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Reassurance First: Goals for an Ambitious Weimar Triangle

Reassurance First: Goals for an Ambitious Weimar Triangle

Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Weimar Triangle (France, Germany and Poland)

By Dominik P. Jankowski, Tobias Bunde and Martin Michelot

The current crisis in Ukraine is a game changer for Europe. While it has reignited a necessary public debate about collective measures to ensure Europe’s security, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) immediate neighborhood has witnessed a considerable worsening of security conditions for some time. If the crisis in Ukraine cannot act as a unifier for the transatlantic community, it could well spell tougher times down the road. This danger would become particularly acute if the perception takes hold that the alliance has lost its credibility to deter threats. Therefore, if NATO members are truly serious about the current crisis being a “wake-up call,” they must not hit the snooze button. One response option is for Europe’s three “Weimar Triangle” powers — France, Germany, and Poland — to lead the way and propose a number of initiatives in the run-up to the NATO Summit in Wales in September 2014. These countries have recently begun to reinvigorate the Weimar Triangle concept.[1] Given their different histories and strategic outlooks, an agreement among them now would be a major step toward NATO unity on relations with Russia – and more.

A Common NATO Policy toward Russia

First and foremost, NATO is in need of a common policy toward Russia. For years, the alliance has been at odds over the question of how allies should define the nature of their engagement with Moscow. While many Western European governments, above all France and Germany, consider the Russian Federation a “strategic partner,” many in the United States and among other allies perceive Russia as a declining power with an inferiority complex. In this view, Russia is exhausting to deal with, but necessary for handling many international issues — for example, removing chemical weapons from Syria or finding a solution to the stalemate over the Iranian nuclear program. Another group of member states, notably Poland and the Baltic States, have always underlined that Russia remains a potential challenge for the alliance. After Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea, its ongoing destabilization efforts in eastern and southern Ukraine, and public pronouncements that it is willing to “protect” Russian minorities anywhere in the world (including in NATO member states), it is now almost impossible to talk about Russia as a partner anymore. Russia’s leadership, completely isolated internationally, seems determined to continue driving on the wrong side of the road, while accusing everyone else of ignoring the traffic rules. Quite ironically, Russia’s recent actions have made a joint NATO policy toward Russia and stronger military cooperation within the alliance not only more necessary, but also more likely than ever.

Yet, beside unanimous and clear condemnation of Russia’s actions in Crimea, NATO members are still not on the same page when it comes to short-term crisis management or the outlines of a Russia strategy. While Poland and the Baltic States have repeatedly asked for demonstrations of Allied solidarity and clear reassurance measures, other members, especially in Western Europe, have been reluctant to consider a strategic, long-term reinforcement of NATO’s Eastern flank. For several years, the alliance, which is built on the idea of collective defense, could not agree on contingency planning for the Baltic States. In fact, it was only after the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, that these plans were finally established. Furthermore, the lessons-learned from the 2013 Steadfast Jazz exercise, which were conducted in Poland and the Baltic States, revealed that regular and large maneuvers can constitute an effective and visible reassurance. Unfortunately, many members, including Germany and the United States, missed the opportunity to contribute significant forces to Steadfast Jazz. As the biggest NATO exercise in years, it was an inexpensive way of demonstrating solidarity. Even after the annexation of the Crimea, when politicians from Poland and the Baltic States began to call for the deployment of NATO troops to their countries, many Western European politicians still expressed reluctance. From their perspective, having boots on the ground in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania or Poland would only contribute to worsening relations with Moscow by giving the Kremlin another excuse to portray the West as encircling Russia. A tougher policy toward Russia, the argument goes in Western Europe, would not prevent further escalation, but rather fuel the conflict. Therefore, measures taken by NATO have so far remained limited.

