Two easy stories—in effect, fairy-tales—commonly define the Baltic states’ position in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. Both are bewitchingly simple. Both are wrong. They go like this.
Edward Lucas
© DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

One fairy-tale depicts the Baltic states as heroic and beleaguered, the frontline states in the new cold war. They live next door to an evil empire which devotes most of its time to subverting them. There is a huge military build-up on their borders. Russian-backed parties are on the rise in their domestic politics. As things stand, the Russian armed forces could be in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius within hours. There is nowhere to retreat to, and no way of getting reinforcements there in a hurry. The only hope for these countries (often referred to as "tiny") is massive international support. We need permanent military bases, preferably with an armoured brigade (or two) from nuclear-armed NATO countries. Even that won't really be enough. We need to realise that the only real way we have of deterring Russian aggression is a ruthless readiness to use nuclear weapons.

This approach makes Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into two-dimensional places rather than real countries. It hugely exaggerates the threat from Russia. In terms of Russian influence operations, the real frontline states are not Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but Germany, Italy and the United States. Framing the security question narrowly in the Baltic Sea region also does exactly what the Kremlin wants, by isolating the Baltic states' territorial defence from the broader questions of NATO credibility and security. Topography becomes destiny.

The real point about Baltic security is that it involves NATO territory. Of course Russian troops could, if they really wanted to, launch a surprise attack, invade and occupy the island of Svalbard, the Danish island of Bornholm, or a single, defenceless rocky outcrop in the Aleutian islands off Alaska. We do not respond to these threats by placing armoured divisions on every scrap of land. Instead, we take a strategic view of defence and deterrence. Russia, and any other aggressor, knows that attacking the territory of any NATO member risks a response from the whole alliance, which will be directed not necessarily against the theatre in which the initial aggression has taken place.

That leads on to the second fairy-tale, which is a grim story of betrayal and hopelessness. It goes like this. The Baltic states are doomed without Western support. But division in the EU, and treachery in Washington, DC, means that this support is no longer forthcoming. Germany is doing deals with Russia on energy. Italy, Hungary and Greece are forming an ominous pro-Kremlin alliance within the EU. Federica Mogherini is interested only in keeping Russia onside to save what is left of the Iran nuclear deal. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of that. Ukraine, in short, has been abandoned by Brussels. The Baltics will be next.

American support, in this account, is a sham too. Barack Obama provided only symbolic, verbal support after Russia's aggression in Ukraine. President Donald Trump has no intention of providing even that. In his transactional view of the world, what matters is "America First", and that does not involve taking risks for small countries. Moreover, the president is in thrall to Vladimir Putin for sinister and secret reasons. The price of that relationship is that he abandons allies and allows the Kremlin to restore its empire.

That makes perfect sense until you look at the facts. It is true that Europe is divided. It has always been divided. But it still manages to maintain a surprisingly coherent foreign policy. The response to the attempted nerve-agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury led to a surprisingly coherent and robust response. Russia does have some assets in European politics—but it has liabilities too. Greece, for example, has become exasperated with Kremlin interference in the Macedonian dispute, and with the Moscow Patriarchate's heavy-handed approach to the politics of the Orthodox Church.

It is also true that President Trump has expressed himself with dismaying crudeness about alliances. He has called the EU an enemy, threatened to withdraw from NATO, decried the idea that the alliance's Article 5 security guarantee applies to its newest member, Montenegro, and conducted highly unusual bilateral personal diplomacy with Vladimir Putin. But these problems need to be seen in perspective. Although the tone of Mr Trump's criticism of NATO is new, the substance is not. European allies have been under-spending on defence for decades. American officials have repeatedly warned of the dangers of this. Mr Trump may express himself with unprecedented acerbity, but nobody can claim to be taken unawares.

Moreover, the presidency is only one part of the American political system Support in Congress for European security has never been higher. American support for European defence in practical terms is rising not falling. The budget for the financial year starting in 2019 includes $6.5bn for the "European Deterrence Initiative" (previously called the European Reassurance Initiative). The Pentagon requested $4.8bn in the current financial year and received $3.4bn in the previous one. The U.S. Army presence in Europe, after years of decline, is now growing again. From 200,000 soldiers at the end of the cold war, numbers dropped to around 33,000 in 2015.

