The Defense Impact of the Ukraine War on the Visegrád Four
When it comes to their defense sectors, the Visegrád Four are now confronted with the consequences of long-term problems such as the downsizing of their armed forces, general neglect, underinvestment, corruption-ridden acquisitions, and the ever-changing priorities of modernization programs.
Under the pressure of the war, the Visegrád Four will over the coming months tackle their defense shortcomings with the utmost seriousness. This will likely mean speeding up ongoing modernization, getting rid of all hardware of Soviet or Russian origin, and looking for new capabilities based on lessons learned from Ukraine. But in doing so they will face severe external and internal challenges.
Poland is the natural center of gravity of Visegrád Four and NATO’s eastern flank, and one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine. In 2016, it decided to create territorial forces as a new branch of its armed forces. This decision was heavily influenced by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent armed conflict in Donbas.
Another major change was announced last year under the Homeland Defense Act. Poland plans to increase defense spending to 3 percent of GDP in 2023, to have 250,000 professional soldiers (currently there are 120,000 in active service) and 50,000 in the Territorial Defense Forces (currently 35,000), to reform the reservist system, to provide additional financing for the armed forces outside of the Ministry of Defense’s budget, to simplify recruitment processes, and to boost recruitment or to introduce voluntary basic military service. These changes should lead to creating two new divisions of the armed forces.
As part of the second step of the modernization program of anti-aircraft defense that began in 2018, Poland will purchase another six Patriot systems from the United States. The Ministry of Defense also recently announced its intention to order 500 HIMARS rocket launchers from the United States, which would make Poland the country with the largest number of these in the world. Warsaw has also made a deal with South Korea for 1,000 K2PL tanks, more than 600 K9 self-propelled howitzers, and 48 FA50 light combat aircraft, with the tanks and howitzers to be produced in Poland. There is also the possibility that the United States will speed up the delivery of Abrams tanks, of which Poland has ordered up to 250, through its lend-lease program. This is mainly related to the need to compensate the country for the T-72 tanks it donated to Ukraine.
If these announced changes are even partially realized, Poland is set to become the most important regional conventional military power in Central Eastern Europe.
Some in Poland are raising concerns about whether these plans are overly ambitious and unsustainable. The proposed enlargement of the armed forces, in particular, will put a huge long-term burden on public finances through salaries and pensions. Nevertheless, if these announced changes are even partially realized, Poland is set to become the most important regional conventional military power in Central Eastern Europe.
The Czech Republic
Defense procurement changes announced by the Czech Republic recently have been either directly triggered by the war or quickened by it. The country recently announced its intention to negotiate the purchase from the United States of 24 F35 fighter jets for its air force. It is also looking to significantly enlarge its capabilities—its currently leased Swedish Gripen C/D is cost-effective but the expensive F35s are much more capable fifth-generation multi-role jets.
Another major announcement from the Ministry of Defense was the choice of the Swedish CV90 infantry vehicle as its choice to replace the old BMP-2. This news was surprising after Prague suspended this procurement from November 2021 after field trials. In June 2022, Slovakia also announced it was buying 152 CV90s via a government-to-government agreement, and such synchronization allows for further cooperation between the two countries in training, logistics, or servicing.
Germany will also deliver 15 Leopard 2 A4 tanks as a gift and backfilling compensation for Czech arms deliveries to Ukraine. The Czech Republic now reportedly also plans to procure 50 new Leopard 2A7+ tanks and a smaller number of older Leopard 2 A4 tanks, which will be used primarily for training.
Alongside its abovementioned purchase of CV90 vehicles, Slovakia also recently announced the finalization of the long-term procurement of Finnish Patria 8x8 AMVXP wheeled combat vehicles. The Ministry of Defense’s leadership has repeatedly declared that its top priority is to get rid of the dependency on Soviet-made systems. The most pressing issue, therefore, is finding a fix for its airspace protections as its fleet of Mig-29 fighter jet is grounded and could potentially be delivered to Ukraine. However, in March, the United States notified Slovakia that the delivery of F16 fighters would be delayed by 12 to 14 months. Until they are delivered, the Czech Republic and Poland have agreed to protect the country’s airspace. Such cooperation is a historic milestone in the Visegrád Four’s defense relations.
