Although the situation in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) seems to have calmed down, this is an illusion – the reality is that the threat posed by the Kremlin remains high. This forces NATO member states to act both unilaterally and multilaterally.
Russia is still interested in changing the international order, as well as weakening NATO and dividing the European Union. Russian aircraft are scrambled on a regular basis. For example, in January 2019, Polish F-16s, deployed in Lithuania on a NATO Air Policing mission, intercepted a Russian reconnaissance Su-24MR aircraft, while German EUROFIGHTER jets intercepted an Il-20. In both cases, Russian aircraft had their transponders switched off, while the Su-24MR also failed to respond on a radio.
At the same time, it was revealed that Russia has formed a new tank regiment, subordinated to the 11th Army Corps in the Kaliningrad Oblast – one of the most militarised areas in the world. According to a report published in Polish magazine Defence24: "The unit has been located near the village of Gusev, approximately 30 kilometres from the border. Usually, such a regiment has 90-100 tanks. Earlier, Russian media and the Russian MoD stated that more than 30 modernised T-72 tanks had already been delivered to the Kaliningrad Oblast and that another batch of 30 were expected [….] According to available information, equipment for three mechanised divisions is stored in the Kaliningrad Oblast."
Russia is still accused of using indirect, clandestine tools aimed at causing chaos and division among CEE states. For instance, in February 2018, a Hungarian cultural centre in Uzhhorod (a western Ukraine area with a large Hungarian minority) was burned down by three Polish citizens. This ‘false-flag’ operation was aimed at creating divisions between Ukraine and Hungary and between Poland and Hungary. The Hungarian authorities were quick to blame Ukrainian separatists, but after an investigation by Polish and Ukrainian security forces, it was revealed that these men were allegedly paid by Manuel Ochsenreiter, a German journalist with multiple links to Russia. At least one of those detained had some earlier contact with pro-Russian groups and the pro-Kremlin ZMIANA Party’s leader was detained by Polish authorities in 2016 on suspicion of espionage for foreign powers. Now they are on trial in Poland, accused of an act of terrorism.
In order to enhance the security perimeter in CEE, two simultaneous paths are being trodden. The first consists of NATO’s initiatives, which are a response to regional requests and expectations. These were vocally expressed by the so-called Bucharest Group during a ‘NATO Mini-Summit’ in November 2015. As a result, NATO forces recently reinforced several CEE states, which can be divided into several categories. In October 2016, it was agreed that Albania, Italy, Poland and Slovenia would contribute to the Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia, later also joined by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Spain; Belgium, Croatia, France, Iceland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Norway joined the German-led battlegroup in Lithuania, while Denmark and France contributed to the UK-led battlegroup in Estonia and Romania and the UK joined the US-led battlegroup in Poland.
Later, Spain confirmed its contribution to the battlegroup in Latvia. In total, NATO allies have stationed around 4,000 troops in those four countries. In January 2019, an agreement was signed in Vilnius regarding joint exercises between Polish and Lithuanian territorial forces.
Under NATO's Tailored Forward Presence, Romania hosts the Multi-national Divisional Headquarters South East (HQ MND-SE) in Bucharest, which became operational in summer 2017 and oversees the NATO Force Integration Units (NFIU) in Bulgaria and Romania, as well as commanding Multi-national Brigade South East in Craiova. Bulgaria is to be protected by NATO’s Black Sea forces, initially composed of about 4,000 Romanian soldiers backed by forces from nine other countries, as well as 900 US troops. This formation, deployed in Romania, was activated in October 2017. NATO forces started a maritime presence with more port visits to Romania and Bulgaria.
The UK and Canada deployed aircraft to Romania, while Italian Eurofighters joined Bulgarian MiG-29s in a joint air policing mission over Bulgaria. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have no border with Russia and have not requested deployment of NATO-led forces on their soil, although they fully support NATO’s activities and the decisions of their CEE neighbours.
In January, Germany replaced Italy as leader of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). This is considered the spearhead of the NATO Response Force (NRF), which is labelled as ‘a technologically advanced, multinational force made up of land, air, maritime and special operations forces components, that are rapidly deployable.’ VJTF is a brigade-size unit, at least 5,000 strong, while NRF, which was established in 2002, comprises 40,000 personnel. This year, the VJTF is based on the Bundeswehr’s 9th Panzerlehrbrigade (armoured brigade) located in Munster, subordinated to the 1st Panzerdivision in Hanover and integrated with the Dutch 43rd Mechanized Brigade. It is supported by the Netherlands and Norway, who provide aviation and mechanised infantry. France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania also provide forces.
In total, VJTF-2019 has a declared strength of around 8,000 troops. During the International Armoured Vehicles forum in London in January 2019, it was revealed that Berlin wants to equip one of VJTF’s tank companies with Rafael’s TROPHY active protection system (APS), which is expected to happen in 2022 and join the VJTF in 2023. The type of LEOPARD 2 MBT to receive APS is yet to be determined. Initial tests on German tanks are expected to begin this year.
