The transatlantic security system that has provided stability to Central Europe and the EU overall collapses. Hollowed out by a U.S. retreat from Europe, weakened by Europe’s reluctance to invest in the continent’s political cohesion and collective security and challenged by a Russian military build-up and hybrid warfare, NATO and the EU eventually fail on their commitments to collectively defend their members. The entire eastern flank of the bloc is thrown into acute insecurity. Central Europe becomes further alienated from its western European partners and seeks to bolster its security through bilateral arrangements with various external powers. Its domestic political and social life becomes securitised and intra-regional conflicts propagate.
The transatlantic and collective security umbrella – which has allowed European nations, including those of Central Europe, to build sustainable democracies at home and increased cooperation across much of the continent – is under serious assault from several sides.
NATO’s new sense of purpose and determination that followed the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 turns out to be short-lived; toward the end of the 2010s, the transatlantic rift, inner-European tensions and Russian geopolitical ambitions resurface more strongly than ever before.
On the transatlantic level, the ongoing and difficult-to-mitigate trade disputes have embittered the U.S. domestic opinion of Europe. This coupled with many EU countries still failing to meet the NATO defence spending requirements, and the once quiet voices in Washington calling for a more isolationist security policy start to gain traction. Exacerbating the situation further, the U.S. re-engagement with Russia is accelerating. This rapprochement revolves around a new “Grand Bargain” that limits U.S. security commitments to Europe and foresees NATO’s restraint on its Eastern flank in exchange for Russian co-operation elsewhere in the world. In the end, the U.S. practically ceases to be an actor in European security by 2021.
Within Europe, similar transformations are gathering speed. The illiberal course taken by Central European governments prompts punitive action by the EU and, even more importantly, discredits the historic eastward enlargement of the EU and NATO. Individual EU governments, from Austria to France and from Germany to Italy re-engage with Russia bilaterally.
The first victim of deteriorating cohesion in Europe are EU sanctions against Russia whose extension fails in 2019. In the following year, a NATO summit fails after several Western European nations led by France and Germany demand an amendment to the North Atlantic Treaty that conditions NATO membership to a clear commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. And in 2021, the U.S., the U.K. and several EU nations including France, Germany and Italy end, for different reasons, their participation in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. This series of political implosions effectively dismantles the European security system.
Russia, the geopolitical winner from this dynamic, doubles down its efforts to widen political divisions among Europeans and across the Atlantic through a variety of means.
The biggest losers of this decline in European security will be the countries of Central Europe. As they observe the waning of guarantees and support by Western partners, they develop a range of coping strategies, some more country-specific, others region-wide.
Poland initially pursues a dual strategy, followed by a third. Bilaterally, it seeks to maximise the U.S. military presence on its territory while, regionally, it co-sponsors initiatives including meetings with member states of NATO’s Eastern flank and the Three Seas Initiative.