With NATO approaching its September summit in Wales, the time has come for Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join Poland in its efforts to bolster regional security and shape the future of the Visegrad countries’ eastern periphery.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the countries that share painful experiences of Soviet invasions of 1956 and 1968 have taken a backseat in support of Ukraine. Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic learned the hard way what it means to have their destinies defined by an external force and are also painfully aware of the consequences of no one coming to their “rescue” for the sake of greater superpower rivalry.
Similarly, these countries also enjoyed the support of the United States and Western Europe at a time when they were themselves shaking off Russian influence on their path to join the western community of values and ideals in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Yet, a series of unfortunate statements made in the past couple of months at the highest levels from Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, have put these countries’ commitments to NATO’s collective defense in doubt, harmed their image, and undermined their valuable contributions to regional and allied security. Immediately after the rollout of the European Reassurance Initiative, both Slovak and Czech Prime Ministers ruled out hosting any NATO troops, with the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico taking it even further when he compared possible NATO’s military presence in the region to the Soviet invasion of 1968. Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban has also been downplaying the implications of the Ukraine crisis for the region’s security. Most recently, he made headlines by claiming he seeks to end the liberal democracy in Hungary, citing Russia, Turkey, and China as successful examples of a new illiberal states based on national foundations.
At the NATO summit in Wales, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have an opportunity to shift this narrative, demonstrate their value to the Alliance and push back on the perception that they have yet to grow into security providers. These three allies have made tangible contributions to NATO that should not be overlooked.
Firstly, these countries are currently responsible and stalwart contributors to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Furthermore, their governments have already made public commitments to participate in the post-2014 Afghan mission, Operation Resolute Support, pending the signing of the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security agreement. Slovakia has committed to contribute its special forces, Hungary is considering keeping around a hundred troops in the country, and the Czech Republic plans to maintain their troop contribution at its current level. In a war-weary Alliance, these commitments are not insignificant.
Secondly, as NATO refocuses its attention on collective defense and maintaining interoperability in its post-operational phase, the Visegrad Four (V4) have already made commitments to do their fair share of military exercises and training. The June Budapest Declaration of the V4 heads of states endorses the previous commitment to organize an annual V4 collective defense exercise and proposes to link the planned V4 EU Battlegroup certification exercise with NATO’s 2015 exercise Trident Juncture. More immediately, this fall, Slovakia will host a collective V4 defense exercise, Ground Pepper 2014, with US participation and also a NATO air-force exercise MACE XVI. The Czech Republic will participate in the US Aviation Detachment exercises in Poland and increase their participation in the drills and air policing over the Baltic region. Hungary will participate in a SOF exercise in Poland in November 2014 and host exercise Brave Warrior in 2015.
Thirdly, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have a long track record of strong support for NATO’s Open Door policy. Even though the NATO foreign ministers decided at their June meeting that NATO will not move forward on an invitation for Montenegro or MAP for Georgia at the Wales summit, the countries of Central Europe should continue to advocate for NATO to speed up its next enlargement round. Slovakia and Hungary were among the countries supporting a September invitation for Montenegro, while the Czech Republic would welcome intensified relations with Georgia – now widely seen as one of the Alliance’s most capable partners. NATO should not lose the momentum for enlargement. On the contrary, the countries knocking on NATO’s door should be given strong support now, before we allow other forces to shape their future.
And lastly, these NATO members that some have described as back-sliding on their defense commitments, have at least stopped the downward trend in their defense spending. In an ideal world, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic should follow their neighbors in the region and commit to a gradual increase of the defense budgets to meet the 2 percent NATO benchmark. The Czech Republic has come the closest to such commitment, announcing its goal to achieve the level of 1.4 percent of GDP defense spending within the next five years, with a possible reevaluation at a later stage to increase the defense budget even higher. Slovakia and Hungary are lagging behind, with Hungary committing to a modest defense budget increase, but not until 2016. Slovakia has not made any such commitments at all. While it would be desirable for all three countries to meet NATO’s 2 percent objective, it is unlikely to happen. Instead, they should come to the summit with concrete proposals to modernize their armies, develop new capabilities, and present their common cost-effective procurement solutions.
Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are correct in their shared assessment that while they currently don’t face an immediate threat to their territories, the concerns of their more exposed neighbors on NATO’s eastern periphery should be taken seriously and demand an adequate action.
At the upcoming NATO summit, these three countries need to make sure their support and contribution is loud and visible, their commitment to the Alliance sacrosanct, and their efforts to increase defense budgets, modernize their militaries, and to contribute to NATO’s collective defense are genuine.
Simona Kordosova is associate director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.