Slovak PM’s White House Visit Spotlights US Defense Accords

VOA’s Russian Service contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump applauded Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini’s announcement that his country plans to increase its military spending to 2% of its GDP in the next three years, as well as purchase U.S.-made F-16 war planes.

A joint statement issued by the two leaders after their White House meeting Friday said the U.S. and Slovakia “seek to build on this and deepen our defense cooperation by concluding a mutually beneficial Defense Cooperation Agreement.”

Earlier, speculation about terms of a bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreement, or DCA, had stirred controversy in the Central European country. The Slovak foreign ministry described as lacking in knowledge and short on facts allegations that a defense cooperation agreement with the U.S. would lead to encroachment upon Slovakia’s sovereignty.

In contrast to protests heard in certain quarters in Slovakia, a number of nations in Central Europe have shown an eagerness to enter into defense cooperation agreements with the U.S.

Last month, a bilateral agreement was signed between the U.S. and Hungary on the sidelines of events marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO, after more than a year and a half of negotiations.

In an interview with VOA, Laszlo Szabo, Hungary’s ambassador to the U.S., described the agreement as both strategic and tactical in nature and as one that sets the terms under which American forces and other foreign troops can operate in Hungary.

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic is negotiating an agreement that is “quite similar,” according to Hynek Kmonicek, the country’s chief diplomat in the U.S. Czechs regard the U.S. as the “backbone of NATO,” he told VOA, adding “if you ask people how they feel about [the] 2% of GDP spent [on military expenditures], it usually has 80% [popular] support, which is quite extraordinary.”

Among Central European countries, Poland is seen as the most enthusiastic when it comes to building ever-closer ties with the United States in military and security affairs.

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said in an interview with VOA’s Russian Service that Poland realizes relying on its own defense forces will not be sufficient when it comes to a security guarantee, even as the Polish government is working to strengthen its military forces, including increasing the number of soldiers. The minister said the “military presence of our allies on our soil is crucially important.”  

Not that Poland feels a direct military threat from Russia at the moment, said Czaputowicz, but from what Poland can see, Russia is prone to taking advantage of situations when it “senses a weakness; like in Donbas, like in Crimea,” referring to Russian attempts to annex territory in Ukraine. Poland, he said, plans to increase its defense spending to up to 2.5% of its GDP.  The relative absence of an imminent military threat that Poland currently feels, as Czaputowicz sees it, is precisely due to Russia’s calculation of both how the country itself and its allies will react.

As negotiations between the U.S. and Slovakia on a bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreement unfold, Rachel Ellehuus, a former Pentagon official and current deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), cautions that the U.S. Congress has signaled that it will not allow funds from the European Deterrence Initiative to be spent in countries that have not signed a defense cooperation agreement with the U.S. She also points out that the guarantee of “assured access” by U.S. military to signatory countries’ facilities could be a sticking point with certain allies.

That said, Ellehuus describes bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreements as “pragmatic measures to enhance NATO deterrence and defense, while also ensuring needed protections for U.S. troops.

“Think of them as legal agreements that strengthen the provisions in the NATO SOFA,” she said, referring to Status of Forces Agreements among NATO member states.

From an operational angle, “mitigating Russia’s time-distance advantages” over the U.S. and allies, should conflict break out, is crucial to deterrence and defense, according to Billy Fabian, a Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA).