Opinion digest: Baltic states on front line of new Cold War (1)
While the Baltic states would prefer full defensive capability, NATO is emphasizing its reinforcements’ function as a deterrent. The alliance would have to round off its military presence in the area with diplomacy, and political stability and dedication to liberal democratic values would play an important role maintaining the West’s solidarity, columnist Ahto Lobjakas wrote in an opinion piece published in daily Postimees.
Despite fears that a Trump presidency may lastingly change NATO, so far all signs on both sides of the Atlantic indicated that this wouldn’t happen, Lobjakas wrote. The alliance continued with its placement of 1,000-strong battlegroups in the Baltic states and Poland. They were officially coming to stay, and each would be led by a single country. NATO officials were talking about a “longer than long-term plan”, and even the usually cautious Germans, to run the Lithuanian battalion, were saying the same.
The duration of the arrangement, everybody agreed, depended on how long Russia was seen as a realistic threat.
According to Lobjakas, it is worth noting that the battalions in the Baltic states, run by Britain (Estonia), Canada (Latvia), and Germany (LIthuania), will arrive battle-ready. According to officials, the British were ready to join an existing brigade of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF), Lobjakas wrote.
That the countries sending the troops will take measures to secure them was only in Estonia’s interest, as it included sea and air surveillance that, if arranged through NATO, would take discussions and time to arrange.
There were still plenty of unknowns in the matter of securing the Baltic states, Lobjakas wrote, the most important one next to Putin’s Russia had been Donald Trump. But the latter had begun to change over the last few days, indicating that he was flexible concerning his earlier statements.
Potential future Secretary of Defense and former general James Mattis was well known to NATO, and potential Secretary of State Mitt Romney had described Russia as the United States’ geopolitical enemy number one. Though Trump’s statement to the effect that NATO members needed to earn their right to be defended might have undermined the alliance’s image, the fact that it demanded of its members to spend at least 2% of GDP on national defense was nothing new, Lobjakas pointed out.
NATO officials didn’t expect a general course change, and support of the increased allied presence in Europe was very broad in both parties in the U.S. Congress.
Though Russia’s plans weren’t clear, its increasingly aggressive stance in the Baltic Sea area was taken as more of a diplomatic signal, and NATO’s response had to be seen as the same. The stability was guaranteed further by both sides’ nuclear arsenals. Officials hinted that the presence of allied troops in the Baltic states had a similar function, and they doubted that neither a political nor a military leader would send their troops in to die, Lobjakas wrote.
Still, the challenge was considerable, as while up to 600,000 troops stood ready to defend West Germany during the Cold War, a mere 4,000 would eventually be stationed in the Baltic states. Money was said to have been the main reason why the positioning of American equipment in Eastern Europe was halted, Lobjakas wrote, which created a practical problem, namely that American troops would take a long time to arrive.
NATO therefore needed to round off military power with clever diplomacy. There were plenty of grey areas, from the question of the allied battalions’ chain of command right down to strategies how to react to a hybrid attack.
This didn’t mean though that any possible change to the situation needed to be caused by the Kremlin, Lobjakas pointed out: Commenting on an article in the Sunday Times that the British may not move rocket systems with a range of 70-80 km to Estonia, a NATO official said that a range of 5-10 km would already do the trick. Assuming that the targets were on the other side of the Russian border would require more than that.
Officials in Brussels had given up and arranged with the fact that Russia responds to any steps taken by NATO with a further escalation of the situation, Lobjakas wrote. The assumption was that pressure along the border would increase, but that war was unlikely.
What was considered likely included Russian propaganda, and more provocations. The Russian-speaking minorities played a key role in this. A situation needed to be avoided in which they were subjected to ideological control, and the question whether or not the annexation of Crimea was rightful could become an indicator for someone’s loyalties.
NATO’s growing interest in just this matter pointed to shortcomings in the work of the three Baltic states, Lobjakas opined. Their task certainly wasn’t an easy one, as while NATO was emphasizing creating a deterrent, the local majorities would much prefer building up convincing defense capability.
Because of this, it needed to be explained to the Russian minorities as well as Russia that NATO’s forces present here did not have offensive character. For their work in Estonia, the British forces were assigning 40 officers to work with local municipalities, Lobjakas wrote.
The main thing the alliance expected from the Baltic states is resilience, which had become an important issue in the recent months. At the same time, in a broader sense what mattered was political stability, and a lasting commitment to liberal democratic values, as those were the base of the West’s solidarity. Whereas the defense of West Germany had been an existential matter for all Western European countries in the Cold War, the question that nobody wanted to ask now was why this should apply to the Baltic states in today’s reality, Lobjakas wrote.
Ahto Lobjakas is a political analyst and commentator. He was recently invited to visit NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. You can read his opinion piece in full here (link in Estonian).