Is there a weakness in NATO’s Eastern flank?

Despite differences in rhetoric, NATO’s Eastern members will all fall in line on the Ukraine crisis.

Danish Royal Air Force F-16 fighter jet during the welcome ceremony for the reinforcement of the NATO Air Policing Mission
Danish Royal Air Force F-16 fighter jet is displayed during the welcome ceremony for the reinforcement of the NATO Air Policing Mission at the Siauliai military air force base east of Vilnius, Lithuania on January 28, 2022 [Mindaugas Kulbis/AP]

In the current tense climate, Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that he has true friends in the European Union. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is certainly one. On February 1, he turned up in Moscow for talks with the Russian leader, as the threat of an invasion by some 100,000 Russian troops and heavy weaponry hung over Ukraine.

The official reason for his visit was to negotiate additional volumes of natural gas, following the signing of a 15-year supply agreement with Gazprom back in September last year. The Hungarian prime minister has brushed off criticism of the trip by the opposition and insisted that he was pursing the country’s economic interests and the cause of peace.

Orbán may appear to be breaking ranks with NATO and the EU in the hope of capitalising on his special ties to the Kremlin and there may be others in Eastern Europe that are careful not to displease Moscow. But that does not necessarily mean there is weakness in the alliance’s Eastern flank. If anything, the ongoing regional developments demonstrate the value of NATO membership to Central and Eastern European states, including Hungary.

For one, there is no support for Moscow’s demand that NATO move out its troops and military assets from the region, including in Hungary. In fact, according to media reports, the Hungarian defence ministry is currently negotiating the deployment of NATO forces in the country, in response to the crisis in Ukraine.

In the rest of Central Europe, Orbán’s political games do not seem to have resonance. The Polish government of the Law and Justice Party, which often joins its Hungarian counterpart in challenging the EU, has been one of the most vociferous advocates of a robust NATO response to Russia’s brinkmanship in Ukraine, going as far as criticising Germany’s reluctance to supply arms to Ukraine.

On February 1, as Orbán was heading to Moscow, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki landed in Kyiv where he promised military assistance to Ukrainians.

Romania, another country where there is no love lost for Russia, has also stood firmly in support of a strong NATO response to Russian threats. President Klaus Iohannis was calling for more American boots on the ground well before the current crisis started heating up and applauded US President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that 8,500 US troops would be put on alert for a possible deployment along the Eastern flank.

In the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – Russia is also unequivocally seen as a major threat, especially after its 2014 annexation of Crimea. For this reason, since 2016, they have been eagerly hosting a multinational NATO force – an initiative known in the military diplomatic lingo as “forward presence”.

Still, Orbán is not alone. There are other governments in the region which are loathe to pick fights with Putin. On January 25, Croatian President Zoran Milanović threw a bombshell with his declaration that Zagreb will not participate in a NATO military operation in Ukraine (as if one was in the works), calling it one of the “most corrupt countries in the world”. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković had to dispel the ensuing confusion with a public statement and issue an apology to the Ukrainian people.

Bulgaria is another example. In recent days, Bulgarian Defence Minister Stefan Yanev has gone out of his way to make statements against NATO deployments in the Black Sea country. In a TV interview, Yanev declared that in case of an escalation in Ukraine, Bulgaria would be protected by Bulgarian forces under Bulgarian command.

Of course, such pronouncements are only halfway sincere. For one, military bases in Bulgaria, as well as in neighbouring Romania, already host US troops for training and force projection purposes, as part of a military cooperation agreement signed with the US in 2006. And as in the Baltics, NATO allies also carry out air policing in Bulgaria. In fact, on January 21, the Dutch defence ministry announced it would send F-35 fighter jets to beef up the mission. In other words, NATO is already present militarily in Bulgaria which it sees as a front-line state.

Regardless of public pronouncements and political games of some politicians from NATO’s Eastern members, the ongoing standoff around Ukraine has proven to Central and Eastern Europeans the value of NATO membership. Had it not been for the security guarantees extended by the US and its allies, the countries of the former Warsaw Pact could have faced the same predicament as Kyiv. At the minimum, they would have been more vulnerable to what scholar Mark Galeotti describes as the Kremlin’s “heavy metal diplomacy” – the use of military threats to coerce neighbouring governments into making concessions.

That applies as much to the hawks in Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries as it does to the doves in Budapest and Sofia. Orbán will no doubt continue to play his complex game, trying to win favours from the Russians, but he will do so from the security of being within NATO as well as the EU. The Bulgarian cabinet may take extra care not to provoke Russia but, in the end, it still depends on the extra layer of protection the Atlantic Alliance offers for its national security.

When the chips are down, all Central and Eastern European countries will go along with the Western response to Russia, whether it is tougher sanctions or additional troop deployments on NATO’s borders. Some in the region might have second thoughts about it, complain in public, or keep their head down out of fear from Russian reprisals, but the direction of travel is clear.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.