Security in Central Europe

15. 3. 2017

What threatens our security is to a large extent of our own making. External threats mostly respond to risks and vulnerabilities that are the fruit of our own lack of consistency and professionalism and of our corruption.

The identification and assessment of threats is an essential prerequisite of a security policy, facilitating the development of appropriate tools and skills that make the most effective use of limited public funds in order to ensure an acceptable degree of security for state and society. What constitutes the most serious security threat at a given time and at a given place is a matter of never-ending debate on both the national and the international level, and this kind of discussion may well be the most important aspect of security policy.

There are several reasons why this debate can never end. First, the external security environment in which we function, trying to achieve our personal and shared goals, is subject to constant change. The originators of security threats who had to be taken seriously ten or twenty years ago may no longer play any role today. Similarly, the significance of actors that don’t even exist at the moment, or whose existence we are not yet aware of, may well increase in the years ahead and demand the attention of those who shape security policy. In addition, originators of security threats keep changing their goals as well as the technical tools and tactical methods they employ.

Second, we ourselves change and so does our notion of our interests and of ourselves. The values and interests we once regarded as marginal (or did not consider at all) may gain in importance. As a result of the steadily increasing complexity of post-industrial societies, the number of vulnerable critical points, whose disruption can fatally impact the safeguarding of the personal safety and livelihoods of millions of people, is constantly growing. Our grandfathers had to face a number of security challenges a century ago but, cyber security or the security of natural gas supplies certainly didn’t feature among them.

In addition to this material dimension every society also changes in the realm of ideas. Its ambitions in terms of the desirable level of personal freedom, security, and living standards continue to evolve and its idea of the character of its external engagement and its perception abroad also changes.

After the Cold War

All this suggests that the character of security threats any given society perceives and prepares for by means of its security policy is not constant and objective, but rather derives from its selfimage and its domestic as well as international ambitions, which change over time. Central European societies in the post-Cold War era are no exception.

In other words, the perception and assessment of security threats derives primarily from a collective identity and the values on which it is based. Do we value political autonomy more highly than economic prosperity? Is personal freedom more important to us than the protection of our physical safety? Does imperial grandeur constitute a higher value than a focus on domestic affairs and limited engagement abroad? Is it preferable to integrate into global culture and economy or to preserve specific local traditions? Do we wish to be perceived as part of a wider international community or do we rather want to distance ourselves from it? How important a role should government play in the economy and to what extent is it responsible for safeguarding the requirements of economic development, for example, in terms of access to sources of energy?

Each society has to come up with its own answers to these kinds of questions, depending on the aggregate values that define its collective identity. These questions deal with value judgements and emotional bonds and therefore cannot be answered on a technical level. It is the events and factors threatening the survival of key values linked to the collective identity that are regarded as security threats. The identity-values-threats sequence thus articulates the bond between a society’s self-perception on the one hand and, on the other, the security risks it perceives as especially grave.

What were the shared values and sentiments used by the Central European countries as a basis for defining the security threats that they have been concerned about since the end of the Cold War? At the risk of generalizing we might claim that they were primarily motivated by an attempt to demonstrate their belonging to Western political and cultural community and thus to reaffirm their Western identity.

There are two ways of identifying security threats, one positive, the other negative, and the Central European countries tried out both approaches in their security policy. The positive approach consisted in trying to define their security in the same terms used by their new allies in Western Europe and North America, adopting the same language of security policy and thus demonstrating Central Europe’s compatibility with the West in terms of security. The positive identification of threats in the sense of adopting Western notions and concepts was manifested mainly in the wording of official security documents drawn up by the Central European governments and in placing threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction at the top of the regional security agenda.

The negative identification of threats was driven by the Central European countries’ desire to draw a line that would separate them from their own communist past, from countries located further east (Russia in particular), and from the volatile Balkans. In this way, Central Europe tried to demonstrate its distinctiveness from both the post- Soviet space and its own past, and to prove itself as part of the West. In post-Cold War Central European security discourse the role of the gravest threat of this kind was played by a revisionist Russia, longing to resurrect its status as a world power.

