February 27, 2017

If Some NATO Allies Were to Choose Russia Instead: A Perspective from Latvia

U.S. soldier shows a machine gun to local children during tactical road march Dragoon Ride II display in Daugavpils, Latvia, June 6, 2016.
U.S. soldier shows a machine gun to local children during tactical road march Dragoon Ride II display in Daugavpils, Latvia, June 6, 2016.

A recent WIN/Gallup International poll revealed that respondents in four NATO countries – Bulgaria, Greece, Slovenia and Turkey – would rather see Russia as their ally in case they faced military threats. Even though such conclusions should be considered neither surprising nor completely generalizable, they still serve as a fair reminder that the frequently reiterated official statements about the unity of NATO should be treated with caution.

Since Latvia joined NATO in 2004, the collective defence guarantees embedded in the North Atlantic Treaty have constantly been positioned as the foundation of the country’s national defence. These guarantees have also served as a credible excuse for neglecting national defence capabilities and overreliance on potential external assistance. The 2016 US presidential election and the subsequent first month in office of the new administration has raised doubts about the US commitment. Even though the new American officials have gradually reassured Europeans that this commitment is still valid, recent experience has underlined that no alliance is eternal and no assistance is unconditional.

If the recent confusion in the US demonstrates that under certain conditions even Europe’s militarily most powerful ally could reconsider its approach, a recent poll reminds us that other allies have diverse interests and threat perceptions as well. Even though the poll is based on the opinions of a limited number of individuals, its results provide a fair indication of the divergent perceptions among allies. Neither Russia’s “divide and rule” policy, nor its affinity for and/or friendly relationships with some NATO and EU members, have been secret. In 2016, the relationship between Turkey and Russia served as a good example on how inter-state enmity can swiftly transform into a partnership.

If a survey on the perception of allies were conducted in Latvia, the four allies highlighted in the above-mentioned poll would likely be among those less associated with NATO (with the possible exception of Slovenia, which recently committed troops to the multinational battlegroup in Latvia), given the dominant associations of the alliance with the US and Western European countries. Therefore, the poll is a good reminder to local politicians and probably a revelation to the wider public of the diversity of NATO allies – diversity that will at certain points become broader, especially thanks to the assistance of external forces. Second, a better understanding of the problems that lead to different threat perceptions of more distant allies would be helpful if reciprocity in support is to be expected. Finally, possible consequences of the lack of amalgamation among all allies should not be exaggerated. In the event allied military assistance becomes necessary, actions would still primarily depend on willing and militarily capable allies, the US in particular.