Central European fears and the German ‘question mark’

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Central European countries are worried about their security – but while Russia may be the obvious threat, Germany's changing role and its warming relations with Moscow are troubling Warsaw and other capitals, writes the Geopolitical Diary at global intelligence company Stratfor.

The following contribution was sent to EURACTIV by the Geopolitical Diary at Stratfor.

''Perusing the collection of US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, we came across what we at STRATFOR consider a gem of recent history.

Gerard Araud, now the French permanent representative to the United Nations, briefed several US officials in late February 2007 on the difference between the purpose of NATO in 2007 and during the Cold War. Recounting an adage, he said that during the Cold War, NATO was supposed 'to keep Germans down, the Russians out and the Americans in'.

But in 2007, NATO's purpose was 'for the newer European and Baltic members — given their fear of Russia, rational or not — to keep the Americans in'. Araud added: 'For other members, NATO provides a way to meet their defence — without having to pay for it.'

The assessment of NATO's contemporary role by a high-ranking French official from 2007 resonates very much in November 2010. On Tuesday, there were a number of events that reminded STRATFOR just how worried Central and Eastern Europeans are about their security.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Russia had moved ground-based tactical nuclear warheads to its borders with NATO member states sometime in the spring. Quoted in the same article, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said, 'Being a NATO member, of course, someone could say, 'Don’t worry.' But when you're living in the neighborhood, you should always be more cautious.'

STRATFOR has written before of the Russian plans to deploy the nuclear-capable Iskander-M (known as the 'Tender') short-range ballistic missile throughout the country. While The Wall Street Journal report is likely referring to this missile system and therefore does not expose a new threat, the timing of the report is very telling.

It comes mere hours after Russian President Dmitri Medvedev warned in his State of the State address that if an agreement with the West was not reached on ballistic missile defence, the world would 'plunge into a new arms race'.

But Tuesday was not only illustrative of the Russian threat; it also brought examples of how Central Europe, from Warsaw to Bucharest, may be planning to push back against Russia.

Faced with the US obsession with the Middle East, which the WikiLeaks cables illustrate, Central Europe is beginning to organise its initiatives to bring the United States to the region and to create independent means to push back against Russian resurgence.

First, Poland and Sweden continued their diplomatic pressure on Ukraine, a key border state that is firmly in the Russian sphere, but that Sweden and Poland want to target as part of their jointly coordinated European Union Eastern Partnership initiative. It was revealed Tuesday that the Ukrainian foreign minister will visit Sweden on 6 December following an 18 November visit by the Swedish and Polish foreign ministers to Ukraine. Polish Senate Speaker Bogdan Borusewicz was also in Ukraine Tuesday and suggested that the Odesa-Brody oil pipeline could be extended to Gdansk in Poland.

The Swedes and Poles want to give Ukraine a reason to have better relations with the European Union and the West. With other options available, Ukraine is a border state that Russia cannot fully count on, which forces Russia to concentrate more on Ukraine and less on expanding its sphere of influence in the rest of Central Europe, such as in the Baltic states.

Expanding the Odesa-Brody pipeline to Poland would allow Poland to tap some of the oil that flows through it, thereby avoiding the Druzhba pipeline the Russians have cut off in the past for political reasons. It gives Poland access to potentially non-Russian crude, especially for the Polish-owned Orlen Lietuva refinery in Lithuania affected by the Druzhba cutoff, and it gives Ukraine a new destination for shipping crude products to the West.

Second, Estonian Defence Minister Jaak Aaviksoo was in the United States on Tuesday for a weeklong visit, during which he will meet with his US counterpart and the United States will stress network security. Aaviksoo wants American involvement in defending Central Europe against cyberattacks; this is an especially important issue for Estonia, which was presumably the target of such an attack by Russia in April and May 2007.

Also on Tuesday, Romanian President Traian Basescu said he saw Moldova becoming part of Romania within the next 25 years. This comes after Moldova held contentious elections over the weekend that have seen its pro-Western factions fail to strengthen their position against the pro-Russian Communist Party.

Moldova is strategic for Russia because it strides the Bessarabia Gap, a key transportation corridor between the Carpathians and the Black Sea. A move by Romania to acquire influence in — or outright annex — Moldova would be a serious setback for Moscow.

The efforts by Central Europeans to draw the United States into the region and mount countermoves against Russia should be considered in the context of NATO's evolving role. As Araud hinted in 2007, Western European member states, particularly Germany and France, do not want NATO to retain its function as an alliance against Russia.

This was crystal clear at the recent NATO Lisbon summit, which failed to come up with a coherent Strategic Concept to in any way reassure Central Europeans that countering conventional threats in Europe was still dear to all fellow NATO allies.

The lack of guarantees extends beyond the American obsession with the Middle East. Central Europeans are having difficulty finding another Western European power, outside of Sweden, with an ear for their security concerns. They feel they need to counter Russia on their own, with limited backup.

There is always Germany, which Central Europeans should theoretically be able to turn to for support. At least on paper, Berlin is an EU and NATO ally. However, specific to the Central European fears — and a reality that is rarely spoken publicly in Central Europe — is the fact that Germany is becoming unhinged from the Cold War-era institutions.

Russia may be the obvious security threat, but it is Germany's evolving role — and, crucially, its warming relations with Moscow — that troubles Warsaw and other Central European capitals, most precisely because it is unclear which way Berlin is heading. Or, as Araud put it in 2007, Germany may have been 'America's model ally' during the Cold War, but it is quickly becoming a 'question mark'.''