Terrorism And Russia

Is this kind of traditional approach to identifying threats to Central European security still useful today? Does an emphasis on threats such as terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and Russian revisionism contribute to a good security policy in Central Europe, or is it, rather, ballast that disguises security risks that are much more serious and more likely to be realized?

Keeping the emphasis on traditional threats does, of course, still serve some of the original purposes. It affirms the solidarity of the Central European countries with their NATO and EU allies, it makes the coordination of national security policies possible and it facilitates the development of joint instruments and skills within NATO and EU security and defence policies. Nevertheless, a certain degree of doubt remains as to whether this is sufficient and whether this kind of conventional definition of threats does not, in fact, prevent Central European societies from considering a wider context and broader challenges to their security, as well as from being able to admit that, rather than external hostile forces, such as Islamist terrorists or Russian generals, it is the problems and risks they themselves generate that are much more of a stumbling block.

Over the past decade, two key threats were at the centre of attention of Central European security policymakers. The first one entered the Central European security policy thinking with the adoption of the Western (American) security discourse post 9/11, as a way of signalling Central European solidarity with those allies for whom Islamist terrorism constituted a real problem, as well as their readiness to participate in joint anti-terrorist activities. Seeing Russia as a threat, on the other hand, was partly a reaction to the assertive foreign policy on the part of Putin’s regime and partly a legacy of the 1990s when Central Europe exploited the image of Russia as the barbaric East to affirm its Western identity. However, what does a critical analysis of the nature and significance of these two threats tell us?

In order to designate a phenomenon as a security threat, it ought to be an existential problem that jeopardizes the very survival of a society and a state, as well as the performance of its basic functions. Does Islamist terrorism constitute this kind of threat for Central Europe? Not only is this not the case—and it never has been—but Central European security policymakers have never really believed it themselves, in spite of what they have said in their own official strategic documents.

Not even a huge terrorist attack of the kind that took place in September 2001 could have significantly disrupted the functioning of American society and of the American state. On the contrary, some might argue the US government’s response to the terrorist attack may have had a much greater negative impact on the stability of society and its values than the attack itself. The same is true of the terrorist attack in Burgas in Bulgaria in July 2012 that killed five people and has supposedly incontrovertibly proved the graveness of the threat Islamist terrorism poses to Central Europe. Vivid images evoked by events of this kind should not, however, tempt us to disproportionately broaden the definition of what constitutes an existential security threat. While undoubtedly tragic, has the Burgas attack really threatened the stability of Bulgarian society and disrupted the functioning of the state? The answer is no. A disproportionate response on the part of the government would have been more likely to have a negative impact on Bulgarian society.

In the Czech Republic, some 800 people die each year in traffic accidents. By comparison, over the past twenty years not a single victim of a terrorist attack has been recorded on the country’s territory. The statistics from all the other Central European countries tell a similar story. Yet in the prevailing social consensus traffic accidents leading to the loss of life are not regarded as a security problem. And while most European governments invest in traffic accident prevention with the aim of reducing the number of deaths, this is not understood to be part of their security policies.

However cynical it may sound, from a government’s security policy point of view, the number of casualties alone should not be the decisive factor in assessing the impact of a terrorist attack, since it is hardly conceivable that the loss of life in itself might have the potential to paralyse the vital functions of a state. A terrorist attack has this potential only when it causes widespread damage to critical infrastructure (communications, traffic, energy, finance) which indirectly affects a far greater number of people, may result in a real breakdown of society, and deprive a state of the ability to carry out its functions.

For these reasons the concept of strengthening the overall resilience of society and its infrastructure has been gaining strength in the security policies of Western countries as well as international organisations. This means that, in addition to preventive action aimed at thwarting a potential terrorist attack, public institutions concentrate on implementing such initiatives and structural changes that will help make sure that even a potentially successful terrorist attack (or other security threat) does not result in the breakdown of state and society.

