Old and New Europe After NATO

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Forgive the Eastern Europeans for failing to fixate with the rest of the world on the outcome of the "Arab Spring." The region that gave us Prague Spring - the 1968 antecedent for this season's uprisings, which ended with tanks and tragedy - is entitled to skepticism about the ultimate winner in the battle between revolution and repression.

It's not just that Eastern Europeans have seen this movie before. There's another reason to be otherwise occupied: Europe - at least it's eastern edge - is undergoing its own reordering, and it has little to do with the global financial crisis and its aftermath.

Evidence is scattered across several ostensibly different domains, but the cumulative effect of several recent regional policy decisions suggests a new pattern for the nations of Eastern Europe.

Start with energy, and the recent announcement by Germany that - in the aftermath of Japan's Fukushima experience - Europe's largest economy would retire all nuclear power plants by 2022. The embrace of unilateral nuclear (energy) disarmament puts Germany on a crash effort to develop a sustainable substitute for the 25 percent of its annual electricity consumption that was provided by nuclear power.

As a long-term solution, Germany has made clear its preference to shift to renewables like wind, biomass and solar. But with seven of Germany's 12 nuclear power plants already off-line - they were shut down "temporarily" in March as a precaution after Fukushima; now with the May announcement, temporary becomes permanent - the task of replacing nuclear power begins now. Near-term, Germany has several directions it can take.

It can turn to France, which remains committed to nuclear power, and import nuclear-produced energy - at comparable cost, but incalculable hypocrisy. It can import Polish coal (low-cost, but high-carbon). Or, Germany can turn to Russia - presently providing 40 percent of German natural gas supply. For a hint as to which choice Germany may make, within 24 hours of the no-nuclear announcement, Germany's Economics Minister was en route to Moscow.

Germany may be comfortable moving closer to Russia, and perhaps its size and economic heft will give it a countervailing force to withstand the inevitable pressure from Moscow that will come from added energy dependence. Not so the smaller nations in Germany's neighborhood, with still-fresh memories of Soviet domination. For them, Berlin's no-nuclear decision - portrayed in Germany as an energy policy response driven by domestic political demand - has serious strategic ramifications.

As such, it underlines the wisdom of the second recent policy decision in the region: The announcement of the so-called Visegrad 4 - Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia - to field a battlegroup, led by Poland and outside of NATO command. This hardly registers as a withdrawal from NATO, to which all for nations belong, but it is a trend in concert with the prior formation of the Nordic Battle Group, a 5-nation collection of NATO and non-NATO countries. Taken together, Visegrad and the Nordic Group link a number of countries in the strategic seam between Germany and Russia into some sort of incipient and perhaps eventually interlocking defense arrangement.

Should the Visegrad or Nordic schemes be taken seriously? To be sure, forces earmarked for these multi-national efforts are small, and in some cases under-funded. Then again, can NATO's own obligations to its post-Soviet Era members be taken seriously? After all, in late 2010, cables from the WikiLeaks trove revealed that NATO planners were just then getting around to establishing a defense plan for the Baltic nations, NATO members since 2004.

To the Visegrad and Nordic Battlegroup Group add a third recent regional development - this one involving the United States: The decision to move forward with Missile Defense deployment in Romania, in the form of SM-3 interceptors, deployed by 2015. Not surprisingly, Russian officials were quick to condemn the deployment decision.

Just as promptly, Romania's president, Traian Basescu, blithely brushed aside Russian rhetoric, noting that the sharpest comments came from second and third-level "noisemakers," not Medvedev or Putin. According to a well-informed Romanian official, Romania favors a U.S.-NATO Missile Defense system, not the much-discussed Russian-NATO joint system: "We should share intelligence with Russia, not technology."

Where is the U.S. in all of this? That's hard to say, though out-going U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' scalding parting shot regarding NATO's slide toward "collective military irrelevance" - is Gates offering tough love, or writing the epitaph for the alliance? - once again underline that Eastern Europeans would do well to consider the benefits of collaborative defense planning.

In all, 21 years into the post-Cold War Era, comes evidence of the first tentative steps that Europe is re-organizing itself, not into East and West, but - pace a previous U.S. defense secretary - into Old and New.

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