted with Russian barbarism, we suddenly feel much closer to Western Europe,” he said.
Some hope that the eastern flank members will now be able to play a bigger role within Nato and the EU on a wider range of issues. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia, confidently told the LSE webinar that “this region will come to play a much bigger role in Europe as a whole”.
However, Janebova is more sceptical. “There is a chance we will be listened to more on issues related to Russia and Ukraine, especially in relation to the reconstruction of Ukraine,” she says.
“But we need to be able to keep up a constructive tone and really provide well thought through proposals. We are still perceived as naysayers who criticise everything and don’t come up with alternatives. It is important to stay actively and constructively involved in what is going on.”