The War in Ukraine and the Future of Defense Policy in East-Central Europe

The War in Ukraine as a Wake-Up Call

After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of Soviet influence in East-Central Europe, NATO underwent a profound transformation. The alliance had abandoned its focus on collective defense, and turned into an engine of political integration, drawing post-communist states into the orbit of a hegemonic, US-led world order.

In East-Central Europe, the fall of communism drove a transition away from Soviet-style conscript armies and towards smaller, professionalized forces. The process was associated with widespread demilitarization. The end of Cold War-era strategic competition, and the security offered by US guarantees, enabled governments to drastically cut military spending. As a result, states across East-Central Europe were left with severely weakened armed forces, incapable even of mounting effective homeland defense. Furthermore, chronic underinvestment meant that the modernization drive has been sluggish, with many regional militaries still relying on obsolete Soviet-era hardware.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, launched on 24 February 2022, heralded a return of direct conventional threats to East-Central Europe. Governments across the region hastily scrambled to fix decades of low spending. There has been a flurry of newly announced acquisition programs and defense spending hikes, framed as a reaction to Russian expansionism. States in East-Central Europe have also reaffirmed their commitments to NATO. These developments have not been ubiquitous. Hungary in particular has wavered in its support for Kyiv in the face of the Russian invasion. The nation’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has undermined efforts by fellow EU and NATO countries to provide aid to Ukraine, and in late summer, he signed a separate gas deal with Russia, sidestepping the Western sanctions regime.

Nevertheless, the general trend of rising anti-Russian sentiment across the wider region is undeniable. According to a survey, published by the Alliance of Democracies in May 2022, just 10% of Romanians viewed Russia positively, while 64% had a negative opinion. In Poland, the ratio was even more lopsided, at 5% to 85%. Even in Hungary, a mere 16% of the population had a favorable view on Russia, while 48% saw it negatively.

Along with the Baltic States, East-Central Europe has spearheaded the provision of aid to Ukraine. Poland transferred 0.5% of its total GDP in humanitarian supplies and war material to Kyiv, while Slovakia and the Czech Republic have provided 0.2% and 0.16% respectively. States in the region also assumed a major role in the joint EU mission, aimed at providing training to AFU personnel.


The Lessons of Ukraine: A Failure of Western Europe?

The US and NATO have proven integral in coordinating Western response to the war in Ukraine. The US has provided more aid to Kyiv in absolute terms than any other Western state, and Biden’s administration has displayed an unflinching commitment to the principles of collective defense. It has played a key role in consolidating support for Ukraine, and ensuring unity of action. Prior to the Russian invasion, there was a widespread notion that NATO was obsolete, and the US was withdrawing from Europe. After 24 February, similar worries have been put to rest, at least for some time.

In response to the Ukrainian crisis, NATO has partially returned to its original purpose of containing the Kremlin. Prior to 2022, the alliance’s presence in East-Central Europe had been primarily centered around four battalion-sized battlegroups in Poland and the three Baltic states. Following the Russian invasion, plans had been set into motion for deploying alliance forces in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. The eight total battlegroups in the region are also to be brought up to brigade-size. These moves signify a shift away from a ‘tripwire’ approach, and towards a focus on ‘forward defense’.

The swiftness and forcefulness of NATO’s reaction to the invasion of Ukraine has stood in sharp contrast to the stance of many EU member states. The lack of leadership displayed by the major powers of Western Europe, namely France and Germany, reflects their broader lack of strategic vision vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Since 2014, Paris and Berlin have been almost lethargic in the face of the revival of Russian expansionism on the EU’s eastern frontier.

Germany has consistently failed to meet NATO’s defense spending goals; as of 2021, just 1.5% of its GDP was devoted to defense. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion, the Bundestag approved an emergency package, with an additional €100 billion worth of military spending. Germany has also moved to reduce its dependence on Russia by freezing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Berlin’s strategic pivot is remarkable, especially given its long history of appeasing the Kremlin, and the strength of Russo-German economic relations. Nevertheless, Germany’s continuing refusal to adopt a more proactive, muscular foreign policy raises questions about its long-term reliability as an ally.

