This work derives from a final report produced for the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea Program as part of a U.S. State Department Title VIII fellowship.
After years of provocations, Russia’s full-scale conventional war with Ukraine since February 2022 has eclipsed all other security concerns in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The war has compelled the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to expand its enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) regional deterrence posture from the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and Poland to Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, bringing the total number of multinational battlegroups on the Alliance’s eastern front line to eight, while simultaneously pledging to scale them up from battalion to brigade size.
NATO clearly recognizes that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “gravely undermines Euro-Atlantic security and is a blatant violation of international law” and rightly views Russia as a threat to itself. Russia has proven its ability to significantly disturb geopolitical stability through its invasion of Georgia in 2008, the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and its military intervention in Syria since 2015. Equally, Russia has been in a state of military modernization since 2008 and maintains nearly unmatched nuclear capabilities.
While its invasion of Ukraine has sharply degraded its service-ready and reserve stockpiles of military resources, Russia continues to pose a pronounced threat to Poland and Romania, the anchors of NATO’s eastern front line. Both states are important neighbors for Ukraine, influencing the war by facilitating weapon flows, training Ukrainian military personnel, and hosting refugees. Poland is key to securing the vulnerable Baltic States in the north, and Romania is critical for ensuring the security of the Black Sea region in the south.
The following analysis provides an overview of Poland’s and Romania’s engagement with NATO priorities on its eastern front line since 2022 and outlines their advocacy for increased regional security in multilateral formats. Drawing on the expertise of over two dozen Polish and Romanian security experts, it offers recommendations for an enhanced CEE security strategy for the United States, the leading member of the NATO alliance.
Multilateral Polish and Romanian responses to Russian aggression
Poland and Romania play an important role in securing NATO’s eastern front line by assuming an active defense and deterrence posture and hosting supplementary allied forces. Established in 2017 as part of NATO’s eFP response to the growing military threat posed by Russia, Battle Group Poland (BGPOL) is attached to the Polish Army’s 15th Mechanized Brigade and stationed in Orzysz, not far from the vulnerable Suwałki Corridor. A strip of border spanning roughly 60 miles and physically linking Poland with NATO ally Lithuania, the Suwałki Corridor also notably separates the heavily militarized Russian Kaliningrad exclave from Belarus, host to Russian nuclear weapons, troops, and mercenaries. A Russian grab of this thin choke point would completely isolate the three Baltic States from the rest of NATO territory by land; to deter or quickly react to such an unfolding scenario, BGPOL promotes combat readiness and interoperability through increasingly frequent training and exercises. The U.S. is the framework country of the battlegroup with a contingent of over 800 soldiers; Polish, Romanian, British, and Croatian forces make up the rest of the multinational formation.
In May 2022, NATO established an analogous eFP battlegroup in Romania, with France as the framework nation and Poland and the U.S., among others, included as contributing nations. The formation of Battle Group Romania was a direct result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and heavy advocacy from Bucharest to increase NATO’s presence in the region. Romania has also been host to NATO’s Multinational Divisional Headquarters Southeast since 2015 and the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System since 2016. Designed to defend against ballistic missile attacks originating from outside the Euro-Atlantic area, in particular Iran, the Aegis Ashore site is part of the U.S.’s contribution to NATO’s missile defense architecture in the region. A complementary Aegis Ashore site is set to be completed in Poland by the end of 2023, providing a more complete defense of the eastern front line.
Poland and Romania are vocal advocates for increased CEE security at regular summits of the Bucharest Nine, a multilateral format founded in 2015 at the initiative of Warsaw and Bucharest to increase regional security. The Bucharest Nine members have held several top-level meetings since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Notably, Polish President Andrzej Duda called for an increased U.S. presence and more NATO troops east of the Oder River during the June 2022 summit. Similarly, a summit in February 2023 saw Bucharest Nine leaders, along with visiting U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, signing a declaration condemning Moscow and calling for a greater Alliance presence in the CEE region.
