Collective defense must be the main topic at the September NATO summit in Wales.
I am writing this article on March 10. Special forces, amphibious landing forces, and naval units of the Russian Federation have just occupied Crimea and surrounded Ukrainian bases. Russia is also trying to foment interethnic animosity to gain a pretext for military intervention in eastern Ukraine. A Russian information offensive is being waged at full bore. As Moscow propaganda would have it, soldiers from the Russian special forces and landing units are actually local “self-defense” groups who bought their equipment from local stores, Kyiv is ruled by “fascists,” and ethnic Russians are in danger. I remember Brezhnev-era propaganda and lies from my childhood. The disinformation currently being put out by Russia exceeds even the conspicuously high level of those times.
If we substitute “Narva” for “Crimea,” “Estonia” for “Ukraine,” “Kohtla-Järve” for “Eastern Ukraine” and “Tallinn” for “Kyiv,” the question in the title of this article takes on a different meaning. If we weren’t NATO members, all of this could have just as well happened in Estonia.
At the same time as the aggression against Ukraine, Russia held its most extensive military maneuvers of the post-Cold War era, with the western military district, the central military district, air assault forces, air defense and space defense forces, the long-range air force, and transport air force all taking part. According to public sources, 150,000 troops participated, which is even more than in the autumn 2013 Zapad exercises that were oriented toward the West. Why did Moscow feel it had to flex its muscles for Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland and Norway even as a military operation was under way in Ukraine? Evidently, it was to apply pressure on the West and deter them from going too far in aiding Ukraine. And my emphasis on the West and not just NATO is intentional – after all, the biggest exercises in Estonia’s neighborhood took place near the Finnish border at the Kirillovskoye artillery range.
In response to this posturing, Poland requested consultations under Article Four of the North Atlantic Treaty, which reads as follows: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” In parallel, Estonia sent a request for additional fighter planes to the US, which is in charge of the Baltic Air Policing Mission for the first four months of 2014. A couple days later, another six fighters and two refueling aircraft duly landed at Lithuania’s Zokniai air base, supplementing the four US F-15 fighters that had been based there up to now. NATO will also send Airborne Warning and Control System AWACS planes to Poland and Romania. So much, then, for the hundred days that some analysts said we would have to get by on our own.
What does this all mean for Estonia, NATO and Europe? We don’t know how the current crisis will end – next Sunday (16 March) the puppet government of occupied Crimea will hold a so-called referendum with support from the Russian armed forces, and the Russian Federation is threatening the rest of Ukraine. Thus the following is just still only a rough outline of the situation. But let’s look at what we can conclude so far.
First, Russia poses a threat to European security.
Second, NATO members and non-members face different security situations. This is something our unallied northern neighbors should consider. Russians are Finland’s biggest minority (70,000) and thus the Russian Federation always has a casus belli handy. If anyone takes exception to this and points out that Finland has no problems with its Russian minority, then that must mean the objector believes that there are, on the other hand, problems with the Russian minority in Ukraine. Of course, there are none – except in the imaginary parallel world designed by Russia’s propagandists.
Third, we need to take a hard look at levels of defense spending. That goes for our neighbors to the south, all of Europe, and Estonia itself. At a level of 2.5 percent of GDP, the Estonian Defence Forces would even be able to develop a tank battalion, something that is not currently included in the ten-year planning cycle.
Latvia’s 0.9 percent and Lithuania’s 0.8 percent are not just an embarrassment, but alarming, potentially disastrous levels in light of the recent Russian aggression. Perhaps I am getting too involved in internal affairs for these countries, but this sort of under-financing has a direct negative effect on Estonian security and that’s very much our business. But perhaps Russia’s behavior will finally be a wake-up call for Riga and Vilnius.
For now, Latvia’s decision to increase defense spending from 0.91 per cent of GDP to 0.92 percent does not instill much confidence. Simple math shows that at that rate, Latvia would reach the 2 percent mark in 2123.
