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Europe’s New Security Realities: Slovakia’s 2016 White Paper on Defence

Igor Merheim-Eyre
Commentary, 14 February 2017
NATO, Europe
Slovakia’s new defence plans deserve greater European attention because they are a good example of how NATO members are adapting to changed strategic circumstances, and how much they still need to accomplish.

Slovakia has adopted a new White Paper on Defence (WPoD) to replace the 2013 Paper. The Paper comes as fears grow in Bratislava following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its war in the Donbass.

In terms of priorities, the 2016 WPoD is not a major departure from 2013. It recognises the need for a better-funded, modernised force capable of responding to challenges facing Slovakia as a member of the North Atlantic community, the EU and, on the regional level, the Visegrad Group.

The WPoD recognises the need to increase both the pace of defence spending boosts and the process of armed forces modernisation, in line with NATO commitments.

The question of defence spending is further elevated since the US presidential elections, as the new American administration has been more vocal about burden-sharing by European members of NATO.

Nevertheless, the WPoD also shows that European states are spending more on defence, it is, however, only a gradual rise. For many of them, reaching the 2% of GDP spending commitment is unlikely to be achieved during the administration’s first term.

This will be a potential point of disagreement with an increasingly transactional White House.

For example, in the case of Slovakia, defence spending was slashed in the wake of the financial crisis, and only stabilised at 1% of GDP in 2013.

In 2015 it increased to 1.1% and again in 2016 to 1.16% (or €936 million). However, despite the positive trend, this is still below the pre-2009 €972 million per annum, and a far cry from the 1.6% Slovakia has committed to spend by 2020.

Modernisation is seen as WPoD’s Number Two priority. It builds on the recognition in the 2013 Paper that obsolete, Soviet-era equipment had to be replaced. This became particularly crucial after the 2006 crash of a 48-year-old Slovak Air Force Antonov AN-24 transport plane, in which 42 servicemen were killed on their return from Kosovo.

As a result, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) forecasts a two-stage modernisation: Phase I from 2016-2020 and Phase II from 2021-2030.

Under the plan, radars, early-warning systems and training infrastructure will all be upgraded. The armed forces will see the introduction of 4X4 and 8X8 armoured vehicles, the replacement of ground-based air-defence systems, the S-300 PMU and 2K12 KUB, helicopters and ageing MiG-29 jets.

The WPoD recognises the modernisation of the armed forces not merely as key to the country’s defence, but in a wider context as a step towards NATO harmonisation and, crucially, to decrease the country’s dependence on Russian hardware, develop resilience against cyber attacks and tackle disinformation campaigns.

Slovakia wants to have ‘good relations with all its neighbours’ and its politicians’ public statements often differ from actual policy. The Paper gives explicit recognition of the need to decrease dependency on Russia and is yet another major shift in the perception of the challenges facing not only Slovakia but NATO as a whole.

Therefore, where the 2016 WPoD does provide a point of departure from its 2013 predecessor is in the recognition of more traditional threats and an added sense of urgency to respond to a rapidly changing security environment.

Not only has history returned to Central and Eastern Europe, but traditional military threats are once again redefining regional security.

In this respect, the impact of the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Donbass are presented in the Slovak WPoD as major catalysts for increasing defence spending and modernising the armed forces.

Most strikingly, territorial defence and the possibility of a direct attack on Slovak territory is recognised once again as a possibility, a major shift in the perception of threats for a country whose armed forces have since 2004 been deployed on out-of-area operations as part of NATO-led KFOR mission in Kosovo, the UN Disengagement Observer Force peace-keeping mission on the Golan Heights or mine clearance in Iraq.

In this sense, the WPoD highlights the wide gap in Slovakia between public discourse and policy. Despite Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s now infamous comments in June 2014 that the presence of NATO troops on Slovak territory would be reminiscent of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia as well as his open criticism of EU sanctions against Russia, the Paper shows that the MoD recognises the threat from an increasingly assertive Russia on Slovak (and, consequently, NATO’s and the EU’s) eastern border.

In contrast to outbursts by individual politicians, a NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU) has now been established in Bratislava. Slovakia has also worked closely with Poland to create the NATO-affiliated Counter-Intelligence Centre of Excellence.

The WPoD may not be novel in terms of long-term planning, but its recognition of more traditional threats provides a new sense of urgency to both, increasing the national defence spending, and to make the armed forces capable of fighting twenty-first-century warfare.

Slovakia represents a case par excellence of a Central Eastern European state waking up to harsh new realities, in the increasingly hostile and expansionist policies of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Igor Merheim-Eyre is a researcher and programme coordinator at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

Banner image: A Slovak Republic 5th Special Forces Regiment soldier takeing part in a NATO exercise. Courtesy of US Army Master Sgt. Donald Sparks/Wikimedia.

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