As the Baltic States try to convince NATO allies that Russia represents a real threat to security in Europe, a retired Danish general said that his country was in a very similar situation during the Cold War as a nation on the borderline between West and East.
© DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Denmark was one of the founding nations of NATO. Witnessing the Soviets rampaging through Central and Eastern Europe and memories of the five-year Nazi occupation were still vivid in the late 1940s and the Danes were looking for ways to protect their country. After a number of failed attempts to forge a defensive alliance with other Scandinavian countries, Denmark became one of the founding members of NATO in 1949.

However, the Danes were not satisfied with verbal assurances from its allies alone - much like Lithuanians are not today - and sought tangible measures to deter potential Soviet aggression. And they succeeded.

Michael Clemmensen, a retired general of the Danish Armed Forces and a former head of the Baltic Defence College, sees many parallels between the situation of Denmark during the Cold War and the Baltic States today. There are no easy solutions, he said, especially since Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have not done everything they can to further their own security.

On the other hand, he said not all the members of NATO have fully grasped how realistic the Russian threat is. Recent provocations over the Baltic Sea show that accidental confrontations are a likely possibility, Clemmensen said.

Irresponsible Europeans

"For the Baltic States, bilateral agreements with the United States are of crucial importance. It was because of the US role that you were admitted to NATO," Clemmensen said. "On the other hand, a silly piece of advice given to Latvia and Lithuania 15 years ago to give up conscription contributed to the view [attributed to the Baltic States]: We will not defend ourselves, someone else will have to, but not us."

Clemmensen, who is familiar with the Baltic States, said that Washington is annoyed by such an "irresponsible" European attitude towards their own defence. And since the US is the most important guarantor of Baltic security, it would be irresponsible not to listen to what the Americans are saying, especially after Donald Trump has secured the Republican nomination for the US presidential election.

Trump's headline-grabbing statements that the US should not be paying for other countries' defence are just more plain-spoken expressions of isolationist sentiments in Washington that cannot be ignored. At the same time, Clemmensen said, Russia's Vladimir Putin is using every opportunity to divide the Europeans whom he thinks are weaker than Russia.

"Putin has already made plain that the West's weakness opens up possibilities to right 'the wrong that the West did to Russia'.

Michael Clemmensen
Michael Clemmensen

"He needs several things for that: from simple lies, some propaganda reminiscent of Hitler's Germany, to tactical nuclear warheads and a total control over his population. Putin is seeking to maintain a siege mentality in Russia.

"His goal is clear - to undermine Euro-Atlantic structures, to incite extremist, authoritarianism-prone movements in Europe and eventually turn these countries into his puppets," Clemmensen said.

The weak link

The Danish general said he can detect traces of the Kremlin's activities in the Baltics, too. Clemmensen first visited Lithuania in 1994 and said he was angered by what he saw here.

"Back then, I proposed to develop the Scandinavian model of military service: a mixed army with a huge reserve, a will and resources to resist creates the impression of impenetrability - an aggressor simply feels it's not worth attacking such a country.

"The prevalent view in the Baltic States, however, was this: 'Let farmers go and serve, not us, we'd rather go to university'. Worse still, what I was shown was just a pretty shell. Meanwhile the armies were burdened by the Soviet legacy, especially in Latvia which was the most Sovietized of the Baltic countries," Clemmensen recalled.

In Lithuania, he said the situation was only marginally better. When he first came to the training ground in Rukla, he presented an ultimatum. Either hazing of ordinary soldiers, what is known as diedovshchina in Russian, ended and officers assumed the role of leadership, or the Lithuanians would not be allowed to join the Danes on an international mission in Croatia. Since then, the situation has changed radically, Clemmensen said, in large part thanks to efforts by General Jonas Kronkaitis.

"A new generation has come of age who know nothing of the Soviet army and its customs. But things were slightly different in Latvia. Unlike the Estonians and you [Lithuanians], the Latvians gave up conscription early. Yes, they have a good army, the officers are especially great, but Latvians could use more political confidence. They still don't believe they can defend themselves. That is very bad," Clemmensen said.

What could lend some more self-confidence to the Latvians is deployment of US forces.

"The Baltic countries have good training grounds that could be expanded. In Rukla, for instance, in the Gaižiūnai Training Ground, they could upgrade the runway and redeploy NATO forces. And incoming NATO soldiers from other countries need continued training, so they are familiar with the place and your soldiers," Clemmensen said.

US and Germany would come to assist

The Danish general rejects doubts sometimes voiced in Lithuania that, save for the US, NATO countries would not come to Lithuanians' defence. Germany, for instance, recently announced it would deploy a battalion in Lithuania, he said, which is good news.

There is another problem, however: "Although Germany has a tangled political system, Germans are good soldiers - if they are deployed some place, they will fight. The problem is that in Western Europe they still don't believe that there is a realistic risk of war. Not a certainty of war, but a risk - the possibility of escalation rises with Russian provocations in the Baltic Sea.

"In order to prevent escalation, you have to be well prepared. During the Cold War, everyone in NATO was ready for escalations, whereas today no one believes things could turn to war, so there's not proper preparation, no adequate measures. The Baltic States, the US and some others understand that but many in Western Europe, not yet," Clemmensen said.

Paradoxically, if Russia were to continue with provocations over the Baltic Sea, similar to those several weeks ago when its jets approached within dangerous proximity to a US warship and reconnaissance aircraft, this could play to the Baltic States' advantage, he said.

"So far the Americans have been very cautious. But if a Russian aircraft collided with an American plane as a result of the former's aggressive actions, killing the latter's crew, we would see a fierce and resolute response from the US.

"First, there would be a change of tone at the Republican convention and then we'd see more forces in the region," the Danish general said.

These forces could include US fighter jets to accompany reconnaissance planes to guard them against Russian provocations.

Clemmensen added however, that the American jets would more likely be stationed in Poland and not Lithuania whose air base in Zokniai is vulnerable.

"But if need be, the Americans could land anywhere. They have been landing in Afghanistan or Uzbekistan and could do that quickly in your countries, too," he said.

Clemmensen underscored that recent incidents over the Baltic sea were a continuation of Russia's aggressive policies. Unlike in the past, however, when the Kremlin would take two aggressive strides forward and a step back, now the Russians have only been striding forward with provocation and intimidation, he said.

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