Putin’s war on Ukraine has shattered any illusions that the post-Cold War settlement would remain uncontested. Instead, we now curiously find ourselves in a world where old things have become new. Peace through strength is relevant again. NATO is enjoying new confidence. Congress is weighing defense spending levels not seen in decades. Even Germany and Switzerland have awakened to the Russian threat.
As the West recalibrates, we should renew our commitment to our friends in Eastern Europe who never lost their wariness of the Russian bear. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once called these allies “New Europe.” The phrase was meant to describe a bloc of former Soviet states who appeared to have become the most committed in Europe to regional security and global democracy.
Rumsfeld’s hypothesis is holding true today. Our Baltic and Eastern Front NATO allies spend far more on defense than their GDPs would suggest. They punch above their weight on global missions. And their leaders consistently give voice to themes of human freedom and democracy.
These allies spent decades under the Soviet thumb and know that their freedom was hard won. They know it will be fleeting if it is not vigilantly protected – and they have acted accordingly.
Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland have all scored in the top quarter of NATO contributors per capita in recent years, and they have only deepened their commitments since the Ukraine crisis began. Our Estonian friends were among the first to insist on making no concessions to Putin, offer truckloads of their finest weaponry to Ukraine, and call for a no-fly-zone over Ukraine, knowing full well the consequences of these moves. Poland has fearlessly moved to give Ukrainian pilots much-needed fighter jets and anti-air systems.
Recognizing the global significance of this fight against dictators, some of these allies have even applied a tough posture toward faraway regimes like the Chinese Communist Party. Lithuania, for example, has openly supported Taiwanese democracy and criticized China's gross human rights abuses, even with a major sector of its economy held hostage by Beijing.
Such acts of defiance put to shame Western leaders who have failed to devote serious resources to stopping autocracy. It took all-out war for Germany and President Biden to kill the Nord Stream 2 plans, which Senate Republicans had called for canceling months ago. Even Biden’s heaviest sanctions on Russia still provide indefensible carve-outs for the Russian energy sector, the main engine of Putin’s war machine.
Moves since then have brought Western allies back into closer alignment. But there is a key lesson we should learn from our friends in New Europe: the more ground and initiative we cede to Putin, the more costly and deadly a future conflict will be. Our leadership role in NATO demands that we get ahead of the decision curve.
Our allies across Europe are asking for such leadership. Recently, I had the chance to visit with Polish defense leaders as part of a congressional delegation to the region. Their hope is that America will do far more to assist Ukraine in the coming weeks, including facilitating the transfer of MiG jets and other weapons to Ukraine.
European allies are also increasingly eager to bolster American leadership in NATO. At a recent congressional hearing I chaired, the foreign ministers of the Baltic States requested a permanent American troop presence on their soil, which they promised to fund. They also asked to buy advanced missile systems, which we should be willing to provide.
This should be no surprise coming from nations who never lost sight of the Russian menace. Our Baltic allies have endured relentless Russian cyber and political warfare for years. Putin’s forces in Kaliningrad and Pskov continue to sandwich NATO’s eastern front, posing a constant threat. Beyond NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense pact, much work remains to protect our friends.
It is now time for us to draw courage and strength from our Eastern European partners, chiefly represented by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In this new contest between free nations and authoritarian regimes, New Europe has become a front line, not unlike West Germany a generation ago. It is imperative that we protect these allies and send a message of strength to dictators from Moscow to Beijing. We should harden NATO’s eastern front and make it a fortress of democracy.
Senator Roger Wicker is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the ranking member on the Helsinki Commission.
This op-ed originally appeared in RealClearDefense. Read it there.