WARSAW - Leaders in most Eastern European nations are just short of jubilant after NATO created a rapid-reaction “spearhead” force to protect the region from Russian bullying. They have long sought a commitment to allay their fears, especially following Russia’s recent aggression in Ukraine.
But not all share in the joy. Some who spent decades under the Soviet yoke — politicians and ordinary people — think that the move could enrage Moscow and undermine the sense of security they have felt since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO in the 1990s.
The region’s long-standing distrust of Russia became more acute following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its role in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Poland, the region’s largest country and most potent speaker, has pushed for a large, permanent deployment of at least two divisions of NATO troops on its territory as a deterrent to any such activity in Russia’s west.
The NATO summit in Newport, Wales, last week settled for less, after Germany and some other major members insisted they want to keep a dialogue open with Moscow. The summit decided on a new, rapid-reaction force of some 5,000 troops, a spearhead ready to deploy to any conflict zone in a matter of hours. The command and key infrastructure is to be located near the Russian border. In Poland, many presume.
“We would have liked more but let’s be happy with the decisions taken in Newport,” Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said. “We still have a lot of work to do to make this quantitative change satisfying.”
But, he insisted: “This signal is very strong and our Eastern neighbor (Russia) cannot ignore it.”
As the summit deliberated on Friday, Ukraine, Russia and the Kremlin-backed separatists signed a cease-fire and the monthslong fighting in Eastern Ukraine seemed to be held back.
On his way home from Newport, Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski made a stop at a NATO-linked multinational force in Szczecin, in northwestern Poland, that is to be strengthened under the new strategy. Some speculate Szczecin may host the command of the spearhead.
Komorowski said he would like the new force to be linked “to the maximum” to the area of potential use because “we expect that the area on (NATO’s) eastern flank will be an area of more crises and more challenges.”
Poland’s former ambassador to NATO, Jerzy Maria Nowak, believes that NATO’s decisions may be a comfort for some, but “for Russia they may be a provocation and a violation of the agreements” it has with NATO.
In Estonia, which like Ukraine borders Russia and has a sizable Russian minority, one political commentator remains optimistic and believes that plans to have key NATO command closer to Russia’s border shows the alliance’s “readiness, preparedness or resoluteness which previously was absent.”
“Russia is always doing things, they always need to show resolve, they are always pushing and intimidating as much as they can. But keep cool about these things. If you don’t show you’re ready to defend yourself, you are inviting trouble,” said Andres Kasekamp, a member of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute.
Estonia still resonates with speculation why an Estonian security service officer was abducted by unknown gunmen on Friday and taken across the border to Russia.
In Romania, which borders Russia across the Black Sea, reaction to NATO’s spear-shaking was also divided.
“We put Romania in an area of security. Somebody will think 10 times whether they would like to deal with NATO’s eastern flank members,” President Traian Basescu said. He joked that the Black Sea will be turned from a “Russian lake” into a “NATO lake.”
But some ordinary people see things differently.
Valerica Stefanescu, 57, who runs a small cafe on the seafront in the resort of Mamaia, said everyone was “worried about the situation in Ukraine, who wouldn’t be?”
“But we don’t want to see more military presence on the Black Sea, we’d feel like it was war,” she said as sea waves crashed on the concrete fence of her outdoor cafe.
Nearby, retired mechanical engineer Niculae Oprea, 66, drew an even gloomier picture.
“Basescu will get us into a war. We are too small compared to Putin, who didn’t even bat an eyelid with Crimea. The sanctions aren’t hurting him. You saw how he placed an embargo and now you have fruit and vegetables rotting in Europe.”
“The Russian bear won’t let us off lightly, you’ll see,” Oprea added. “He will turn off the gas and we will go to Russia crying and on our knees.”