September 2, 2014

NATO’s presence in the Baltic states

REFILE - ADDING FAMILY NAME OF ESTONIA'S PRESIDENT NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen shakes hands with Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (L) after a joint news conference at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels December 9, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
REFILE - ADDING FAMILY NAME OF ESTONIA'S PRESIDENT NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen shakes hands with Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (L) after a joint news conference at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels December 9, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)

In recent weeks, Estonia has seen an active discussion about NATO’s presence in the Baltic states. What type of presence do the Baltic states require? Is the current level enough, or should it increase? Should the deployed units be permanent or rotating? Do we need fully equipped units or are prepositioned stocks enough? Should the forces be deployed at significant or symbolic levels? Why should NATO continue to honour the 1997 Founding Act between NATO and Russia, if Russia itself no longer honours that agreement?

In recent weeks, Estonia has seen an active discussion about NATO’s presence in the Baltic states. What type of presence do the Baltic states require? Is the current level enough, or should it increase? Should the deployed units be permanent or rotating? Do we need fully equipped units or are prepositioned stocks enough? Should the forces be deployed at significant or symbolic levels? Why should NATO continue to honour the 1997 Founding Act between NATO and Russia, if Russia itself no longer honours that agreement?

When Russian Federation armed forces launched the occupation of Crimea on 27 February 2014, NATO member states also snapped into gradually increasing levels of action. On 6 March, the US strengthened the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, sending six F-15 fighter planes and two KC-135 aerial refuelling planes to Šiauliai Air Force Base in Lithuania to join four aircraft previously based there.
On 16 April, the North Atlantic Council moved to strengthen NATO’s collective defence and demonstrate the alliance’s solidarity by deploying more planes, ships and ground units, including to the Baltic Sea region. A week later, four mine countermeasure vessels and a naval auxiliary headed to the Baltic Sea. At the end of April, four companies in the US 173rd Airborne Brigade were deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to join local defence forces in conducting exercises and shoring up security in the region. Starting in May, the Baltic Air Policing Mission expanded geographically (Ämari Air Force Base in Estonia was utilized) and in number.
NATO’s decision was intended to reassure member states and demonstrate to Russia that the alliance was indeed resolved to defend itself no matter what happened. This was the reason that symbolic units were sent to the Baltics and Poland: to underscore the solidarity. If the goal was not reassurance but preparations for an imminent military attack, NATO would not have limited its new Baltic Sea region deployments to a handful of aircraft, mine countermeasure vessels and paratrooper companies.
In the situation we now find ourselves in, there is no possibility of going back to business as usual a few months from now. The security paradigm has changed. Russia has publicly and unashamedly decided to turn away from the European Union and NATO and send forces into the territory of a sovereign neighbouring state. NATO’s response must thus also be different to the measures it has used to this point. Of course, any NATO activity can be labelled as “temporary” to placate German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but something has to change in the way the alliance is thinking. As recently as last decade, territorial defence, armoured forces and reserve forces were often considered outdated and unusable, but today they are regaining their importance. It is now just as important as it was during the Cold War to defend national territory, using heavy armoured forces where necessary and bolster armed forces with reserves. The military commanders and defence officials who started their careers in the early 1990s now have to accept that few of the previous understandings apply.
While NATO must not and cannot act like Russia, the alliance does have to prepare to defend its member states. Substantial combat forces will have to be stationed in the Baltics already in peacetime, as the Ukraine conflict has shown that when push comes to shove, large European countries are unlikely to deploy forces for fear of escalating the situation. We should also assume that it would be logistically complicated or impossible to deploy additional forces after a conflict has already broken out. Moreover, permanent NATO forces stationed in the Baltics should become just as well versed with conditions on the ground as they were in, say, West Germany during the Cold War. In those days, field exercises involving 100,000 troops were held – something the Baltics have not seen thus far. The goal must be to protect NATO member states, not just comfort the local population.
Take another example: South Korea’s land area is a bit more than twice that of Estonia’s, yet 30,000 US servicemen are stationed on Korean soil. It would not be conceivable to permanently base 10,000-15,000 NATO military personnel in Estonia, because of political, military and geographical reasons. But due to the new situation, it is high time to start debunking the old thinking and to acknowledge the need to preposition equipment and station forces numbering in the thousands in the Baltics.
The tragedy of Ukraine is the fact that it receives moral support from some European countries and the US, but not military aid. Moral support is not enough, and thus Ukraine is fighting on its own for its life. The Baltic states and Poland, being NATO and EU members, need substantial military presence in addition to moral support and symbolic moves.

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