To grasp how Vladimir Putin is progressing in his campaign to overturn the post-Cold War order in Europe, it’s worth looking beyond eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin is busy consolidating a breakaway puppet state. After all, Ukraine, as President Obama likes to point out, is not a member of NATO — which has extended Western security and democratic governance to a dozen nations that had been dominated by Soviet dictatorship.
So let’s consider Hungary, a NATO member whose prime minister recently named Putin’s Russia as a political model to be emulated. Or NATO member Slovakia, whose leftist prime minister likened the possible deployment of NATO troops in his country to the Soviet invasion of 1968. Or NATO member Czech Republic, where the defense minister made a similar comparison and where the government joined Slovakia and Hungary in fighting the European Union’s sanctions against Russia. Or Serbia, a member of NATO’s “partnership for peace” that has invited Putin to visit Belgrade this month for a military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s “liberation” of the city.
Then there is Poland, which until recently was leading the effort within NATO and the European Union to support Ukraine’s beleaguered pro-Western government and punish Putin’s aggression. This month its new prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, ordered her new foreign minister to urgently revise its policy. As the Wall Street Journal reported, she told parliament she was concerned about “an isolation of Poland” within Europe that could come from setting “unrealistic goals” in Ukraine.
Obama has been congratulating himself on leading a “unified response” by the West that, he claims, has isolated Putin. In reality, a big chunk of the NATO alliance has quietly begun to lean toward Moscow. These governments do so in part for economic reasons: Dependent on Russia for energy as well as export markets, they fear the consequences of escalating sanctions.
But some also seem to be hedging their security and ideological bets. They figure it’s not worth testing whether Putin’s reported threat to invade former Soviet-bloc countries was really in jest — or whether a NATO led by Obama would really come to their defense. Why else preemptively announce, as did the Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka, that his country did not want the troops NATO dispatched to Poland and the Baltic States as a deterrent to Russia?
Sobotka was trumped by Slovakia’s Roberto Fico, a former Communist, who followed up his rejection of NATO troops by dismissing Obama's appeal for increased defense spending and calling sanctions against Russia “suicidal” and “nonsensical.” Fico’s pandering, in turn, looked weak compared with the speech delivered in late July by Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who described Russia as an exemplar of how “we have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society . . . because liberal values [in the United States] today incorporate corruption, sex and violence.”
If this is a “unified response,” it looks orchestrated more by Putin than by Obama. “Some Central European politicians are angling either to remain below the radar screen — don’t speak up and make your nation the target of Putin’s ire — or to ingratiate themselves with Putin and therefore fare better than other allies when the waters get even choppier,” Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, told me. “The issue for many politicians will be how to survive when the Russians are back, nastier than ever . . . and the Americans are remote, available only for genuine 911 calls.”
Remarkably, the wobbling in Eastern Europe comes only a decade after NATO’s big 2004 expansion and a dozen years after Poland and the Czech Republic gratefully and enthusiastically backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What happened? As Robert Coalson of Radio Free Europe suggested, one answer can be found in the “open letter” political leaders and intellectuals from those countries sent to Obama in July 2009, when, during his first year in office, he launched his “reset” with Putin’s regime.
“Many American officials have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for all,” the letter warned. “That view is premature.”
Obama, it went on, was making a mistake to put relations with central and eastern Europe on a back burner. The elites rising in post-Soviet countries “may not share the idealism — or have the same relationship to the United States — as the generation who led the democratic transition.” Moreover, Russia, far from being a suitable partner, “is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.”
Obama and his aides furiously dismissed those warnings, angrily telling the open letter’s authors they were suffering from “Russophobia.” Five years later, Obama repeats their diagnosis of Putin as his own wisdom. But it may be too late: The “Russophobes” of an expanded NATO have been replaced, in more than a few capitals, with Putin-appeasers.