Both France and Germany play a crucial role in this regard. Within the alliance, Germany has often been seen as the leader of the “bear huggers,” a camp in NATO that has put a premium on good relations with Russia. Opinion polls demonstrating public reluctance to confront Russia, as well as repeated warnings by German business representatives about hardening economic sanctions, have raised concerns about Germany pursuing a new policy of equidistance between Russia and the West.[2] While both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have issued strong statements denying this, neither official has sufficiently addressed the international perception that Germany remains the main obstacle to a common NATO policy toward Russia. In fact, only recently has Berlin reluctantly suspended its weapon sales to Moscow, which it had previously defended.

In France, public opinion still remains lukewarm about the role NATO should play in the region. Like Germany, France is among those countries that thinks of Russia as a “strategic partner” and has acted on this principle. For example, it signed a contract to deliver two Mistral class amphibious assault ships to Moscow, a move some allies heavily criticized. Given the post-Crimea conditions, Paris is under increasing pressure to reconsider the delivery. Yet, in May 2014, French President François Hollande made clear that his country would “for the moment” remain committed to the contract with Moscow. He outlined the heavy fines that France would have to pay if the contract were unilaterally broken and the loss of revenue for the partly-public French ship-building industry.[3]

As a result, both Berlin and Paris are facing pressure to convince some of their allies that they are fully committed to the collective defense of all NATO members. In order to protect the vitality of the alliance, Germany and France have an interest in promoting credible reassurance measures for those allies that worry about their security.

Why Reassurance First?

A plea for “reassurance first” is neither particularly hawkish, nor will it inevitably fuel a further escalation. There are a number of good reasons why comprehensive reassurance measures are necessary for securing a sustainable, peaceful order in Europe – one that opponents cannot undermine using brutal force. This is why taking a tougher stance will be more effective in containing a resurgent Russia and addressing the security concerns of all NATO allies. Missing the opportunity for credible reassurance measures, which serve to both deter and dissuade aggressive action, will by contrast make the security situation in Europe much more volatile. That could make the use of force more likely.

First, the Russian government has been testing Western resolve for some time, paying close attention to Allied reactions to provocations and calculating accordingly how far it (believes it) can go. One of the main conclusions from the current crisis is that Russian foreign and security policy has become openly revisionist. Just a few months ago, few thought Russia would be willing to annex Crimea. This played out as Europe collectively gasped at the pace of events, yet subsequently did not set red lines in case of further aggressive actions. Even more recently, few deemed it realistic that Russia would be willing to stage the same drama in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. This too occurred, leaving NATO and the European Union with a residual policy of engagement toward Russia. That policy never achieved unity and strength; and who knows what could come next? Is it really true that the Kremlin will not consider destabilizing or even attacking the Baltic States, a region that was part of the Soviet Union for decades? If NATO does not undergird Article 5 with concrete military measures, members on the alliance’s eastern borders will, not without reason, continue to worry that Russia will also test the West’s ultimate red line (Article 5).

Second, there is a clear rationale for certain member states to rethink their opposition to strengthening NATO’s defenses for fear of provoking Russia. So far, Moscow has not shown any willingness to stop its destabilizing and aggressive actions. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly talked about the West as “weak,” does not seem to respond too well to offers of “more diplomacy.” If NATO’s history is any indication, the alliance should resort to its proven strategy of combining diplomatic efforts with a credible threat of force. In the late 1970s, for instance, this dual-track approach (diplomacy and a credible threat) was eventually successful in dismantling Soviet SS-20 missiles. This was only possible precisely because NATO credibly threatened to answer Soviet missile deployments with a counter-deployment of U.S. Pershing missiles. Only if NATO now makes it clear that it is serious, and has a credible answer in store, will the Kremlin reconsider its strategy of provoking its neighbors and testing the resolve of the West. Then, perhaps, diplomacy might be given the chance to forge a lasting, more cooperative relationship with Moscow. As former Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev recently remarked in Washington: When dealing with Russia, empty threats are even more dangerous than empty promises.[4]

