The expectation gap was apparent during a joint press conference with President Bronislaw Komorowski, who welcomed the plans for increased troop rotations but also referred three times to the importance of having NATO “infrastructure” in the region, and disputed Moscow’s right to have a say in the placement of alliance assets.
Komorowski, speaking through an interpreter, said an important element needed to supplement the plan announced by Obama would be “the development of additional NATO infrastructure that is a prerequisite for the possible effective reception of the reinforcement forces.”
He voiced the hope that decisions would be taken to that end at the annual NATO leaders’ summit, in Wales in September.
Polish and other eastern European leaders have been arguing for months that NATO members along Russia’s flank would be more secure if the alliance located permanent bases in the region.
Russia maintains that a 1997 agreement on cooperation between NATO and Russia, known as the Founding Act, precludes the presence of NATO bases in countries that formerly fell within the Soviet sphere. Some longstanding NATO members are loath to upset Moscow by abandoning that policy.
But Poland, Romania and the Baltic states say Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has changed the security environment and nullified the 1997 understanding.
The Founding Act states that NATO will not pursue “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in eastern Europe, but it ties that assurance to “the current and foreseeable security environment,” and to a Russian undertaking to “exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe.”
“Since we joined NATO we have requested a strong presence of NATO troops – for instance, military bases in the Baltic states, or in Poland,” Latvian finance minister Andris Vilks told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle last month. “That was previously not possible, but now, Russia is becoming more and more aggressive and unpredictable, so I think a decision should be made.”
NATO has military installations in Britain, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal and Turkey, but in none of the formerly communist countries that joined the alliance in three post-Cold War enlargement rounds (in 1999, 2004 and 2009).
Speaking alongside Obama on Tuesday, Komorowski said no country outside of NATO had the right to determine what alliance members do – “and it also concerns the question of the presence of NATO troops and NATO infrastructure in the Polish territory.”
“What is most important for us is to make sure that there are no second-category member states of NATO, that there are no countries about whom an external country – a third country like Russia – can say whether or not American or other allied troops can be deployed to these countries.”
If approved by Congress Obama’s plan, dubbed the “European Reassurance Initiative,” will provide for more temporary U.S. troop deployments in eastern Europe, more frequent rotations of U.S. Navy ships through the Baltic and Black seas, and increased partnership with three non-NATO countries formerly under Moscow’s domination – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
During the press conference a reporter contended that the plan did not do away with the divisions between “old and new members” of NATO. But Obama replied that he had made clear at his first NATO meeting in 2009 that “there’s no such thing as new members of NATO and old members of NATO – there are just members of NATO.”
“And because that was my strong view then and continues to be my strong view now, I immediately pushed to make sure that we were putting in place contingency plans for every NATO member,” he added.
Obama went on to stress the importance of enhancing capabilities, training and joint exercises, but he did not address the issue at the heart of the question about divisions between “new” and “old” NATO members – the absence of NATO bases in the east.
In his remarks, Komorowski highlighted his country’s contributions to the alliance, noting its participation in the NATO mission in Afghanistan (Poland has currently the seventh largest troop contingent out of 48 ISAF contributors) and in air policing patrols over the Baltic states – one of a series of steps agreed by NATO in April in response to the Ukraine/Crimea crisis.
He said Poland would also soon achieve the NATO-wide goal of having its military budget at 2 percent of its gross domestic product.
Polish defense spending now stands at 1.8 percent of GDP. Of all 27 NATO members, only four are currently at or above the 2 percent mark. They are the U.S. (4.4 percent), Britain (2.4), Greece (2.3) and Estonia (2.0).