Since Russia’s re-invasion, the other main theme for the Bucharest Nine has been maintaining and further bolstering support for Ukraine. At the June 2023 summit, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis expressed that Romania will “continue to support Ukraine as long as necessary. Ukraine’s victory in this war is our main goal. At the same time, Romania’s support for Ukraine’s accession to the Alliance is unwavering.” Experts are hopeful about the Bucharest Nine’s potential to bring stability to the region. Marcin Kaźmierski, an official from the Polish National Security Bureau, observed in an interview with this author that “the Bucharest Nine as a format has played a very important role in bringing perceptions that are a bit different, together. It has ensured that we as a grouping are able to speak in one voice.”1
Polish and Romanian officials have called for increased security cooperation at other multinational forums and meetings as well. For example, while the goals of the Three Seas Initiative format primarily revolve around boosting intra-regional economic cooperation, the grouping’s 12 members have jointly expressed concern about Russian aggression and advocated for closer ties among them. At a May 2023 meeting of the 3Seas Local Government Congress, Polish President Duda stressed that the strengthening of cross-border cooperation in the Three Seas area is a priority for members. This invariably fortifies the security of the region — an objective also shared by the government in Bucharest. Illustratively, at a June 2023 meeting in the Hague with seven other NATO allies and NATO’s secretary-general, Romanian President Iohannis stated that Russia continues to be the most direct threat to Euro-Atlantic security and advocated for strengthening the North Atlantic Alliance at its July 2023 summit in Vilnius. At the summit itself, Romania joined a G7 declaration of support for Ukraine. Furthermore, Romania signed a cooperation agreement with Ukraine and Moldova in April 2023 focused around strengthening the Black Sea region, and is set to host the next Three Seas Initiative summit.
Poland and Romania are responding to Russian aggression in the CEE by focusing on regional stability and promoting their viewpoints to regional and global partners. Explaining Romania’s position, Reserve Cmdr. Sandu Valentin Mateiu made clear in an interview that “Romania exports stability. We respect the status quo. We do not bother the others […] do not forget that we have potential.”2 Romania’s commitments to NATO’s goals in the region are steady and dependable. Poland, meanwhile, is beginning to understand that the Russian threat is global. Even diplomatic activity in some regions of Africa is “aimed mainly at explaining that the Russian war of aggression is a colonial war […] our politicians try to use our bilateral relations with countries in the South to send this message,” stated a Polish expert.3 Poland maintains focus on its regional security, even as it conducts diplomatic missions in other parts of the world.
Recommendations for bolstering the US’s CEE security strategy
Three recommendations are worth considering for an enhanced U.S. security strategy in the Central and Eastern Europe. These are increasing the U.S. presence in the region, encouraging burden sharing among NATO allies, and helping with infrastructure improvement and the building up of military capabilities.
A strong and continual U.S. presence is necessary on NATO’s eastern front line. Polish and Romanian experts noted that the U.S. maintains capabilities too expensive for smaller NATO countries to procure, such as long-range air defense. They stressed that reduction of U.S. troops must be avoided at all costs, since NATO’s forward defense strategy requires the deployment of significant numbers of troops and only the U.S. has the necessary capabilities. One expert stated, “France has one [military] division [stationed in the CEE region]; Poland has four… NATO will need something like 30 divisions to make its regional plans credible.”4 Concurrently, there is a need for closer security cooperation within Europe, and the U.S. can help facilitate burden sharing. For instance, one expert asserted that the U.S. must promote competition in the defense market by “not insisting on being involved in every deal; it would give Europeans a bit more impetus.”5 U.S. involvement must, therefore, be calibrated in a way that strengthens deterrence but does not discourage NATO ally contributions. Meanwhile, the modernization of military installations on the eastern front line is crucial to facilitating rapid deployments of support and regional forces. Polish and Romanian experts also made clear that continued U.S. help is needed in terms of reconnaissance, the development of multilayered air- and missile-defense systems, and coastal protection in the Black Sea region.
There is a convincing rationale for why the United States must not diminish its presence and activities on NATO’s eastern front line — namely, its credibility depends on it. A Polish analyst explained it this way: “If the U.S. doesn’t deliver on its promises, it’s the end of the world order we know. The international order we know is based on U.S. credibility.”6 A U.S. determined to deliver on its promises on the eastern front line will likely deliver on its promises elsewhere. An enhanced U.S. presence in the CEE region is also a solid signal of deterrence to Russia, making it clear that the region is not a buffer zone Moscow may use as a bargaining chip in future conflicts. The defense of Central and Eastern Europe is reliant on a strong Poland and Romania, fortified by unwavering U.S. and NATO leadership.
Yekaterina Klepanchuk is a Title VIII Black Sea Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute. Her research examines the defensive posture of NATO’s eastern front line since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
1 Kaźmierski, M. (2023, August 3). Personal communication [Personal interview].
2 Mateiu, S. (2023, June 26). Personal communication [Personal interview].
3 Lorenz, W. (2023, June 23). Personal communication [Personal interview].
5 Pszczel, R. (2023, June 22). Personal communication [Personal interview].
6 Smura, T. (2023, July 19). Personal communication [Personal interview].
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