Third, the current conflict in the East has consequences beyond Crimea or the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. It is true that Ukraine is not a NATO member state and thus does not benefit from Article 5 guarantees. Yet, Ukraine is still in Europe. This is a continent whose peaceful development rests on a comprehensive framework of rules for all states in its neighborhood. And while claiming that NATO has ignored a number of promises that were never made, Russia has abrogated numerous legal norms.[5] If the Western community wants to prevent the valuable acquis communautaire from crumbling away, it needs to signal that rules matter. What is at stake is the health of the liberal international order based on democracy, self-determination, the rule of law, market economy, free trade and respect for human rights. The existence of this order must not be taken for granted, and needs to be protected and defended. Moreover, if Russia succeeds in its weakening of this status quo, other rising powers might see Western inaction as an incentive to foster their own alternative visions of world order. In this outcome the values we hold dear would take a back seat. Therefore, if Russia does not change course, the EU will have to adopt new, stricter sanctions and complement them with a clear military message. NATO, after all, does not just defend a specified territory but also a set of ideas, including the notion of each state having the right to choose its alliances and decide on its own destiny. That much is in danger.

Weimar to the Rescue: Why France, Germany and Poland Can and Should Take the Lead

In response to the current crisis, France, Germany and Poland have a leading role to play in forging a concrete, long-term solution on Russia. Ideally this would complement steps to reassure NATO allies that the United States has already undertaken.[6] While Berlin, Paris and Warsaw have a long record of presenting different perspectives vis-à-vis Moscow, the crisis in Ukraine could be the trigger for them to develop a common position. A joint initiative by the Weimar Triangle in the run-up to the NATO Summit in Wales in September 2014 would send a very strong signal of European unity to Moscow and provide a new impetus to the alliance’s core function of collective defense. It could also become a catalyst for strengthening Europe’s role in security policy – both through the EU and NATO.

So far, it has been mainly up to the United States to underwrite the defense commitment of the alliance as a whole. Given America’s budget constraints, as well as other daunting challenges across the globe, European nations must now assume a bigger share of this responsibility. This means that those who have profited from NATO’s security guarantees for decades will be called upon to carry out these guarantees for other member states. This is especially true for Germany, a country that once insisted on allied boots near the intra-German border. After the Cold War, Germany also profited tremendously from being “encircled by friends.” An agreement by three major states in the middle of Europe to establish a “Weimar force” would represent a remarkable step toward a more balanced burden-sharing with the United States. In practice, this could be a permanent standing force, which could be used either as a component of EU Battle Groups, as a part of the NATO Response Force or in joint operational engagements (within the framework of the EU, NATO or the United Nations). Best of all, this concept would have a number of significant advantages for all Weimar countries.

For Poland, military contributions to a Weimar initiative could be used to strengthen NATO’s collective defense as well as missions in Europe’s neighborhood. Meanwhile, a stronger French and German contribution to Poland would clearly signal a European commitment to the security of all allies – wherever they are located. The net result would be to create a more secure Poland, which in turn could be expected to contribute more to missions in Europe’s immediate neighborhood, for instance in northern Africa, where France has taken on the main burden.

For Germany, committing to a Weimar initiative would make it easier to gain domestic support for reassurance missions in Europe. This has not always been a given. If the Germany public sees that its military contingents are acting as part of a multilateral group, especially one that includes their closest European allies, Berlin might be more likely to contribute forces. By committing German troops to a Weimar force deployed to the Baltic States or Poland, for example, Berlin could refute critics who consider Germany a free rider European security. As Germany’s President Joachim Gauck said at the Munich Security Conference in February 2014, “Germany must also be ready to do more to guarantee the security that others have provided it with for decades.”[7] Cooperating with Weimar states on defense is one way to accomplish that goal. When it comes to critics, a Weimar force would channel Germany’s tradition of multilateral military cooperation, one it gained when the country was a NATO frontline state during the Cold War. Indeed, supporting this endeavor would be much more effective than lecturing the German government about the need to increase its defense budget.[8]

