Military Cooperation: A Question of Trust

Mutual suspicions continue to rule out large-scale coordination of troops in Central Europe


central europe preseidents

Czech, Polish, and Slovak Presidents at the V4 round table, on 5 May | Photo: APA/Jan Koller

Could Slovaks ever imagine allowing Hungarian pilots to patrol their airspace? That question is worth asking after the NATO summit in Chicago on 20-21 May, as ministers from Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic contemplate their first joint security initiative in the 20 years since they agreed on a pact of mutual cooperation in Visegrad, Hungary.

The question of mutual trust in an area as sensitive as defence remains key, as the discussions at May’s Visegrad 4 meeting in the Czech Republic highlighted yet again. The economic situation of the four countries and NATO as a whole has been pushing them to scrutinise every crown, euro, zloty or forint – and what they can’t afford on their own, they should buy or share together. In NATO speak, that’s called “Smart Defence”.

Last year, the Central Europeans created a working group of (non military) defence experts to explore possibilities for cooperation. Their preliminary conclusions suggest that extensive cooperation between the armies doesn’t look likely, although the four countries would like to build a joint battle force for the European Union by 2016. “Real savings won’t be achieved in academic discussions but only from deep cooperation, meaning full integration of units or equipment”, reads a report for the conference.

In the present situation of mutual distrust, overly ambitious plans are doomed. Experts recommend starting smaller and only then building mutual trust based on “pragmatism and added value”, as one of the authors of the report emphasised during a discussion in Bratislava.

The only well-known attempt for a joint purchase of equipment – light armoured vehicles for the Czech Republic and Slovakia – ended in a corruption scandal. As one of five NATO countries that are not reducing military spending, the Poles keep the level at two per cent of GDP and are planning further development. The historic role of the army in Poland is certainly different than elsewhere in the Visegrad group. On the other hand, the Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians are struggling with the sheer survival of their armies because of budget cuts.

When interviewed for this article, Boguslaw Winid, the Polish Deputy Foreign Minister for Security, said that there are some eight programmes for joint military cooperation in the Visegrad countries, but the different countries have different views of what should be done under the auspices of NATO and the European Union.

In Poland, for example, we are preparing a large tender for the purchase of helicopters”, Winid said. “All of us will gradually be replacing Russian technology, so it would be good to coordinate our approach and assume, for instance, a single [negotiating] position.” And he gushed about how satisfied the Poles were with the Slovak barrels that they buy for their cannons.

Cooperation in the defence industry already exists. But as Czech military diplomats say, the Poles, aware of their size and military spending, enthusiastically embrace it when Czechs buy from them, but are careful about purchasing elsewhere. And the Hungarians and Slovaks have virtually no money for anything other than maintaining current troop levels. Defence is a sensitive political issue: domestic military and defence industries are major employers, which in times of economic crisis carries greatest weight. Thus nothing is left for modernisation.

Close cooperation and “capacity sharing” is a novelty throughout Europe. So the new proposal that was offered in Bratislava could be a significant one for Visegrad and NATO: to set up a joint rescue unit that would help during major industrial accidents, like the dam that burst at a Hungarian aluminium factory in October 2010. But it is still just an idea.

A key test of mutual trust for Visegrad will be the formation of the EU battle group by 2016. The probability of any deployment of troops under the EU’s banner is so low that this initiative would be, above all, an exercise in confidence building. And if bankers can trust each other to the degree that both parts of the former Czechoslovak Commercial Bank (now the Czech and Slovak CSOB banks) have their servers located in Hungary, then the soldiers should be able to overcome the traditional regional prejudices.

Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodářs noviny, where this article originally appeared. Trans. Jeremy Drucker. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.

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