On the surface, France’s approach to defense has sharply contrasted with Germany’s lack of strategic vision. The French military is much better funded and more combat-capable than the German armed forces, and Macron’s government has long stood at the forefront of the push for European strategic autonomy. In response to the Russian aggression, France has decided to bolster its military presence along the EU’s eastern frontier, thus making good on some of its pledges. However, there remains a wide gap between rhetoric and policy in Macron’s diplomatic posture. French calls for strategic autonomy have not been translated into credible efforts to build joint capabilities and foster closer diplomatic relations with the EU’s eastern flank. Paris seems too preoccupied by its post-imperial quagmires in West Africa to pursue a strategic pivot to the east.

The position of France and Germany illustrates a deeper issue of diverging priorities between East-Central and Western Europe. The potential significance of Paris and Berlin as guarantors of continental security should not be dismissed outright — in many respects, their foreign policy seems to be, albeit slowly and reluctantly, moving in the correct direction. Still, East-Central Europe should strive to strengthen their defense commitments within a NATO framework, instead of betting on the distant prospect of European strategic autonomy.


The Burdens of Remilitarization

East-Central Europe’s defense spending spree has occurred against the backdrop of global economic tremors. The fiscal pressures and supply chain constraints engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic were compounded by the shock to global trade — particularly in food and energy — in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These interlocking pressures have proven to be particularly intense in East-Central Europe. In November 2022, inflation in the Eurozone averaged 10%. However, prices rose annually by 21.1% in Hungary, 17.4% in Poland, 16.3% in the Czech Republic, and 14.9% in Slovakia. Both the ECB and the individual national banks in non-Eurozone countries have reacted by ramping up interest rates. Inflation combined with high borrowing costs means that the fiscal environment is uniquely unfavorable to any potential increases in defense spending.

Poland is the most notable example of remilitarization in the region, both in absolute and relative terms. The governing Law and Justice party has pledged to increase defense spending from 2.4% of GDP to 5% over the next several years. Poland’s lack of a domestic arms industry means that its remilitarization drive is overwhelmingly reliant on foreign suppliers. By the end of the decade, Poland is planning to acquire 250 Abrams tanks and 32 F-35s from the US. An additional $10-12 billion worth of hardware will come from Korea. Among other things, the East Asian nation is expected to supply 1000 K2 tanks and 600 K9 howitzers. Poland already has more tanks and howitzers than Germany, and this arms deal is bound to solidify its status as a European military powerhouse.

However, this will not come without a cost. Poland’s current account deficit is already at around 4%, and the outflow of capital to foreign arms manufacturers is bound to exacerbate this issue. Poland’s government has taken steps to stimulate domestic production — its purchase of the Italian Leonardo helicopters required for them to be manufactured in Poland — but its hike in defense spending is still shaping up as a major net loss in economic terms. Poland’s choice of the US and South Korea as its main partners is conditioned by long-running tensions between Warsaw and Western European states over the controversial constitutional reforms imposed by the Law and Justice Party. By opting for non-EU suppliers Poland has minimized the risks of political disruptions to its remilitarization program, but it has also become reliant on vulnerable supply chains — an obvious threat to its pursuit of strategic autonomy.

The Polish example illustrates the pitfalls of reactive defense spending, unmoored from a wider foreign policy vision. Remilitarization provides an opportunity for East-Central Europe to build up national arms manufacturing capabilities. Regional cooperation on R&D, procurement, and production would reduce reliance on foreign suppliers and minimize the outflows of capital. Investment into defense has large spillover benefits, stimulating growth in high-tech industries. Defense manufacturing could become a cornerstone of regional and national industrial policy, aimed at shortening supply chains, and mitigating the impacts of global trade shocks. However, similar efforts will require extensive coordination, and entail a significant time-lag. Many of the shortcomings of Poland’s remilitarization program are inevitable in circumstances when states are seeking to swiftly compensate for decades of irresponsible spending decisions.


The Long-Term Outlook

East-Central European governments should be wary of over-extrapolating from the impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Just as they have previously underestimated the Russian threat, they now stand at a risk of over-fixating on containing the Kremlin’s advance, to the detriment of other considerations, both military, and non-military.