For France, a Weimar initiative would be another opportunity to demonstrate that it will act as a leader of European defense and continue to create momentum behind a renewal of Europe’s strategic autonomy. Since this concept would complement other U.S. reassurance efforts in Europe, it would remain compatible with long-standing aims in French foreign and defense policy. To this end, France would gain the greatest benefit from a Weimar force if it could be used for both NATO and EU missions. This would be an important step in overcoming the tiresome obstacles still plaguing EU-NATO cooperation in defense policy.[9] And by showing its commitment to the defense of Central European allies, Paris could be more likely to garner support for other French-led missions. In the past, French leaders were dissatisfied that many of their European allies were reluctant to provide meaningful contributions to these operations, especially in Africa.

For these reasons, a Weimar defense initiative would bring clear benefits to all the three countries in the triangle, while simultaneously addressing obstacles that have inhibited stronger European defense cooperation. Given their crucial role in Europe’s defense architecture, Weimar countries could therefore provide a powerful example of multilateral cooperation as an effective response to the pressures of limited defense budgets and expanding security needs in Europe.

Recommendations for the Weimar Triangle

An initiative by the Weimar Triangle should concentrate on both medium- and long-term steps. These should be agreed upon before the upcoming NATO summit. Specifically, the following six recommendations could constitute a basis for a new reassurance contribution by Europe.

First, there is an identified need to increase the number and quality of bilateral, regional and allied exercises in Central and Eastern Europe. In the near future, France, Germany and Poland should aim to convince other allies to conduct yearly exercises in which actual forces participate, and which encompass all potential scenarios, including Article 5 ones. In fact, Weimar Triangle leadership could begin with an agreement to undertake regular trilateral maneuvers of armored forces alternately in Poland, Germany and France, as well as joint naval exercises in the Baltic Sea. Moreover, given the current economic situation in both the United States and Europe, the Weimar initiative should launch a concrete debate about possible alternative ways exercises can be financed (e.g., providing incentives for participation in exercises or developing a special mechanism to administer the financing of exercises) in order to ensure that a maximum amount of countries, including partner nations, have the ability to be a stakeholder in European security.

Second, given the impact of far-reaching budget cuts in many member states, only a few NATO allies will be able to provide meaningful capabilities on their own. As a result, the Weimar Triangle should promote multilateral solutions, such as joint acquisition of arms — especially within regional groupings such as the Visegrád Group, Benelux, and of course the Weimar Triangle itself — which could become a catalyst for supranational NATO or EU capabilities. The suggestion by the Atlantic Council’s Jeff Lightfoot that NATO buy the two Mistral class warships that France is building for Russia seems like a good and timely starting point.[10] However unlikely it may be given the advanced state of the Mistral contract, these vessels could become a commonly-shared asset within NATO. By doing so, the Mistrals could be analogous to NATO’s shared AWACS assets (i.e., a “naval AWACS”) and hold considerable symbolic value for the alliance. Moreover, the Weimar Triangle should jointly support the framework nations concept proposed by Germany, which could contribute to a meaningful concretization of the smart defense initiative as long as its implementation avoids sowing divisions within NATO. The alliance’s unique integrated military structure could provide the ideal “plug and play” capabilities and operational flexibility that allow for a quick response to crises. In parallel, the ability of NATO to get the entire transatlantic family around the table would also allow the Weimar Triangle to engage other member states to participate in deterrence efforts, keeping the whole of the alliance involved.

