by Andreas Umland
Russia’s recent actions in Crimea and southeastern Ukraine have motivated NATO to reinforce solidarity within the alliance and strengthen its overall capabilities. They have also, more specifically, prompted Romania and Poland, NATO’s two largest new member countries that joined the alliance after 1999, to try to redefine their positions inside both NATO and the European Union.
Until recently, Bucharest and Warsaw had not had much of an opportunity to distinguish themselves within NATO. But with Romania sharing a border with Ukraine, and Poland sharing one with Ukraine as well as Russia (that is, with the exclave Kaliningrad), the two countries have devised two novel regional collaboration schemes aimed at enhancing their positions within both NATO and EU: the Bucharest Nine (B9) and the Three Seas Initiative (3SI).
The B9 is a little-known cooperation initiative among most of NATO’s new members. It was proposed by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, during the November 2015 Bucharest Summit of the Central and Eastern European States. As part of the initiative, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia agreed to develop a special regional cooperation group in support of NATO’s objectives that specifically aimed to improve security and stability between the Baltic and Black Seas. The Three Seas Initiative (referencing the Adriatic, Black, and Baltic Seas) was born a year later at the August 2016 Dubrovnik Forum, where Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, alongside Duda, proposed the creation of a north-south European axis inside the EU meant to strengthen eastern and central European economic cooperation within the union. It comprises the B9 countries plus Austria, Croatia, and Slovenia.
Both initiatives are related to, among other concerns, a new perception of rising regional security threats, namely, the increasing aggressiveness of Russia under President Vladimir Putin. Still, the two initiatives have until now had little geopolitical meaning. In their current form, they do not change in principal the institutional structure of eastern and central Europe, and neither has yet enjoyed much interest or sympathy from western European political leaders. Only Washington has so far shown some support for both initiatives. In November 2016, NATO Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller, an American, attended the B9 Bucharest Summit in her first official visit to an allied state. In July 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump attended the 3SI Warsaw Summit and called the event “incredibly successful.”
Trump’s participation at the Warsaw meeting managed to bring the 3SI into the international public eye. It has also raised suspicion in Brussels that the initiative might eventually serve U.S. more than EU interests. Many German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, reportedly believe that the 3SI is an attempt to divide the European Union and to balance against Germany and France within the EU. Croatian Member of the European Parliament Ivan Jakovcic even argued that the initiative serves Washington’s alleged interest by weakening Europe and reducing the EU’s global weight. The 3SI was indeed created amid some eastern and central European countries’ resistance to increased pressure by France and Germany for deeper integration within the EU on the one side and the promotion of an “America First” policy by the United States on the other.
Although Poland’s population is strongly pro-European, its current ultraconservative government has a preference for ties with Washington over Brussels. It has clashed with the EU over key issues, among them the European-wide distribution of refugees, as well as independence of Polish courts, media, and nongovernmental organizations. Bucharest, by contrast, is as strong a supporter of the EU as of NATO and conducts a foreign policy more in line with the Romanian population’s similarly pro-European feelings. (An October 2017 Parlemeter poll showed that 61 percent of Romanians think their country has benefited from EU membership.) Bucharest thus sees both the B9 and 3SI as instruments to enhance EU-NATO ties and eastern-western European cooperation rather than as platforms for intra-western bickering.
The presence of Poland and Romania in both the B9 and 3SI makes the EU and NATO eastern borders more secure. Both countries are hosting parts of NATO’s missile defense system and NATO multinational battalions, and both have strategic interests in the non-member neighborhood to their east relating to their historic, cultural, linguistic ties (Poland with Ukraine and Belarus; Romania with the Republic of Moldova). Bucharest and Warsaw seem to have learned the lessons of the useless earlier competition between the Black Sea Synergy (BSS)—a project of Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania launched in 2008 with the purpose of increasing EU cooperation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine—and the Eastern Partnership—a Polish-Swedish initiative aiming to bring Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine closer to the EU without offering them membership perspectives. The BSS has diminished in importance as Romania has started to express more explicit support for the Eastern Partnership. In the case of the B9 and 3SI, Bucharest and Warsaw have worked together from the beginning in order to consolidate the entire EU and NATO eastern border.