Russia’s lackluster performance in Ukraine raises doubts about its military capabilities, and its ability to pose a credible conventional threat to its ‘near abroad’. As a result of Western sanctions, Russia is facing an intense economic downturn. After several months of prolonged, high-intensity combat in Ukraine, the Russian Army has suffered intense force degradation. The shortage of key imports has had an adverse impact on Russia’s ability to replace high-end weapons systems.

Uncertainties regarding the future course of the war prevail. Much will depend on the state of Western support of Ukraine, on the ability of NATO and EU states to keep pace with Russian arms production, and on China’s willingness to prop up the Kremlin. Ultimately, the future of Russian power in Europe still hangs in balance on the battlefields. Nevertheless, with Russia’s former clients, such as Kazakhstan or Armenia, increasingly distancing themselves from the Kremlin and seeking security guarantees elsewhere, it remains a distinct possibility that Putin’s neo-imperialist project has both begun and ended in Ukraine.

However, just as the fixation on Russia manifests in excessive alarmism, it could also breed complacency. The frustration of the Kremlin’s politico-military ambitions in Ukraine should not detract from the wider instability of both the regional and global security environment. As discussed above, EU-based frameworks of collective defense have proven profoundly lacking. The US has demonstrated an exceptional vigor in coordinating responses on the NATO level, but the future of its role in East-Central Europe is intensely dependent on domestic political developments. The potential strengthening of the radical wing of the Republican Party could lead to a revival of American isolationism.

The weakening of international security mechanisms has been accompanied by the resurgence of irredentist tendencies. In the Western Balkans, territorial disputes continue to simmer. Turkey is pursuing an increasingly aggressive foreign policy along its European frontier, and Hungary’s Orbán has flirted with revising the Treaty of Trianon and recovering his nation’s supposedly stolen possessions. The threat of mass migration also remains potent. Even setting aside the war in Ukraine, the arguments for East-Central Europe’s strategic autonomy seem stronger than ever.


A Reimagined Force Design Framework

East-Central European militaries post-1989 have been defined by the pursuit of interoperability under extremely strained budgetary conditions. This has produced undermanned, skeleton forces, optimized for performing auxiliary roles under US leadership. The approach has not been without its benefits. The reliance on a US-style, diversified, combined arms force structure has enabled states to retain expertise across a range of branches, bolstering flexibility, and providing the foundations for potential expansion. However, there have also been significant trade-offs. Most of the militaries currently fielded by East-Central European countries are incapable of autonomous operations, and insufficiently optimized for the limited capacities of smaller states, and the particularity of regional strategic challenges.

As governments across the region rush to raise military spending, they are confronted with a choice between doubling down on existing structures of force design, or adopting an approach that is more in line with the nature of the regional security environment. Many of the newly announced investment schemes reflect a lack of imagination, coupled with a degree of reflexive hysteria. Nowhere is this more visible than in the fixation on cost-ineffective ‘wonder weapons’, such as the F-35. East-Central European governments continue to be constrained by established NATO frameworks, while failing to reassess their own strategic circumstances in a wider context.

The reliance on established approaches to force design is only justifiable under one of two presumptions: either that small states in East-Central Europe are capable of attaining force parity with major continental powers under symmetrical conditions, or that the newly expanded NATO-interoperable armies will be able to hold off potential threats until the alliance responds. If neither of these assumptions hold, then East-Central European states are building up their militaries with the expectation that in the case of a conventional invasion by a more powerful adversary, they will face occupation. A similar scenario is obviously inevitable under some circumstances — there is only so much that smaller states can do to tip the balance of forces in their favor when facing a stronger opponent. Still, reforms in force design frameworks can go a long way towards mitigating the risk of defeat.

Ukraine’s defense-in-depth approach is not easily replicable, as most smaller states lack the necessary operational space. There are more instructive examples, whose position is closer to that of most East-Central European countries. Taiwan or the Baltic States have taken steps to adopt a ‘porcupine approach’ to national defense, which openly embraces the asymmetries arising from an invasion by a larger foreign power. To fit this framework, force structure should be adjusted to become decentralized, and horizontalized — tailored to accommodate the threat of the decapitation of command centers and the disruption of interior lines of supply and communications. In terms of equipment, there should be a focus on cost-efficiency, quantity over quality, and reduced reliance on top-down coordination. National acquisition and production programs should prioritize man-portable anti-air (MANPADS) and anti-tank (MANPATS) shoulder-mounted launchers, drones, light artillery, and area denial assets such as landmines.