Third, the Weimar Triangle should lead the effort to strengthen the NATO Response Force (NRF), which should become one of the core tenets of a more active alliance. The NRF is already a vital instrument for reinforcing Allied reassurance measures. The main objective of a potential reform should focus on fostering a more agile and flexible contingent of troops that could also be used under the provisions of Article 4 of the Washington Treaty, i.e., already in position to respond when any of the member states feel their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

Fourth, a crucial element of this initiative should be to get NATO boots on the ground in Central and Eastern Europe. In practice, it would mean that reassurance and deterrence would be more equally-shared among allies. However, putting NATO boots on the ground requires consensus on the interpretation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, in which the alliance underlined that it had no intention to deploy substantial combat forces to its new member states. In principle, NATO would be justified in responding to Russia’s actions by stationing substantial combat forces in the East. The promise to avoid such deployments was explicitly linked to “the current and foreseeable security environment,” namely the conditions of the 1990s.[11] Consequently, the alliance should make clear that Russia has violated numerous aspects of the Founding Act, thus forfeiting its right to blame NATO for undermining the document. In the medium term, NATO should deploy a sufficient number of troops to serve as a “trip wire” (including land and air components). Another option would be to focus on the forward deployment of military materiel to Central and Eastern Europe, which would be ready for use in a worst-case scenario. On this, a clear French, and especially German, position will be a necessary prerequisite for success. Recent comments by German politicians at least suggest that support could be secured.[12] France is standing ready to provide additional hard security support if necessary, but ongoing French engagements in Africa mean that Paris’ forces could eventually be over-stretched if operational capacity was needed in Eastern Europe. In this context, however, French participation would take on a very strong symbolic role. Either way, France would act as more of a follower than a leader in this area, therefore putting a premium on the German position.

Fifth, the Weimar Triangle countries should underline the necessity of geographical balance in the military structure of the alliance.[13] Of a total of 28 NATO installations, 23 are located in Western Europe, and only five are located in Central and Eastern Europe member states. In the short run, a viable solution lies in strengthening the importance of existing installations and instruments. A starting point for achieving this would be to increase the combat readiness of the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin (Poland) and bolstering the NATO Joint Force Training Center in Bydgoszcz (Poland). In the medium and long term, NATO should relocate a significant facility (preferably one of its commands) to Central and Eastern Europe. For this purpose, the Weimar Triangle can exert the right amount of influence on other member countries in order to make a strong case for these changes, underlining that all member states deserve the same level of security.

Sixth, NATO must politically reassess its relations with Russia. In 1967, the “Harmel Report” reasserted NATO’s basic principles and introduced a two-track strategy of deterrence and dialogue.[14] Under the current circumstances, the Alliance needs a similar intellectual exercise to build consensus on the alliance’s relationship with Russia, which has been fundamentally altered by the crisis in Ukraine. Agreeing to establish a high-level commission tasked with developing recommendations on how to re-engage Moscow diplomatically would make it much easier for Germany and a number of like-minded allies to ramp up their contribution to credible reassurance measures like troop deployments. After all, these steps would signify a departure from previous NATO strategy. It must also be clear that reassurance would not mean NATO ascribes to Russia’s logic of a zero-sum, revamped Cold-War mindset. In contrast, a new double-track strategy would reaffirm that the Western community (i.e. NATO and the EU) remains open to diplomatic talks with Russia. However, only with a credible deterrent will NATO be negotiating from a position of strength.

In sum, a comprehensive and inclusive Weimar Triangle initiative could be a critical first step toward a common Russia policy for the alliance. It should be perceived as an effort to catalyze change and set an example for other NATO member states – whether in terms of defense spending or the commitment to common values. This kind of bottom-up approach would demonstrate the renewed importance of defense policy in Europe among some of its key actors, and could send ripple effects across the Alliance – a boost of energy that NATO desperately needs.

Dominik P. Jankowski is Acting Head of the International Analyses Division at the Polish National Security Bureau; Tobias Bunde is Policy Advisor to the Munich Security Conference; Martin Michelot is Program and Research Officer at the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund.

This article was originally published by the Center for European Policy Analysis in the “Central Europe Digest”.

