Brexit: Eastern Flank Consequences and NATOs next steps
- By defencematters
What are the Brexit consequences on NATO’s deterrence focus and the independence of the Intermarium?
We continue the Brexit debate in the second part of an interview conducted with Luis Simón, Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute.
The first part of the interview with Luis Simon looked at Britain as the link between the US and Europe and enquired into whether Brexit will shatter this role. Simon highlighted that a Britain that is both strong and engaged in Europe is most certainly in America’s national interest and stressed that saying a Brexit signals a decoupling between Europe and America might be "pushing things a bit too far". Furthermore we enquired into how Brexit might affect the EU collective defence clause and discovered that the situation is in fact more complicated than it seems to be if one takes into account Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe which is prompting many in Germany to think harder about defence and deterrence in an eastern flank context thus leading them to argue for German re-engagement within NATO. Simon added that it would not be surprising to see Britain and Germany work closer in a NATO context while "Britain continues to cooperate with France bilaterally in out of area operations".
The second part of the interview looks closely at what the consequences of a Brexit for the Eastern Flank’s Intermarium might be and consequently what necessary steps should be adopted by NATO in the Black Sea region.
Some Eastern countries are looking towards a 21st Century Intermarium, are we going to see a reactivation of the German question?
The concept of the Intermarium was popularized by Polish Josef Pilsudski during the interwar years. It was meant to evoke the possibility of some sort of federation or association between Poland and the other independent states located in the geographical space between the Baltic and Black seas, placed geopolitically between Germany and Russia.
The preponderant European seapower of the day has traditionally seen an independent intermarium as a precondition for the preservation of a balance of power in Eastern Europe. Back in the early twentieth century, when the British Empire was the main guardian of the European balance, Sir Halford Mackinder warned about the perils associated with a German-Russian condominium, and argued that London should prevent the formation of any such condominium. To do so, he urged Britain to form alliances with the independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe, with a view to helping build up their own capabilities and autonomy. The situation is somewhat different today, not least given that Germany is deeply integrated in NATO and, through its leadership role in the EU, plays a key part in the broader West. However, the preservation of an autonomous intermarium still remains critical to the preservation of balance of power in Eastern Europe – and beyond.
I would say that one of the main accomplishments of the post-Cold War years was the restoration of the intermarium. From a Western perspective, the independence of those countries is the best way to prevent the emergence of a potential hegemon in Eastern Europe, and preserve a balance of power on the continent. This is forward defense at its best. And I think this is a logic that the US and Britain understand particularly well, given their traditional preoccupation with preserving the continental balance. Today, the main foundations of an independent intermarium are its anchoring in NATO and the EU. The NATO bit is substantiated in a strong security relationship between the intermarium countries, the US and the UK. The EU bit is largely grounded in a network of special economic relationships between the intermarium countries and Germany.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing intimidation of some NATO countries signals that the viability of the intermarium as an autonomous geopolitical space might be in question. Against that backdrop, the US has taken up the leading role in terms of trying to preserve the intermarium’s independence, both within NATO and through a number of bilateral and sub-regional initiatives. NATO’s defence and deterrence agenda (which includes greater readiness, more exercises, training initiatives and rotational deployments) is ultimately about preserving the independence of the intermarium.
Beyond NATO, both the US and Britain are working closely with the Nordic and Baltic countries, and thus contributing to the consolidation of sub-regional defence cooperation in northeastern Europe. And then there’s the bilateral element, which is critical. In recent years, the US has set up of an Aviation Detachment just outside of Warsaw, has advocated for giving more resources to NATO’s Multinational Corps Northeast in Scezin, and invested in an increasingly close bilateral relationship with Poland in the area of Missile Defense. Something similar, is going on in Romania: NATO activated a new Multinational Division Southeast headquarters in Bucharest last year, the US has expanded its presence in Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base (southeastern Romania), and given Romania an important role in NATO’s missile defence architecture.
Washington has clearly singled out Poland and Romania as the main hubs for command and control, air and missile defense in northeastern and southeastern Europe respectively, and this bears witness to the importance the US attaches to the intermarium. I would say that Britain is also particularly invested in that process, as it has been rather active in recent years in terms of building up its defence ties with some of the countries of the intermarium, especially the Baltic States. This has happened both bilaterally and in the context of NATO, with Britain having been one of the main advocates of NATO’s security agenda in the eastern flank. A clear example of that is Britain’s decision to set up a 7-nation Joint Expeditionary Force aimed at fostering interoperability between the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and the three Baltic States. This initiative shows Britain’s leadership in terms of gathering the support and resources of other northwestern European countries with a view to strengthening a maritime line of supply to the intermarium.
In NATO, attention is focused on the Nordic part of the Intermarium, while its Southern part is deeply fragmented. Should the Alliance invest more of its presence (maritime, air and land) in that part of the Intermarium?
I think you are right. Perhaps we often tend to overlook the fact that southeastern Europe is actually the area where Russia has been most active in recent years. Moscow's attempts to shore up its geopolitical standing in the Black Sea are pre-date the annexation of Crimea. As you say, the 2008 invasion of Georgia and ongoing support to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia (situated on the Black Sea Basin) and South Ossetia are good examples of that. Then, following the annexation of Crimea, Russia is now in a position to earmark additional ships and resources to Sevastopol, without Ukraine's consent (as was the case before 2014). That has led to a strengthening of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and led to the emergence of an Anti-Access and Area Denial bubble in the Black Sea area. So yes, I would say that the balance of power in the Black Sea basin has been overturned in recent years, and this situation could be further compounded should Russia expand its influence in Eastern Ukraine.
In addition to that, the combination of the reinvigoration of the Black Sea Fleet and Russia's recent military build-up in Syria have led some analysts to speak of an A2/AD ecosystem in the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean. The proliferation of A2/AD systems in southeastern Europe and the Levant poses a problem for NATO, not least in the maritime domain. To mitigate this problem, I think the Alliance should develop a maritime strategy for the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps enhance the capabilities of its Standing Military Group 2. In this regard, a recent report by Carnegie Europe alludes to how NATO could leverage deep-strike, precision-strike, and stealth capabilities through advanced air platforms and munitions, both in the Eastern Med and in the Black Sea Basin. As far as the latter goes, I think it is particularly important to strengthen the theater air and missile defences of Romania and Bulgaria and invest in greater mil-to-mil ties with Ukraine and Georgia.
Photo: Soldiers from 35 Engineer Regiment in Exercise HECTORS TRIALS in Bad Pyrmont, Germany.