Does Europe Need a New Warsaw Pact?

April 15, 2016

Eastern European countries, in particular, should not rely on NATO alone.

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Late last month, GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump caused considerable controversy by arguing that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was “obsolete” in dealing with the threat of terrorism and a drain on U.S. finances. Speaking to Jonathan Karl of ABC News, Trump also noted that the fate of Ukraine, which has strained relations between the United States and Russia, is not of vital national interest to the United States. “Ukraine is very far away from us,” Trump said and asked, “How come the countries near the Ukraine, surrounding the Ukraine, how come they’re not … at least protesting?”

Contrary to Trump’s assertions, Ukraine’s neighbors have been vocal in their opposition to Russian expansionism. Late last year, leaders of nine European countries met in Bucharest to express their concerns at Russia’s “continuing aggressive posturing.” Jointly, the leaders of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia called for the creation of “a robust, credible and sustainable allied military presence in the region.”

But Trump’s comments, along with increasing financial strains in the United States and growing public weariness with regard to foreign entanglements, suggest that Eastern European countries, in particular, should not rely on NATO alone. Putting all of their eggs in the NATO basket could be dangerous and they should be thinking of an alternative.

Thoughtful leaders in Eastern Europe ought to ask themselves, how will NATO respond should Russia decide to invade, say, Estonia? A clear commitment from all 28 member states will be difficult to obtain. Some Western European states would presumably be much less willing to go to war against Russia on behalf of a distant Baltic state today than they might have been a generation ago, when the adversary was the Soviet Union and the threatened alliance partner was West Germany or the United Kingdom.

What about the United States? American conventional military power alone is arguably equal to that of the other 27 NATO members combined, and the United States also has a vast nuclear arsenal. But while the destructive power of America’s military cannot be seriously doubted, Washington’s willingness to wield it can be and should be. The United States, for example, might opt for stronger economic sanctions and eschew military confrontation with a nuclear-armed state — especially if war-weary Americans are dead set against initiating any new conflicts. In short, Putin cannot be certain of the U.S. response. But, neither can Estonia and other former Soviet bloc countries that Putin now threatens.

Given the questions surrounding NATO’s capacity for deterring Russian aggression, a more sensible course would strengthen military ties between the nine former Warsaw Pacts states currently in NATO, plus Ukraine, which isn’t. These countries could meet — say, in Warsaw, Poland — and hammer out a mutual defense treaty of their own. They might call it the New Warsaw Pact.

Ukraine is a vital component of this arrangement. Eastern European states, which do not want to border Russia, want to see Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity preserved. They understand that if Russia is allowed to swallow additional parts or all of Ukraine (excepting Crimea, which is already gone), the former will become significantly more powerful, assertive and, consequently, dangerous. Putin too understands that bringing Ukraine into Russia’s orbit would enhance the latter’s power and be a key stepping stone toward reconstituting the Soviet Empire in some form. For its part, Ukrainian leaders understand that without economic and military reforms, the country might collapse. Thus, while currently weak, Ukraine is likely to become economically and militarily stronger in the future. As such, Ukraine is destined to be a large contributor of manpower and military spending to the New Warsaw Pact.

If such a pact became a reality, would it present a more effective deterrent than NATO?

First, the good news. On paper, the member states of the proposed pact are, collectively, comparable to Russia in isolation. Based on CIA World Fact Book estimates from July 2015, the New Warsaw Pact states’ combined population (143.9 million) is slightly greater than that of Russia (142.4 million). According to figures compiled by the World Bank, the combined GDP of the proposed pact is $1.5 trillion. Russia’s GDP is $1.9 trillion. That, however, is likely to shrink due to Russian over-reliance on the export of natural resources and the collapsing price of its major commodities.

Now, the bad news. Trump has a point when he criticizes the meager military spending of America’s NATO allies. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that Russia spent 5.4 percent of its GDP on its military in 2015. The new pact states spent 1.62 percent, on average, well below the NATO mandate of 2 percent. That amounts to annual military spending of $66 billion by Russia, versus a mere $22 billion by prospective pact members.

Moreover, the problems afflicting the NATO alliance would not go away altogether in a new, smaller pact. But it would be easier to sort out the member states’ true intentions, gauge the strength of their commitments to mutual defense, and resolve questions pertaining to military inter-operability and response time, in a ten-member alliance than NATO in its present form. Plus, the New Warsaw Pact would have a single clear goal: checking Russia. NATO does not have as clear a raison d’être.

While it is true that Article V could be invoked if Russia went to war with a NATO member, Eastern European countries, in particular, cannot be certain that it will be. A separate defensive alliance might provide greater reassurance to these most vulnerable states, and present a more credible deterrent to Russian aggression.

