The states in this region can cooperate better outside the framework of the usual formats.
Every crisis has not only its negative side, but also a beneficial side. This is true of the events in Ukraine as well. The impact that the annexation of Crimea and the Russian military activity in Eastern Ukraine has had on the security architecture of Europe has already been discussed ad nauseam, which is why I do not intend to offer my thoughts on this subject all over again. However, the crisis has also affected forms of regional cooperation. The impact has partly materialised already, but it is partly still developing. I shall restrict my discussion in this article to the form of national cooperation along the axis from Norway in the North to the Black Sea in the South.
For Estonia, the cooperation organised around the Baltic Sea and affecting this region is of utmost importance. Since the Ukrainian events have primarily influenced thought and action in the field of security policy, my discussion will focus on this. Edward Lucas, who is well-known in Estonia, used the term NBP9 in a recent analysis published by the Center for European Policy Analysis, by which he had in mind the Nordic and Baltic states and Poland. When we think logically and observe what is actually happening, highlighting this union of states is quite correct, but there is a slight problem—it does not formally exist. There is the NB8, which is a format of cooperation for the Nordic and Baltic states, where the countries can invite Poland to participate if necessary.
On Frames and Breaking out of them
If the states in a region or countries with common interests decide to start working closely together, they create a format and find a pretty name for it, or make do with an abbreviation. This is how NB6, NB8, e-PINE, NORDEFCO, V4, the Weimar Triangle, the Normandy Four and a row of other more or less useful formats were created in Europe. They all have their good points, but also their individual frameworks. It is useful in the case of the union of the Nordic and Baltic states that the formation breaks out beyond the frames of the two large cooperation formats of the European Union and NATO, so that common topics of interest are approached outside these frameworks.
The next step should be to break out of the small formats and coordinate the positions and actions of states proceeding from practical needs. In these terms, the Nordic-Baltic and Polish model Lucas suggested seems practical and natural when it comes to security and other issues. For example, Rail Baltic and the Via Baltica would be pointless to the Baltic states if they simply stretch from Tallinn to Kaunas or Vilnius; only if the routes are extended to Warsaw and open further directions that are accessible through there do they become useful. In the field of security it must be remembered that Poland is the greatest military force in our region and we need to work with allies who are bigger than ourselves. In addition, the US probably places us all in the same category that most likely covers an even wider region than the NBP9.
A curious aspect becomes apparent when we look at the current situation, which is that the ministers of foreign affairs from the Nordic and Baltic states discuss security matters in a format that includes Iceland but not Poland. At the same time, when the Polish President Andrzej Duda visited Estonia in August, there were plenty of common security issues to discuss. Poland considers not only the Baltic states but also Norway, Sweden and Finland to be “frontier states” that are endangered by a potential threat from a single direction: the East. Thus the preconditions for taking joint action have been fulfilled. When we also consider the pre-deployment of US military equipment to the region and the presence of US forces in it, it would be nothing but natural to involve Poland in e-PINE, a consultation organisation for the Nordic and Baltic states and the US.
Let’s Broaden the Focus
A good example of cooperation beyond frameworks was a meeting of the heads of states of the US, the Visegrád Four, the Baltic states, Bulgaria and Romania in Warsaw last year in June. I am quite certain that such a discussion could not have taken place without the impact of the events in Ukraine. All the participants were united by their interest in NATO, the presence of the Americans, and the security that proceeds from this. In a practical sense, it was useful for the US individually to meet the leaders of all the states that are interested in the US presence to a smaller or greater extent.
A summit of NATO’s eastern wing will be organised in Bucharest this November, and the joint positions to be presented next year at the NATO summit in Warsaw will be prepared there. States united by a certain common interest and a sense of threat will convene again. Those interests and that sense may vary a little from state to state, as common security subjects would be a complex topic of discussion in a format involving fewer states such as a meeting of the Visegrád Four. Poland has a more determined viewpoint towards the Russian aggression in Ukraine than do Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but they all fit nicely into a larger format. The union allows a couple of disputes to be aired, and the big picture is clearer at the Alliance’s summit because of this.
If the states involved in the axis mentioned at the beginning of the article communicate outside the framework of a specific format, it will help them to defend their joint interests at the “large” round tables of the European Union and NATO. And not only in security issues. For many European states, immigration issues have become much more important than the threats perceived by Ukraine, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Baltic states. This is why pressure is put on the states in the region to share the “old” EU states’ opinions on receiving refugees. If we leave the issue of right and wrong attitudes aside, it can be claimed that regional coordination of positions and arguments is beneficial. It would be wrong to claim that this kind of activity subverts the unity of the European Union and NATO since all member states try to find supporters for their positions and to coordinate their visions with countries with which they have similar viewpoints.
The events in Ukraine have pushed states into an anticipated strengthening of regional cooperation primarily in the field of security, but this trend should develop to approach other subjects in alliances that surpass formats. It would be useful to get the official structural units that deal with various cooperational formats and states to communicate more closely with each other in order to facilitate this developmental direction. Joint action develops best in conditions where it is based on joint interests, which, in turn, often derive from being located in the same region. It does not pay to proceed from the principle of modesty and the categories of “small” and “great” states when sitting at the top tables—when a small state can find supporters in a small alliance, it may dare to present initiatives proceeding from its narrow interests and hope for them to succeed. The only certain way to back oneself into a corner is to retreat into a shell and justify this by saying that “nothing ever depends on me”.
The personal views of the author were presented in this article.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.