The perception of a revisionist Russia as a key security threat has been strongest among Central European Atlanticist elites. Neither the public in most countries of the region, nor the adherents of other political traditions have ever fully shared this view, except perhaps in the early 1990s. The basis of this “Russian threat“ is supposedly Russia’s attempts to resurrect her world power status and to establish her own exclusive sphere of influence on the territories of the former Eastern bloc, out of the reach of other world powers, the US in particular. To this end, Russia allegedly exerts political pressure and exploits economic penetration of the former Central European satellites, their dependency on the supplies of Russian natural gas, intelligence activities, infiltration (or outright recruitment) of Central and East European economic, political and bureaucratic elites and, last but not least, military means.

Although much of this may be true, pointing a finger at Russia as the fundamental external threat is neither credible nor productive in terms of Central European security policy. The first reason why this is not credible is that Russia lacks the economic, political and military capacity that would enable it to pose a real threat to the security of Central Europe. The second reason is that, with a few exceptions, Central European countries are clearly not at great pains to reduce their vulnerability to Russian pressure. In fact, their own public administrations themselves, through their ineffectiveness and corruption, provide Russia with new openings for increasing her influence. The perception of Russia as a military threat lacks credibility for similar reasons: some Central European governments that have referred to Russia in this way have, at the same time, drastically reduced their defence spending, essentially becoming fare dodgers on a NATO ride. Their rhetoric has thus often been in stark contrast to their actions.

The reason why this approach is counterproductive is that an unwanted consequence of overdramatizing the alleged Russian military threat to Central Europe is the symbolic depreciation of the reliability of the defence guarantees provided by NATO and the overall value of the Alliance membership. Furthermore, it helps legitimize Putin’s regime in the eyes of Russian public by providing an external confirmation of his narrative of Russia as a resurrected global superpower that inspires fear and respect in Europe.

To See the Beam in One’s Eye

None of what has been said above is intended to suggest that the traditional security threats, as defined in the official strategic documents of Central European countries, are wholly wrong or unimportant. In terms of day-to-day security policy implementation in the context of multilateral cooperation within the EU and NATO, a simple and conventional “catalogue of threats“, defining the lowest common denominator, is a necessity without which security cooperation would be impossible.

However, Central European countries ought not to forget that, in addition to these threats they also face a large number of other security challenges of a more profound and long-term nature, that are linked to specific problems of post-Communist societies. Yet these rarely make an appearance in their governments’ strategic documents focusing on security policy. Put bluntly, that which threatens our security, defined as an aggregate of values we care about, is to a large extent of our own making. All external sources of threats will primarily try to exploit the vulnerabilities we inflict upon ourselves through our inability to establish good governance. In this context, the fascination with external security threats often offers an easy way of diverting attention from our internal shortcomings and helps disguise the fact that external threats mostly respond to risks and vulnerabilities that are the fruit of our own lack of consistency and professionalism and of our corruption.

A good example is energy security, which has since 2005 risen to a prominent position on the security agendas of most Central European countries. Unfortunately, however, the focus has been narrowed to the problem of safeguarding natural gas supplies from Russia. This has provided Central European elites with a very attractive way of shaping the narrative on energy security, by pointing the finger at an external, easily identifiable agent whose established negative image they have, after all, long relied on as a means of defining themselves against the “barbaric“ East.

The monothematic discussion revolving around Central Europe’s dependency on fossil fuel supplies from Russia has sidetracked the critical reflection of the actual state and functioning of these countries’ energy sectors. For is it not the case that the fact of parts of the energy infrastructure in the region being in the hands of opaque entrepreneurial entities with dubious connections constitutes a greater threat to Central Europe’s energy security? Or the fact that Central European energy regulators are not doing a good job and their decision-making is open to manipulation by behind-the-scenes economic interests? Or that Central European politicians, while presenting Russia as a security threat, at the same time, in effect, encourage the penetration of the Central European energy sector by Russian capital which is inherently linked with the Kremlin? Or that an increasing number of Central European investors choose to do business in Russia and other post- Soviet countries, instead of trying to succeed in more advanced Western markets, thereby adopting East European entrepreneurial culture with all its negative characteristics? Or that Central Europeans let their state administration be infiltrated by Russian intelligence services?

