U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday attended the summit of the so-called Bucharest Nine, or B-9, countries on NATO's easternmost flank; Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
This little-known grouping is an initiative launched in 2015 by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and Polish President Andrzej Duda. It is aimed at enhancing cooperation among NATO's newest members to support the alliance's objectives of improving security and stability between the Baltic and Black Seas.
Duda, host of the summit, said Wednesday's meeting would determine next steps ahead of a B-9 summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, and a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, as well as "the possibilities to provide further support to Ukraine."
Biden reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the security of the B-9, whose members joined the military alliance after being under Moscow's sphere of influence during the Cold War and are now looking at Moscow's expansionist ambitions with concern.
"Today, as we approach the one-year anniversary of Russia's further invasion, it's even more important that we continue to stand together," Biden said, reiterating what he called Washington's "sacred commitment" to NATO's Article Five that states an attack against one member is an attack against all.
"You're the frontlines of our collective defense and you know, better than anyone, what's at stake in this conflict," he said. "Not just for Ukraine, but for the freedom of democracies throughout Europe and around the world."
The group met amid concerns over Moscow's destabilizing activities in Moldova — a tiny non-NATO country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania — where summit co-host Iohannis said Russian President Vladimir Putin is pursuing his "pattern of aggressive conduct" one year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Echoing those remarks, NATO's Stoltenberg said Putin is not preparing for peace.
"On the contrary, he is preparing for more war," he said. "So, we must sustain and step up our support for Ukraine. We must give Ukraine what they need to prevail."
On Tuesday, the Russian leader revoked a 2012 decree pledging to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova with regard to Transnistria — a Moscow-backed separatist region bordering Ukraine where an unknown number of Russian troops are stationed.
The move heightened fears in Moldova's capital, Chișinău. Following the resignation of Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita, the country's president, Maia Sandu, warned last week of an active Russian coup plot, through "propaganda and disinformation" and "multiple cyberattacks."
On Tuesday Biden met with Sandu in Warsaw to affirm U.S. support for Moldova's sovereignty, the White House said in a statement.
Hungary's Orban absent
Except for Hungary and Bulgaria, B-9 members are now among the strongest supporters of military aid to Ukraine and pushing back against Russia.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has pledged to maintain relations with Moscow, is not attending the meeting, but Hungary is represented by President Katalin Novák. Landlocked Hungary is dependent on Moscow for oil and gas, and in 2014 secured a deal with Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom to expand Hungary's Paks power plant beginning last year.
Addressing the nation in Budapest last week, Orban said the European Union had fanned the flames of the war by sanctioning Russia and supplying Ukraine with money and weapons, rather than seeking to negotiate a peace with Moscow.
"The war in Ukraine is not a conflict between the armies of good and evil, but between two Slavic countries that are fighting against one another," Orban said. "This is their war, not ours."
Meanwhile, caretaker Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has been hardening his government's anti-war position, opposing the West's efforts to fortify Ukraine with weapons.
Despite some divergence on Ukraine, B-9 leaders are expected to work out expectations for a NATO summit in Vilnius July 11-12.
"For example, how we ensure that there are no gray zones in our defense, or how we adapt our defense spending to our security environment," said Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, the co-host of Wednesday's summit.
"And how we ensure that Ukraine is able to defend itself as long as it takes and how to move practical but also political relations between NATO and Russia," she added.
Much of the focus will be on the alliance's new major defense plans, said Jamie Shea, former NATO deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges, who is now with the Chatham House research group.
"The old NATO defense plans were for a low level of Russian threat, small Russian incursions, hybrid warfare," he told VOA. "We're now dealing of course with far gloomier scenarios."
Shea noted that Hungary is a minority of one and despite his rhetoric, Orban is unlikely to block the group's consensus on Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine has moved the balance of political power in Europe farther east, said Marek Świerczyński, head of the security and international affairs desk at Polityka Insight, a Warsaw-based research institution.
B-9 countries have long been perceived as a NATO periphery, he told VOA. "Because of Russian aggression, it has actually become the NATO center of gravity."
Poland has been leading the effort, ramping up its defense spending and buying massive amounts of U.S.-made weapons. Warsaw now spends 3 percent of its GDP on military spending, more than NATO's target of 2 percent.
Warsaw has been a leading voice in arguing for more armaments to Kyiv, including its recent announcement that it will send Leopard tanks that prompted Germany and the United States to also provide tanks for Ukraine.
The B-9 summit wraps up Biden's whirlwind visit to eastern Europe that began with a secret trip to Kyiv on Monday and a Tuesday speech at Warsaw's historic Royal Castle, where he defended NATO's year-long effort to help Ukraine fend off Russia's invasion and pledged the alliance would do so "for as long as it takes."