Banishing the Ghosts of Heldenplatz

NATO must hold together if it is to prevent a return of Europe's bloody old days.

On March 18, the airplane carrying the vice president of the United States landed in Vilnius. Joe Biden had flown into the Lithuania capital from Warsaw, where he had just held talks with the leaders of Poland and Estonia. The presidents of Lithuania and Latvia were waiting in Vilnius. One does not need to be an expert in international affairs to understand that Biden’s trip to Central and Northern Europe was prompted by Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of Crimea—a brutal breach of international law, unprecedented in modern-day Europe. Indeed, Europe had not experienced anything similar since the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia.

Of course, one should strive to maximize peace and order; however, this must be based on internationally recognized standards—not just those of one country. Russia has sought to justify its behavior as defending ethnic Russians. However, that begs the question—defending them against what? Against the way the people of independent Ukraine came out to the Maidan and exercised their sovereign rights to protect their democracy and freedom of choice in deciding how to shape their future? Or was the dismantling of the post–Cold War European order a deliberate step to restore the old European order of the twentieth century—the arrangement outlined in a speech on Vienna’s Heldenplatz 1938, in which the fates of individuals and states are determined by external geopolitical calculations and ethnic identity?

Moscow’s decision to annex the territory of a sovereign neighboring country in the name of such geopolitical considerations is not just Ukraine’s problem—it is a challenge to European and global security. In his March 26 speech at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, U.S. president Barack Obama stated, “To be honest, if we defined our interests narrowly, if we applied a cold-hearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way... Our own borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation. But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent....And that message would be heard not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.”

It gives one pause to realize that in the twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we’ve arrived full-circle to the very outcome that we sought to avoid—a European state can violate international norms without any pretext, ordering its armed forces to enter a neighboring country, hoping that the international community will simply swallow it. The shock waves created by Russia’s action are so impressive, that it’s quite natural to ask a question how exactly the international community—and the security structures that it has created, including NATO—should respond to the given situation. What is the strategic role and responsibility of NATO in this situation?

To my mind it is really very simple and straightforward—in every situation that threatens its allies, NATO must collectively guarantee the security of its members. In this situation there is no distinction between large and small allies—all are allies. The military capabilities of the United States are sufficient to allow it to provide its own security. However, if the U.S. were to choose to embark upon such a path, instead of utilizing the collective-security system that NATO offers, it is my opinion that the United States’ political influence on the world stage would be significantly curtailed. This, in turn, would have an adverse effect on U.S. security. Mr. Biden’s recent visits to Warsaw and Vilnius thus increased the security not only of NATO’s Northern, Eastern and Central European states, but also of the United States. His visits served as a manifestation of support for those Americans and Europeans striving to strengthen the Trans-Atlantic relationship on the basis of clear and commonly shared values—one of the most efficient ways of banishing the ghosts of the Heldenplatz.

It is deeply symbolic that this spring we celebrate the policy of NATO enlargement that significantly increased European security and brought us closer to a Europe that is whole and free and at peace. Joining the Alliance was a free choice of each and every new European democracy—nobody forced us to join. However, history had taught us that by remaining outsiders, we encouraged Europe’s undemocratic, destructive forces to adopt undesirable policies towards us.

That is why the choice that democratic NATO member-states must make in situations such as the annexation of Crimea is either to fulfill NATO’s mission—by increasing the security of those members who find themselves the most exposed along NATO’s outer flank—or to do nothing, in the hope that doing nothing will somehow lead the aggressor state to realize the folly of its ways and to become a better state. The cost of the first option will be high, but the cost of the second option will be catastrophic.