We are both children of the Cold War. One of us, Tupy, was born in Czechoslovakia, just eight years after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. No one who lived through that period could doubt that the Warsaw Pact was a symbol of occupation and humiliation. In short, we appreciate that the mere suggestion of resurrecting the Warsaw Pact may open old wounds.

But the countries of the former Warsaw Pact who are now members of NATO are subject to a different form of humiliation: that of being dependent upon others for their defense, including people many thousands of miles away who have not recently suffered under foreign occupation.

The mere fact that a leading contender for the Republican nomination has dared suggest that NATO has become irrelevant surely must give some in Europe pause. And, for the countries in closest proximity to Russia, even the possibility that some future American politician might share Trump’s nativist impulses, and casually discard the promises of past presidents, must be deeply unsettling. We shouldn’t be surprised if they hedge their bets, and create alternative means for defense that don’t hinge on the vagaries of American politics.


Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, and Marian Tupy is a senior policy analyst, at the Cato Institute.


Photo credit: Sgt. Anthony Jones, U.S. Army

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

16 thoughts on “Does Europe Need a New Warsaw Pact?

  1. I idea that is overdue.

    I would try to add the caucus Georgia, Azerbaijan, and work hard especially now with the sour attitude to rope Turkey in. Britain the US would probably go for direct membership aswell.

    Russia is not the ole soviet union it would not be capable of major conflict on multiple fronts against medium to minor powers. If they stay divided Russia will claw its way back to the old soviet power by culling the weak out one at a time piece by piece.

    1. Russia is actually much stronger that the old USSR. They got rid of their periphery countries that were bankrupting them, but , much more importantly,now they have China as an ally both militarily and economically.
      The West cannot withstand this alliance.

  2. Even if this seems reasonable enough, it begs the question – what is NATO for in that case?

    All Russian neighbouring states has the same concern – Russia. That counts for both the post-Soviet nations as well as the Nordic countries and perhaps Germany as well.

    And if the US is about to relinquish its role as protector of Europe (it has to happen sometime), then a lot of other questions follows: without a US nuclear umbrella, maybe these border states have to consider a nuclerar deterrent of their own.

    It will be hard to outmatch Russia with conventional weapons any time soon.

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head: the purpose of NATO was to keep the U.S. — particularly U.S. nuclear weapons — tied in to the defense of Western Europe. Yet the concept was always suspect. Those plans were based on the Russians trying to conquer Europe all the way to the Atlantic coast. Countless wargames and papers asked whether the U.S. would employ nuclear weapons if the Soviets made it clear they sought more limited objectives — say, the Rhine — without coming up with an answer. It is surely stretching credibility beyond breaking to say the U.S. would employ nukes in the event the Russians overran one of the Baltics, or for that matter, nearly anything else in Europe right now. This isn’t 1955, or even 1985.

      On the other hand, the Russians are not the Soviet Union. Having sliced off a piece of ethnically-Russian Ukraine, they now have warned everyone to that particular scheme. All the Baltic states, if they’re smart, are coming up with plans for unconventional resistance, after conventional measures fail. Russia is also far more economically tied to Western Europe these days…and far more capitalistic. Finding themselves opposed by a European coalition — one made more unpredictable, and potentially more credible because it wouldn’t be tied to U.S. politics and opinion.

      1. Nudged the return button too early….

        That is, the Russians, finding themselves opposed by a European coalition independent of the U.S., might chose not to antagonize vital trading partners, or stir up an irregular warfare campaign that would keep them tied down for an extended period.

    2. Actually, it may not be so hard to fight Russia conventionally. The real question is what is the fighting will of their troops. Beyond Spetsnaz, can they really count on their front line troops anymore? Ukraine was a mess, still is, what does that say for the soldier fighting? Without Commissars putting bullets in their families heads, are they really going to advance into Estonia? If they do, are they going to be in a hurry? If they get their column shot up – even slightly – are they going to press the attack?

      1. “Actually, it may not be so hard to fight Russia conventionally.” you really should spend some more time at this WoTR thread. You are confusing fighting the JV team and Russian Foreign Legion in Donbass with what the Russian Army is and is becoming. And let’s not forget the Ukrainians who claim to have killed bazillions of VDV Russian regulars haven’t been subjected to a single Russian air or cruise missile strike. Hell, the Azov Battalion Nazis took back Mariupol using ‘armored’ garbage trucks against a few dozen guys with AKs, pistols and old grenades but they act like they’re some sort of elite fighting force while the regular Ukrainian Army not Azov bled and died by their thousands at Saur Mogila, Debaltsevo and Donetsk Airport.

