A wishful thinking? Military cooperation in the Visegrad Group

Despite certain undeniable achievements, regional cooperation in the Visegrad Group is definitely below its potential. The hard security sphere represents the most striking example of underperformance of the V4. Unfortunately, the likelihood of reinvigoration of cooperation in the security dimension is near zero because of a huge and ever-deepening gap in military capabilities and defense spending between Poland and other Visegrad states.

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Development of military cooperation in the V4 just after its establishment stalled largely because the Czech and Slovak governments were generally ill-disposed towards it, although for opposite reasons. The Czech Republic was better prepared for NATO membership than other Central European states and believed that defense cooperation in the V4 format could become a burden on its path to joining the Euro-Atlantic structure. On the other hand, Slovakia, ruled by a soft authoritarian, pro-Russian regime lacked interest in cooperation which had NATO integration as a common umbrella.

Slow beginnings

The change of government in 1998 in Slovakia and the official invitation to join NATO provided incentives for resuming cooperation. The V4 established six working groups, which served mainly to coordinate the process of NATO accession. After Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO in 1999, an idea quickly emerged to create a joint Polish-Czech-Slovak Brigade, which was supposed to support Slovakia’s bid.  Unfortunately, after Slovakia caught up and joined NATO in 2004, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw gave up on the idea, as it turned out to be perceived only as an instrument of support for Slovakia in the pre-accession period.  After the accession to NATO, military cooperation in the V4 very rarely took the form of joint collaboration in NATO’s foreign operations. Individual V4 members were much more focused on developing cooperation with the “old” members of NATO. The Czech-Slovak battalions in the KFOR (Kosovo) and in Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq, the deployment of Slovak and Hungarian contingents in the Polish sector in Iraq, and the creation of the Czech-Slovak EU battle group in 2009 were exceptions to the rule.

The regional cooperation of the V4 in the framework of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) also faced serious obstacles.  Although the chiefs of staff of V4 armed forces discussed in 2007 the concept of a Visegrad Battle Group (which would include Ukraine), work on it dragged on because of insufficient political will. The project gained momentum only in May 2011 when the defense ministers of the Visegrad countries finally decided to create a V4 Battle Group, which is supposed to begin its first duty in the first half of 2016.

By comparison, between 2009 and 2012, Poland and Slovakia took part in the Battle Group I-2010 together with Germany, Latvia and Lithuania and  each of the V4 states joined separately various other EU battle groups. The V4 failed also to undertake a common stance on acquisitions of new military equipment. The best evidence of the failure of regional cooperation was divergence of positions on the acquisition of new fighter aircraft. The Czech Republic and Hungary leased the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen, while Slovakia kept its Russian MiG-29s and Poland purchased the American F-16. In 2009, the V4 established four working groups intended to assure consultations on the purchase of new armaments and cooperation between their defense industries, a harmonization of national laws and the creation of strategic documents. However, the V4 countries failed to implement joint research projects or carry out joint upgrades and acquisitions. The outcome of the working groups was just the issuance of general declarations. Again, the foundations of political determination turned out to be rather shallow.

Why does it work in the North and not in the V4?

The shortcomings of V4 cooperation in the security sector are obvious also in comparison with the performance of another regional grouping – the Nordic Council. The Nordic states lack a common institutional framework. Norway and Iceland are not in the EU, Finland is not in NATO, and Denmark, although both an EU and NATO member, has derogations on CSDP. Yet, in 2009, these five states managed to establish the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), with a permanent structure. In recent years, the Nordic countries have enhanced their cooperation on the development and purchase of armaments and military equipment. They have strengthened efforts to upgrade their military capabilities and increased cooperation on exercises, training and international deployments.

Several factors facilitated an establishment of NORDEFCO. The Nordic states have a similar geopolitical location. The solid foundation for their military cooperation illustrated the rather high level of regional integration among the Nordic states.  Of course, size matters. The structural proximity of the small Nordic states prompted their military cooperation. The Nordic states share also cultural proximity and basic assumptions concerning threats and security providers. All the Nordic states perceive NATO as the guarantor of regional security. Certainly, the war in Georgia in 2008 strengthened their perception of Russia as a potential threat. Simultaneously, the United States’ decreasing military presence in Europe and decreasing relevance of the NATO and the CSDP stimulated closer cooperation between the Nordic states.