[1] The “Weimar Triangle” is an informal grouping formed in 1991 to promote policy collaboration between Poland, Germany, and France. For more information. See:
[2] One finding of the ARD-DeutschlandTREND was particularly striking (and often referred to in discussions among security experts). The poll asked where Germany should position itself in the conflict with Russia. In response, 49 percent answered, “In a middle position between the West and Russia.” Another 45 percent responded, “Firmly within the West.” Only 40 percent supported a stronger NATO air policing presence in Eastern Europe, whereas 53 percent opposed it. Opinions sharpened even more when the respondents were asked about a German Bundeswehr contribution (35 vs. 61 percent). See For an overview on sanctions see: Matthew Karnitschnig, “German Businesses Urge Halt on Sanctions Against Russia,” The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2014, Some opinion pieces by German economists have further strengthened the perception that Germany is a hindrance to putting more pressure on Putin. See, above all: Hans-Werner Sinn, “Give Putin a Chance,” The Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2014.
[3] See: Yves-Michel Riols, “Malgré la crise en Ukraine, la France livrera bien ses Mistral à la Russie,” Le Monde, May 11, 2014. Available at:
[4] Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev’s remarks at the event “Into the Fold or Out in the Cold? NATO Expansion and European Security after the Cold War,” Wilson Center, Washington, DC, May 2, 2014. Available at:
[5] NATO felt compelled to issue a “Fact Sheet”, which responded to Russian accusations. See NATO: “Russia’s Accusations – Setting the Record Straight,” Brussels, April 2014. Available at: One major claim, often repeated by Vladimir Putin, is the promise not to enlarge NATO. Yet, as numerous researchers have demonstrated, this is a myth. See, among others: Mark Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2009, Vol. 32, No. 2, pg:39–61; Kristina Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?: The “NATO Enlargement Question” in the Triangular Bonn-Washington-Moscow Diplomacy of 1990-1991, Journal of Cold War Studies, Fall 2012, Vol. 14, No. 4, pg. 4–54.
[6] See: “FACT SHEET: European Reassurance Initiative and Other U.S. Efforts in Support of NATO Allies and Partners,” June 3, 2014. Available at:
[7] See: Joachim Gauck, “Germany’s Role in the World: Reflections on Responsibility, Norms and Alliances,” Opening Speech at the 50th Munich Security Conference, Munich, January 31, 2014. Available at:
[8] See: Tobias Bunde, “Has Germany Become NATO’s Lost Nation? Prospects for a Reinvigorated German NATO Policy,” AICGS Transatlantic Perspectives, December 6, 2013. Available at:
[9] See for example: Henna Hopia, “Breaking Down the Walls: Improving NATO-EU Relations,” Centre for European Studies, 2013. Available at:
[10] See: Jeff D. Lightfoot, “NATO Should Buy the Mistrals,” Defense News, March 30, 2014. Available at: Two researchers at the Berlin-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) have made the same argument, but addressing the EU instead of NATO. See: Claudia Major and Christian Mölling, “French Warships Should Go to Europe, Not to Russia,” SWP Point of View, Berlin, May 13, 2014. Available at:
[11] The text also states: “[…] reinforcement may take place, when necessary, in the event of defense against a threat of aggression […].” See: Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation, Paris, May 27, 1997. Available at:
[12] See: Andreas Schockenhoff, “Abschreckung ist kein Tabu,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 28, 2014. See also: Thorsten Gutschker, “Rasmussen: NATO muss sich rüsten,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, May 4, 2014.
[13] See: Edward Lucas and A. Wess Mitchell et al., “Report No. 35: Central European Security After Crimea: The Case for Strengthening NATO’s Eastern Defenses,” Center for European Policy Analysis, March 25, 2014. Available at:
[14] See: Special Group on the Future Tasks of the Alliance, “Future Tasks of the Alliance – Harmel Report,” 1967. Available at:



Dominik P. Jankowski

Dominik P. Jankowski is a security policy expert, diplomat, and think-tanker. Currently he serves as Political Adviser and Head of the Political Section at the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Poland to NATO.