        Anybody who tells you Ukrainian KIA are the Kyiv Post published numbers of 2,500 is blowing smoke up your rear. It’s more like 12,500 dead Ukrainian combatants to maybe 6,500 LDNR and a few hundred Russian ‘vacationers’. And that was without any airpower. If the Russians decide to overtly intervene they will encircle or destroy every major Ukrainian formation east of the Dnieper depending on how far they want to go in about two weeks, three weeks tops. And there won’t be any shortage of civilians in Mariupol, Kharkov or Slovyansk who hate this Kiev government’s guts who will be providing the Russian air force with strike coordinates to wipe out Ukrainian Army convoys, NATO advisers who ‘weren’t there and all.

    3. “Even if this seems reasonable enough, it begs the question – what is NATO for in that case?” I’ll answer that. What this article is admitting is that French, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Greeks and probably even some of Marian Tupy’s (Slovak?) countrymen don’t want to bleed and die for Donbass. Or Transnistria. Maybe a significant number of Poles and Balts are willing but even in Poland with the denial on the part of Ukrainian nationalists of the Wolyn massacres during a WWII, it’s only a matter of time before some disgruntled Polish colonel leaks that ‘ex’ PL servicemen have ‘died fighting alongside Banderites who worship the UPA that killed my grandfather’ in the Donbass.

      So in some sense this alliance was already tried with the GUAM in the mid-2000s prior to the Georgia war. Hardly any Ukrainians or Azeris came to South Ossetia to fight, though hundreds if not thousands of Saakashvili era trained Georgians are fighting for Kiev, and the ranks of Turkish mercs and Grey Wolves types seem to be growing in Kherson as ‘Crimean Tatars’ like they pretended to be ‘Syrian Turkomen’ before the Russian Air Force showed up to incinerate the Turkish MIT spook run border crossings in November 2015.

      1. Looking back, I’m still amazed that the Greek government wasn’t overthrown during the wildly unpopular in Hellas Kosovo War that Athens reluctantly participated in (amidst rumors that numerous Greek as well as French officers were leaking NATO target packages to the Serbs, hence the shot down F-117 Belgrade knew exactly where that Nighthawk was headed before an SA-3 barrage brought it down).

        As Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said some weeks ago, if Russia had been stronger and provided S300s in the late 1990s the illegal under international law air campaign against Serbia would’ve never happened. And maybe in that counterfactual scenario there’d have been no coup in Ukraine and Crimea would still be peacefully autonomous within the Ukraine (and yes, it is THE because the country’s name means ‘Borderland’ just like the Serb Krajina) today.

  3. Europe need to reintegrate Russia into European systme (Russia has alrways bee a part of Europe) snatch them away from their Chinese ally and tell the Americans to ‘sod off’ , worry about their own immense domestic problems , leave Europe alone.

      1. There is no ‘Europe’. As Henry K said back in the 1970s, ‘How do I pick up the phone and reach Europe?’ There is only NATO, an American led military empire with Europeans in it, and the European Union, an unelected, transnational bureaucratic superstate that was meant to be an embryonic world government or example of global governance on a regional scale and instead is a failure. Which is what Margaret Thatcher’s friend the Soviet dissident Bukovsky in labeling it the EU(SSR) said it would become back in the 1990s.

      2. When exactly? And under what terms?
        I seem to recall that Russia was keen to join NATO back in the 90’s but Washington refused.
        As for Ukraine, the United States was perfectly happy to see Kosovo, part of Serbia, split off into an independent state. Why shouldn’t eastern Ukraine be allowed the same opportunity? Because it doesn’t suit Washington is a lame excuse.
        Why should the EU be required to take on the extreme basket case that is Ukraine, that is getting worse because of Washington’s financing and backing of a putsch against a democratically-elected President. Please don’t claim he had to go because he was corrupt as the current president and government is far more corrupt.

  4. Europe does not need a cold war with Russia. Europe should work together with Russia and keep good relations since we are neighbours. We dont need the USA cold war dirty politics and their anti-Russia propaganda. Everything was going just fine before the USA start interfering in Ukrain to change the regime. The USA is using the NATO as their instrument to expand their influence towards the borders of Russia, to weaken or isolate the Russian defenses. Russia is in its right to defend itself to act against this agression. As a ex- special forces young veteran, i believe that the USA has become a global threat and a agressor and is willing to provoke a war with Russia before it becomes to powerfull. If i had to choose wich side i have to join in a war. I would join the Russians, and my comrades too.