Though permanent bases are not yet on the U.S. agenda, in the last few years the army has established unprecedented continuous-presence deployments in the CEE region of:

1. An armoured brigade combat team in Poland, constantly on the move in dispersed or combined formations;

2. A Stryker battalion in north-eastern Poland, leading NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group;

3. A divisional C2 element in Poznan, Poland;

4. Army aviation brigade assets dispersed in Germany, Poland, Baltics, and the Black Sea region;

5. A Special Operations element in western Poland and the Baltics; and

6. Increased engagement by National Guard State Partner units.

The army is upgrading its prepositioned stocks of ammunition and equipment and, as mentioned above, building training bases in Romania and Bulgaria. U.S. staff officers, 24 in total, are assigned to the tripwire forces in the Baltic states and Poland, known as NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs). A further 22 personnel are assigned to the Multinational Corps Northeast (MNCNE), a new NATO headquarters in Poland. A new program of exercises envisions a significant Army uptick by 2020. Separately, the U.S. Air Force has increased the activity of its 10-member Aviation Detachment in Poland, with increased rotational deployments including spikes during Russian exercises. The U.S. Navy has increased its Baltic ship visits and exercise activity; it is completing final stages of its Aegis Ashore (Ballistic Missile Defence) site on Poland's northern coast. The U.S. Marine Corps continues significant training engagement in the Black Sea region, while doubling its presence in Norway from an initial 330 to 700. The U.S. defence budget allocates $15.7m for a special forces training and operations base in Estonia.

There are still some problems. The topography makes conventional military defence difficult. A particular vulnerability is the land border between Lithuania and Poland, known as the Suwałki corridor or gap. This 65 km stretch of land between Belarus and Russia's Kaliningrad exclave is traversed by just two road links and one railway line. As a recent report by CEPA notes, if free movement of troops and equipment through this corridor were constrained, land reinforcement of Baltics would be exceptionally difficult, and NATO's credibility undermined. Much needs to be done in both planning and infrastructure development to increase the resilience of the Suwałki gap, for example by boosting tripwire forces, increasing military mobility, improving intelligence-sharing and speeding decision-making.[1]

The other main problem is air defence. NATO can boost its ground presence in the region and harden infrastructure, but the military logic is forbidding. Russian A2/AD (Anti-Access /Area Denial) capabilities greatly exceed those of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and of their NATO allies. A recent report by the Tallinn-based ICDS think tank highlights two big shortcomings:

  • in C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), including gaps in low-level radar coverage, vulnerabilities in the communications network for air command and control, insufficient trained personnel to command and control air defence operations in times of crisis, inadequate interoperability with deployed NATO air defence assets, a lack of situational awareness of Finnish and Swedish airspace, and the lack of a standing NATO Joint Force Air Component for air command and control in times of crisis; and
  • in weapons systems, including the lack of integration of existing Ground-Based Air Defence systems with Baltic air command and control arrangements, limited missile stockpiles, the non-availability (in some cases) of Ground-Based Air Defence from the start of a crisis, and the lack of anything other than short-range Ground-Based Air Defence systems.[2]

Yet the overall picture more than reassuring. Indeed, far from being on the cusp of disaster, transatlantic security is, by the standards of the past, in something of a golden age.

The panic and pessimism of the two fairy-tales should therefore be put aside. The real story is nuanced and broadly encouraging. Since the alarming years of 2007 (cyber attack on Estonia), 2008 (war in Georgia) and 2009 (aggressive Russian military exercises) the picture has transformed. In particular, the likelihood of a sudden Russian surprise attack has sharply diminished thanks to the positioning of tripwire forces.

The real question is now not about territorial defence—and the doomsday thinking of the balance of terror which underpins it. Such questions are just one part of 21st-century security, not the whole. No local military solution, in either the Baltic region or for that matter in the Black Sea, will be adequate on its own. Nor are nuclear weapons a complete answer to Russia's capacious and well-stocked hybrid-warfare arsenal. The central components of collective defence are resilience and an effective deterrent that is not tied to any particular geographical theatre.

What would most benefit Baltic security is a robust and innovative transatlantic discussion on these issues. We need to make our states and societies resilient against Russian hybrid attacks. And we need to develop next-generation deterrents, such as rapid, punitive financial and visa sanctions, or the use of cyber and information weapons.

Neither of these is yet part of our strategic planning. In response to a Russian non-military provocation, such as an economic blockade, targeted assassinations, cyber-attack, sabotage or subversion, NATO has few means of coordinating a response to minimise the effects, or to provide a deterrent response in the right timeframe. Increasing the alliance's air policing presence in the Baltic states, bringing heavy armour from the United States, or holding a live-fire military exercise would be at best a symbolic (and probably belated) answer to such incidents.

Rebuilding resilience and developing next-generation deterrence requires a transformation in government and society, breaking the silos that contain our counter-intelligence, criminal justice, financial supervision, internet security and media regulation, while refashioning our threadbare security culture. This process will be costly and difficult, with some painful trade-offs. It will be particularly hard to do this at a time of increasing fragmentation and decreasing trust.

A particular problem for the Baltic states is decision-making. Russian penetration of some NATO European allies mean that it could be difficult to achieve a rapid consensus at the North Atlantic Council in response to a Russian provocation, in particular one with substantial non-military elements. That would put a particular emphasis on other countries' abilities to respond independently of NATO, in particular the U.S.