It is, of course, true that as a result of the “natural gas crises“ of the past few years and the subsequent surge of interest in energy security some of the risk factors have been partly removed. Gas storage facilities and connector pipelines between Central and West European countries are under construction and Central Europeans are trying to get their EU partners to develop a European energy policy and a common energy market. These are desirable preventive measures which reduce the likelihood that an intentional or unintentional threat against Central European energy supplies can be realized, thereby increasing the overall resilience of society. However, the question is whether all this will outweigh the negative factors that are of a much more profound nature, linked as they are to the quality of governance and enforceability of law in the region.

What constitutes a greater security risk? Is it the fact that the Czech Republic receives threequarters of its natural gas supplies from Russia or the fact that ČEZ, the state-controlled electricity producer, has over the past few years handed out key contracts amounting to dozens of billions of Czech korunas to companies, some of which have no experience in the field, whose owners are unknown and which are registered in Cyprus or other opaque tax havens and show clear signs of being shell companies that deliberately conceal their true owners and their interests? It is hard to say, for these kinds of risk are very difficult to quantify. What is certain is that both types are important. And the fact that a huge amount of attention is being given to the former risk while the latter is being ignored is a sure sign of an imbalance in the Czech and Central European debate on energy security. If the latter risk is mentioned by the media at all, it is never in the context of energy security, although this is precisely the right context for it.

Our security policy should be based on the premise that its purpose is to protect us from challenges emanating both from external actors and from ourselves. It ought to protect us from risks arising from our own mistakes and omissions. This is the direction the development of NATO and EU policies has been taking in recent years, as the growing emphasis on the critical infrastructure protection agenda demonstrates. In this context, it is considered less important to muse on who the originator of the threat is and whether the threat is intentional or unintentional, than to identify the weak infrastructure points that are vital for the survival of society, and to determine what tools and mechanisms need to be developed that would remedy the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible, should the threat materialise. This means that security policy is increasingly shifting to prevention, i.e. the reduction of risks that might potentially facilitate the realization of threats, regardless of whether their causes are human or natural, and whether they are intentional or not.

Back to Basics

In the course of the past decade, security policies of the Central European countries have been dominated by topics introduced from the outside, in particular Islamist terrorism, Russian revisionism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This certainly had its logic given the historical context. Central Europe was in the middle of a process of integrating into NATO and the EU and the region was keen to demonstrate its strategic maturity by fully participating in the security projects and operations of its new allies. That is why it also adopted its allies’ definition of security environment as well as their assessment of security risks, although some of this had little relevance to the region’s actual situation. At the same time, Central Europeans came to believing that they had successfully completed their post- Communist transition, built stable democracy, and that any security threat would have to come from the outside. It is now clear that this optimistic belief was erroneous.

As said earlier, the perception of security threats and the assessment of their gravity derive from an aggregate of values that a society holds dear. Only a problem that threatens the survival of a given key value is considered a threat. What values do Central European societies hold dear and which ones do they regard as the foundation of their national identities? While, of course, public expressions of values tend to change, their essence is reflected in the constitutions and strategic documents of all countries in the region: the preservation of democracy and political autonomy, the protection of civic freedoms and human rights, the rule of law, a free market economy and protecting acceptable living standards.

All those responsible for security policy in Central Europe ought to bear in mind that their work should be guided primarily by the protection of these values. The provision of security is becoming increasingly complex and the boundaries between internal and external threats are blurred. The fact is that the proper functioning of domestic institutions is much more important for the security of Central Europe than are the activities of external actors, be they terrorists or Russian generals. The best security policy for Central Europe should thus be a consistent endeavour to build a fair and well-governed society. Activities such as developing anti-missile defences, purchasing advanced weapons systems and hunting for terrorists in the Hindu Kush might contribute to Central European security, but they are of secondary importance only.

Jan Jireš

Jan Jireš is Director of the Centre for Transatlantic Relations of the CEVRO Institute in Prague.

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