The embrace of asymmetric defense strategies requires a significant expansion of the number of armed personnel. A potential solution is the formation of voluntary reserve forces, serving part-time in auxiliary roles alongside the regular army. These troops can be deployed in the rear to hold strategic objectives, thus freeing up manpower for frontline combat. Should large swathes of the nation’s territory be captured by an invader, reservists can complement the regular army’s deep-strike capabilities, harassing the enemy rear, and even comprising the nucleus of potential insurgency efforts.

This framework of national defense is founded on bolstering deterrence by raising the costs of capturing territory. It seeks to minimize the prospect of a swift, limited war, aimed at occupying a state before NATO has time to respond. The embrace of asymmetric warfare relies on the ability of the defender to absorb greater damage and casualties than the attacker. The edge in mobilizing potential compensates for the overall disadvantages in terms of military and economic capabilities. The asymmetries in capabilities are translated into asymmetries in costs, both material, and human. As a result, a successful ‘porcupine’ defense is largely dependent on the strength of the citizens’ patriotic commitments.

An international WIN/Gallup survey from 2015 has shown extensive variation in attitudes towards national defense across East-Central Europe. On the upper end of the spectrum, there was Poland and Romania, with 47% and 38% of the population respectively willing to actively engage in national defense. On the lower end, there are nations such as the Czech Republic — at 23% — or Austria — at 21%. The war in Ukraine has driven a temporary surge in concerns for national security. However, a comprehensive reassessment of force design is a matter of years, if not decades. It is possible that once public concerns over the Russian threat dissipate, further investment in defense will again become prohibitively costly in terms of political capital.

In this respect, the current political climate presents a unique opportunity to enact reform and communicate to the public the need for enduring commitments to national defense. This must be rooted in a wider ideological realignment, aimed at fostering a spirit of civic militarism. Enlarging the military and building up reserve forces partially fulfills this role, by increasing the share of military personnel in the population, and thus ensuring that the citizens come into daily contact with representatives of the armed forces. Simultaneously, governments should more openly embrace the significance of investing in national defense, and militaries should adopt a more explicitly public-facing role.


The Political Dimensions of Military Reform

A focus on strategic autonomy and homeland defense reduces interdependence between NATO member states, and thus partially undermines the alliance’s role in fostering political integration, which has been crucial in countering radicalization and international conflict across East-Central Europe. In many ways, NATO is superior as a coordinating mechanism when contrasted with more regionalized forms of cooperation. In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, NATO has been much more responsive than exclusively East-Central European diplomatic entities, namely the V4, which was left paralyzed by Hungary’s unilateralism. States across the region should not hasten to extricate themselves from the alliance — their fears of diplomatic abandonment could then well turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is not a strict dichotomy between East-Central European strategic autonomy and cooperation within NATO structures. The alliance could facilitate intra-regional cooperation on production and procurement, and serve as a framework for preserving interoperability between individual regional militaries. In this way, states in East-Central Europe would be able to tackle the twin issues of military weakness and lacking strategic depth, by embracing a more tightly integrated command structure. When operating in a narrower, more compact framework of collective defense, East-Central European nations would be able to respond more swiftly to localized threats, and through the pooling of resources, could rise to become peer competitors to other major powers, both continental and global. Furthermore, increased interdependence, bounded by the wider NATO structure, could counter brewing political tensions, and contain irredentist tendencies.

A new vision for NATO’s role in East-Central Europe would require the alliance to explicitly embrace a two-track approach to force design. Larger powers would field combined arms forces with a capacity for expeditionary operations and forward deployment, whereas smaller states would focus on homeland defense. This approach would provide NATO with a greater degree of flexibility, while accommodating the unique needs and capabilities of many smaller states. The future of NATO in East-Central Europe will depend on its willingness to abandon the fixation on interoperability, and recognize the need for localized solutions. In order to finalize its expansion to Asia and become a truly global alliance, NATO must first recognize the particularities of the diverse contexts in which it will be required to operate. Adopting a more open-minded position towards defense policy in East-Central Europe will be an integral step in this process.



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Written by Matyáš Knol