Fragmentation and paralysis are far from inevitable. A costly and risky new era of post-Atlantic defence may not be inevitable, but we must prepare for it. The question is not whether our security environment is changing, but how Europe manages that change.

Brexit both complicates and simplifies matters. It acts as a severe distraction in the short term, consuming scarce time and energy. But it also precipitates new thinking. In the past, Britain, along with Turkey, has acted as a brake on EU defence cooperation, now labelled PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation). It saw such efforts as a French-led attempt to undermine the Atlantic alliance, dangerous if it worked, and a distraction if it did not. Britain's looming departure from the EU means that policy-makers in London can no longer hold back PESCO. Yet at the same time, Britain is aware that its clout in military, security and intelligence matters offers the best chance of keeping a role in post-Brexit European decision-making. Meanwhile, Turkey's autocratic leadership has marooned that country on the diplomatic margins.

But Britain is now no longer blocking European defence cooperation. Instead, it hopes to shape it, along with France and in cooperation with Germany. EU-NATO ties, long blocked by Turkey, are flourishing too.

A particular priority here is promoting military mobility—a capability which has withered since the end of the cold war. Bureaucratic procedures for crossing borders, access to scarce rail-freight capacity and other infrastructure bottlenecks, strengthened bridges, and speedy permission for the transport of live ammunition are all inadequate, startlingly so in many respects. EU-NATO cooperation offers an ideal framework for dealing with these problems.

In short, the leadership vacuum created in Europe by the Trump presidency is already being filled. Old dividing lines are blurring. An Anglo-French expeditionary force aims to be operational by 2020. Mr Macron, who says that Europe can no longer rely on the U.S. in security matters, has launched a French-led, nine-country European Intervention Initiative, which is independent of both NATO and the EU. The main aim is to keep post-Brexit Britain involved in European collective security. Another, British-led, joint expeditionary force includes non-NATO Sweden and Finland, plus Norway (not an EU member), as well as Denmark, which opts out of EU defence policy.

Other bilateral and multilateral ties are strengthening too. Sweden and Finland have started unprecedented bilateral intelligence-sharing and military cooperation. The Northern Group, a twelve-country defence forum, comprises Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the UK. Nordefco brings the five Nordic countries together. The Bucharest-9 convenes the countries of the alliance's eastern flank: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. The Three Seas Initiative brings together twelve EU member countries along a north-south axis from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. All, except Austria, experienced some form of communist rule and have joined the EU since 1986. Though the initial focus was on infrastructure, the Three Seas Warsaw summit in 2017 was attended by President Trump.

These new groupings are overlapping and untried. They cannot on their own substitute for the clout and credibility of structures with tried and tested formal decision-making, such as the EU and NATO. But in some circumstances they may offer greater speed and flexibility. Instead of the lumbering 29-country NATO bureaucracy, with its vulnerability to vetoes and delays, the new coalitions can bring together countries that are likely to share similar perceptions of the threat, and to trust each other to contribute speedily and effectively in dealing with it.

Many more such security arrangements are needed. Sometimes the US will be a conditional partner, other times it will be absent. Some of these groupings will be loose; others such as those dealing with counter-terrorism, will be tightly knit.

The trajectory of these efforts is encouraging. But so far the pace is too slow and the costs high. The gap between Russia's ability to attack and the West's ability to defend is growing, not shrinking. And Europe's ramshackle security architecture is facing a wholly new challenge: China.

The notable paradox here, though, is that Russia's persistent sabre-rattling and mischief-making in the Baltic region have achieved little and cost much. Non-NATO Sweden and Finland are closer to the alliance than ever before. NATO has accepted, reluctantly, that the territorial defence of the Baltic states cannot be taken for granted. It developed reinforcement and (later) contingency plans. Military exercises in the region are unprecedented in frequency, scale and scope. NATO allies' presence in the region is growing. From these results it is clear that Russia's policy in the Baltic-Nordic region since the 1990s has been almost wholly counter-productive. For that, at least, we can be grateful to Mr Putin.

The article was published in the most recent edition of Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, an annual magazine by Eastern Europe studies center in Vilnius, Lithuania. Access to the full publication - http://www.eesc.lt/uploads/Lithuanian%20Foreign%20Policy%20Review%202018.pdf


[1] Securing the Suwałki Corridor: Strategy, Statecraft, Deterrence, and Defense, by LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Janusz Bugajski, Peter B. Doran, Center for European Policy Analysis, July 2018 https://www.cepa.org/securing-the-suwalki-corridor

[2] "Air Defence of the Baltic States" by Sir Christopher Harper, Tony Lawrence and Sven Sakkov. International Centre for Defence Studies, Tallinn, Estonia, May 2018

https://uploads.icds.ee/ICDS_Report_Air_Defence_Christopher_Harper_Tony_Lawrence_Sven_Sakkov_May_2018.pdf

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