More multinational initiatives are still needed. NATO has to build efficient and robust quick-response, high-mobility forces to cater for a sudden emerging threat. Any rapid movement of multinational forces means that borders of sovereign states have to be crossed – this is now always a legal nightmare, even if a state is a NATO member. In other words, legal procedures have to be simplified. NATO-led forces must be able to cross borders much faster – always, of course, with the consent of a sovereign host. In order to do so, NATO has to create its own Schengen Area, which will provide a freedom – within legal boundaries – for troop movements.
The necessity for a ‘military Schengen zone’ was raised among NATO leaders in 2015 and recently expressed by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Gen Frederick Benjamin Hodges, then US Army Europe Commander, said that, “ more than anything, we need a military Schengen zone, something that would allow a military convoy to move across Europe as fast as a migrant is able to move across Europe.” He revealed, as an example, that any move from Germany to Poland requires five days’ notice – definitely too long: within five days, all Baltic states could be overrun by the Russians. Another problem, still unresolved, is the so-called Suwalki Gap, a 103km stretch of the Poland-Lithuania border located between Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus. This remains a weak point in NATO defence plans, since it can be easily occupied by the Russians, who would then cut off NATO forces in the Baltic States.
The second element of building credible deterrence in CEE is to modernise national capabilities. The biggest regional spender in Poland, the largest and most populous CEE state, which now spends almost 2% of its GDP on defence. However, Poland has serious problems with technical modernisation, due to the inactivity of the decision-makers.
Several top-rank programmes have been dramatically postponed. Surprisingly, in recent months, Hungary has become the most active spender. In December it signed a contract with KMW for 44 LEOPARD 2A7+ MBTs and 24 155mm PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers at US$565 million. Hungary also ordered 12 used LEOPARD 2A4s for training. First deliveries are expected in 2020 and it is understood the 2A7+s will fully replace Hungarian T-72M/M1s.
At the same time, Hungary ordered 16 H225M multirole helicopters from Airbus: in 2016, Poland cancelled a similar deal for 50. They will be equipped with HForce weapon systems and will replace Mi-8/17s by 2023. Earlier, in June 2018, Hungary ordered 20 H145Ms.
All procurements are part of the Zrínyi 2026 modernisation plan, which calls for modernisation of 12 Mi-24 assault helicopters (6 x P, 6 x V), which are to remain operational until 2025. The first two of each have already been overhauled by Russian industry. By 2024, Budapest plans to spend 2% of GDP on defence, dedicating up to HUF20 billion on anti-tank weapons by 2026, and 10 billion on radars in 2018-2023. By 2026, Hungary wants to have 30,000 soldiers on active duty and 20,000 reservists.
In December, Slovakia ordered 14 F-16V Block 70/72 jets for €1.6 billion, plus AIM-120C7 and AIM-9X missiles. The first four aircraft will be delivered in 2022 (including two two-seaters), with the remaining ten single-seaters by December 2023. They will replace 12 MiG-29s. Slovakia is expected to buy 81 8x8 VYDRA wheeled armoured vehicles, based on Patria’s AMV, for €417 million. It is assumed that 70-75% of all work will be done by Slovak industry. In total, Slovakia expects to buy, by 2029, up to 404 APCs in 4x4 configuration for €1.2 billion. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic plans to procure light 4x4 vehicles for its airborne battalion, to be activated in 2020. Prague also wants to increase active personnel from 21,000 to 30,000 by 2026 and to procure 80 4x4 light vehicles for its chemical reconnaissance regiment. They will be based on the Iveco LMV 4x4 chassis and delivered between 2020-2022.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are active, too; recently, Riga ordered four UH-60 helicopters for $200 million, to replace Mi-17s by 2021. Bulgaria wants to overhaul two Mi-17 transports and four Mi-24V, simultaneously planning to continue flying an annual 900 hours with six MiG-29A single-seat and two MiG-29UB twin-seat fighters until 2020.
A decision on a new multirole jet is awaited; in December, Sophia declared its preference for eight F-16V Block 70 aircraft – up to 16 in total – to replace MiG-21s, MiG-29s and Su-25s currently in service. Up to $8 million will be devoted to the overhaul of 13 T-72M1s, while BGN810 million is expected to be spent on at least 90 new armoured vehicles and BGN414 million on at least 60 special and support vehicles. These will replace BTR-60PBs and, most likely, BRDM-2s. In November, Bulgaria re-launched a tender for two new patrol boats: three ex-Belgian WIELINGEN-class frigates will be upgraded.
Romania is considering procuring an additional five F-16s from Portugal in the near future and 36 more such aircraft from other NATO member states, having already bought 12 Portuguese F-16s for €630 million. Bucharest also wanted to order four new corvettes at €1.6 billion but, in January 2019, the plan was suspended due to legal issues over tender procedures.
Earlier, last November, Romania agreed to buy three additional PATRIOT air defence systems. Bucharest also wants to invest €137 million in coastal anti-ship missiles, to be delivered by 2022. By December 2020, Romania is to receive 18 US-manufactured HIMARS artillery rocket launchers for $218 million.