Another area where the war has impacted Slovakia’s capabilities is air defense. After it delivered to Ukraine two batteries of its Soviet-era S300 long-range surface-to-air missile system in April, Bratislava faced a significant gap. A quick solution was reached the same month thanks to the presence of US, German, and Dutch armed forces with Patriot air defense systems in the NATO multinational battle group in Slovakia. Yet, procurement of its own air defense systems tops the priority list of the Ministry of Defense. Other priorities are new training aircraft, as the country needs to upgrade its fleet to meet the requirements of training F16 pilots, and the replacement of small arms. Both issues could be solved through the Czech companies Aero for jet trainers and CZUB for small arms as Slovakia already use their products.
A complication could arise, though, due to Aero’s ownership. In 2021, the company was bought by Hungary’s HSC Aerojet, which is owned by Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, supported by a loan from the Hungarian Development Bank. Szalay-Bobrovniczky is a former diplomat and businessman with ties to Russia and aligned to Hungary’s governing FIDESZ party. In April 2022, Hungary’s Ministry of Defense announced the procurement of 12 jets from Aero, and in May 2022 Szalay-Bobrovniczky became defense minister in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s new cabinet. As of June, he appeared to have become just a minority shareholder in the mother company of HSC Aerojet.
Hungary’s reaction to the war in Ukraine differs significantly from that of the other Visegrád and NATO eastern flank countries. Orbán’s government has refused to offer direct military support to Ukraine or to let other NATO members use Hungarian territory for any military deliveries to the country. Orbán justifies this with reference to Hungary’s neutrality in the conflict and to the need to protect the Hungarian-speaking minority in Ukraine. His posture is also pragmatic as the country is highly dependent on Russian oil and gas.
Hungary’s positioning over the war might drive the final nail in the coffin of regional cooperation through the Visegrád format.
Hungary’s positioning over the war might drive the final nail in the coffin of regional cooperation through the Visegrád format. While the current Czech and Slovak governments have been for some time signaling their growing distance from the illiberal political course set in Budapest, there still was a strong connection between the governments of Hungary and Poland. This is now gone as a result of the war, with little hope for a recovery in the short term. Budapest therefore will likely get no support from the other three countries as it faces growing pressure and isolation within the EU.
In 2016, Hungary unveiled a major program for rearming its forces and modernizing its national defense industry, production capacities, and infrastructure. While France, Israel, Turkey, and the United States are important arms suppliers, Germany is the country’s main partner in this regard. German arms delivered range from Leopard 2 tanks to locally produced, Rheinmetall-licensed Lynx infantry fighting vehicles, and Panzerhaubitze 2000 artillery. Hungary is also planning to acquire the latest German 155mmartillery systems on HX3 chassis.
In theory, this situation provides Germany with leverage to influence Orbán’s government with regard to its position toward the rest of the EU or the war in Ukraine. However, it remains to the seen if Berlin would be willing and able to use this leverage in the context of its geopolitical awakening since the start of the war.
The war caused an unprecedented surge in demand that is putting defense industries around the world under significant pressure to produce and deliver. In the short term, the Visegrád Four could receive more news like that of the delay if obtaining US F16 jets, which would put them in an unpleasant situation. Except for Poland, they have few options to reason with supplying partner countries based on their strategic importance.
Domestically, the biggest challenge for the Visegrád Four is twofold.
First, ensuring sustained political commitment for increased defense spending while citizens struggle with rising living costs. With a looming recession, this could be a dilemma that breaks governments. Poland awaits parliamentary elections in 2023, and Slovakia will hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2024. With the extreme fragility of Slovakia’s coalition government, snap elections cannot be ruled out.
Second, increased defense spending must be used in the right way. That means covering missing capabilities, crumbling infrastructure, and meaningful research and development. NATO and the EU offer several platforms, initiatives, and tools that these countries can use to these ends. They cannot afford more corruption scandals, botched acquisitions, and slow, bureaucracy-strangled modernizations. This time the Visegrád Four need to work on their defense for real.
Matej Kandrík is executive director of the Adapt Institute in Bratislava and a former ReThink.CEE fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.