Certainly, NORDEFCO has its limits. Its transition into a fully fledged military alliance is unlikely, as Norway and Denmark believe this would undermine the role of NATO in ensuring security in Europe. Nevertheless, if regional cooperation is generally bringing positive tangible results, in the medium term the Nordic countries will probably seek to further harmonize their defence planning and make more joint procurements of military equipment. In case of the V4, this level of military cooperation and relatively positive prospects for its further enhancement look highly unlikely.

The underperformance of the V4 could be explained by various reasons, including different geopolitical sensitivities, bilateral tensions and lack of mutual trust. For instance, Slovakia’s and Hungary’s relations with Russia are decisively better than the Polish-Russian relationship.  Slovak-Hungarian tensions often create hurdles for a comprehensive V4 format. Nevertheless, it seems that the rising gap in military capabilities and expenditures between Poland and remaining V4 countries constitutes the main challenge for an increase of regional cooperation in the security sphere under the umbrella of the V4.  According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Poland’s 2002 military expenditures, measured in constant USD (2010), was equal to the combined defense spending of the remaining V4 countries.  Currently, Poland’s defense budget is more than two times larger than the combined budgets of its Visegrad partners. Poland allocates for its military expenditures about 1.8-1.9% of its GDP; other Visegrad countries spend 0.9-1.1% of their GDP.

More budget cuts to come

While it is commonly argued that severe cuts in military expenditures in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia were caused by the global economic crisis, a closer look reveals that the slashes in military expenditures started well before the crisis. In the coming years, defense spending in those countries is not going to increase and could further decrease. This phenomenon is structurally rooted in the perceived lack of a serious security threat and limited ambitions in foreign policy.

Between 2005 and 2008, Czech military expenditures decreased in absolute numbers by 25% and its share in the GDP fell down from 2% to 1.4%. Cuts of this kind occurred to a lesser extent in Slovakia and Hungary. The prospects for this negative trend to reverse look rather gloomy. Despite an impressive economic recovery, Slovakia will cut defense spending in 2013 to less than 1 percent of the country’s GDP, slashing it by 6.5 percent in comparison to spending in 2012.

The discrepancy in defense spending between Poland and its V4 partners can be expected, taking into consideration the lower prospects of economic growth foreseen for Hungary and to a lesser degree for the Czech Republic in the coming years. The negligence of security by Bratislava, Prague and Hungary can be exposed most vividly by comparison with Portugal, which struggles with a much severe economic crisis but between 2009 and 2011 maintained its defense spending at more or less the same levels as it did before the crisis.

Austerity measures adopted in the wake of the economic crisis severely hit defense investment (procurement, modernization of equipment, R&D) in smaller V4 states. For instance, the share of defense investment in the Czech Republic’s total military expenditures halved between 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile, Poland has increased the share of its defense investment almost 30% since 2009. Currently, Poland’s defense investment is five times larger than total defense investment of remaining V4 countries. In effect, the gap between Poland and the other Visegrad countries has turned into the abyss. For example, Poland has recently launched an ambitious program to modernize its armed forces with an investment of $45 billion through 2020. On the other hand, Slovakia soon could be forced to ask the NATO to provide air cover over its territory if Bratislava decides to retire its aging Mig-29 fighters without replacing them, a probable scenario.

Thus, a significant increase of military cooperation in the V4 is unfortunately rather wishful thinking. Most probably, a substantial enhancement of Polish military capabilities will convince Warsaw to look for strengthening of cooperation in its neighbors outside the V4. In addition to Germany, the most natural partners for Poland are the Nordic states. Even now, some of them possess slightly larger military capabilities than Poland. A convergence of the Polish and Nordic military can facilitate cooperation between them, particularly taking into account that there is also a growing perception of the threat posed by Russia’s program of armed forces modernization and an assertive foreign policy.

Adam Balcer

Adam Balcer

is Programme Director "The EU and the new global contract" at demosEUROPA - Centre for European Strategy. urrently, he is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer at the Centre for East European Studies, the University of Warsaw.