In their current forms, however, the B9 and 3SI only marginally improve eastern and central European stability, security, and prosperity. It is not clear, for instance, whether the 3SI can substantively improve upon the EU’s older, well-financed, and far more comprehensive Trans-European Transport Network initiative, which includes all 3SI member countries as well as, since 2017, to some degree the Eastern Partnership countries. The initiative “supports the completion of 30 Priority Projects, representing high European added value, as well as projects of common interest and traffic management systems that will play a key role in facilitating the mobility of goods and passengers within the EU.” Equally, it remains to be seen what the current B9 group can provide to the region’s security that will go beyond the guarantees, activities, and resources that NATO is already providing to its eastern member states, in any way. Without distinguishable and significant missions of their own, the B9 and 3SI may remain mere talking clubs without any recognizable impact. Their meetings may even serve to alienate other European countries not included in them.
The obvious way for the B9 and 3SI to add value to the status quo would be to extend their membership to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, with which both initiatives’ member states are all indirectly linked via the Eastern Partnership program. In 2014–17, these three states and the European Union ratified far-reaching association agreements that comprise not only economic clauses but also mutual foreign policy and security obligations that would gradually align the associated countries with the EU’s full members. By including the three Eastern Partnership states, it would become clear to both initiatives’ current populations, as well as to the EU’s central institutions and NATO headquarters, why the B9 and 3SI have been created and what their purpose is. The two groups would obtain clearly definable, fully distinct, and important tasks: they would be called upon to strengthen the eastern dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy and support the implementation of the EU’s association agreements.
Above all, the 3SI and B9 could help to significantly support the development and security of those post-Soviet countries that are already close to the EU yet will, for the foreseeable future, remain within Europe’s gray zone and thus face especially high risks and demanding challenges. In both practical and symbolic terms, the two initiatives could become major drivers of the Euro-Atlantic integration of the three Eastern Partnership participants, fill their association processes with political as well as economic substance, and help to prepare them for future membership in both the EU and NATO. They would signal to Moscow that the current 3SI and B9 members have common interests with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia and that these post-Soviet states’ stability, security, and prosperity are of importance to the entire eastern and central European region—whether covered by NATO and the EU or not.
By officially aligning themselves with the three gray zone countries, the 3SI and B9 participants would increase the stakes of possible future Russian escalation in the EU’s eastern neighborhood. To be sure, neither organization is a world political actor comparable to the EU or NATO. They would not be able to help Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine much in solving their territorial issues with Russia. Their expansion eastward would still be in the interest of both the Euro-Atlantic alliance and its eastern neighborhood. By increasing the international inclusion and national resilience of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the two initiatives would help not only these three countries but also the B9’s and 3SI’s current participants to improve their own geopolitical position. The stronger and more stable the three Eastern Partnership countries become, the better off Poland, Romania, and the other member countries will be in terms of their national security. Last but not least, the two new organizations will be helping the EU and NATO to fulfill their missions beyond their current eastern borders.
So far, an eastern enlargement of the B9 and 3SI has not been publicly discussed among the two initiatives’ member states or their potential new members. Presumably, there are major stakeholders or even entire national governments within the B9 and 3SI that would be reluctant to extend them beyond their current confines. It will thus take a larger debate driven by Georgian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian actors as well as their supporters within both groups’ member states to push the membership extension agenda. The major Western organizations and east-central European governments would have to come to an agreement that a restructuring of post-Soviet geopolitics in such a way is useful and in the interest of all parties involved. At that point, the B9 and 3SI could start gradually filling the current security vacuum in the eastern European gray zone.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.