Fourth, that means that NATO and, especially, US presence must be strengthened in our region. [Then- ed.]Defense Minister Urmas Reinsalu expressed this very idea in a speech delivered in Washington in early January, igniting quite a furor in Estonia. I hope that those who chastised Reinsalu will now think again. Military presence has many forms, and doesn’t necessarily have to mean a permanent army base. For a modern fighting force, there are more streamlined ways of maintaining a presence.
Fifth, collective defense must be the main topic at the September NATO summit in Wales. Based on the statements and actions of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, it isn’t certain whether the end of ISAF and the beginning of the follow-on mission in 2015 will be an appropriate choice for the main topic at the summit. To this point, the summit’s keywords have been highly redolent of technical jargon. But Russian aggression against Ukraine and the de facto occupation of Crimea will significantly transform the context and narrative of the summit.
Sixth, NATO must rethink its entire relationship with Russia. It must do so thoroughly, rather than as it did after the war in Georgia, when the pre-war relationship resumed after only a few months. How can the alliance cooperate with a partner that occupies part of another partner’s territory and threatens to go further, and that has trampled on a number of international treaties, including the UN Charter?
Seventh, the West must improve its ability to counter the information offensive. Even in today’s BBC News, the Russian special forces and amphibious landing units were termed “pro-Russian forces,” while Reuters talks of soldiers who are “thought” or “believed” to be Russian military. (Incidentally, these “unknown soldiers” use the Ratnik communication system, which is only used by Russian special forces and amphibious assault forces.)
Professional commentators who have emerged as Ukraine experts overnight talk about Ukraine having split into East and West as if it is already a reality. And Crimea is already referred to as a non-Ukrainian territory. Propagandist interpretations of the wiretap of Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet’s telephone conversation live a life of their own. The list goes on.
An example that does show that strategic communication and information war problems are being dealt with by the Alliance is the NATO center of excellence for strategic communication that will be opened in Latvia in the second half of this year.
It should be noted that the Russian Federation ranks 176th of 192 countries in Freedom House’s press freedom index, between Sudan and Ethiopia. That means that people who only inhabit the official Russian information sphere live in a parallel world.
For all of its existence, NATO has shown an ability to adapt to the situation at hand and reinvent itself, while retaining its collective defense core. This is because it is not only a military organization but also a military political alliance based on common values.
The second sentence of the North Atlantic Treaty’s preamble states: “They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” These shared values, which are also shared in the absence of a common enemy, have helped the most successful military alliance in history endure for 65 years. The most important phases of NATO over its history are usually considered to be the following– first of all, the classical, Cold War-era NATO, then came the organization 1990s enlargement, partnership and Balkan peacekeeping, and third, the NATO that was active in 2013-2014. The NATO of the future is being defined right now.
In the hierarchy of fundamental documents, the North Atlantic Treaty is followed by NATO’s strategic concept. The current one dates from autumn 2010. Put briefly, it states that NATO exists for the purpose of defending the freedom and security of its members using political and military means and that the three core functions of the alliance are collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. The first core function speaks for itself, the second is exemplified by ISAF, and the third means partnership relations with third countries. Although the sections on NATO-Russia relations seem out of place now after the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the overall idea and structure of the concept are also applicable for the post-aggression period. To defend the security of its members successfully, the alliance must be capable of countering threats far from its own borders, as well as developing partnership and cooperative ties. That includes ties with Ukraine and Georgia.
Over the years, Estonia has stressed collective defense most of these three core functions. Our allies have not always understood why. As it did with cyber defense in 2007, Russia has now amplified our arguments and made our case for us. After the Georgia war, NATO undertook to do more about collective defense. The events in Crimea offer dramatic proof of the need to go even further: back to basics and back to NATO’s roots.
In closing, I’ll answer the question I asked: is this the kind of NATO we wanted? Yes, it is. March 29 will mark the 10th anniversary of Estonian accession to NATO. In April, NATO will turn 65. No NATO ally has been attacked militarily during those two generations.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.