May 26, 2023

Roundtable Discussion with Minister-President of Lower Saxony: No Room for Complacency

Minister President of Lower Saxony Stephan Weil.
Minister President of Lower Saxony Stephan Weil.

On 25 May 2023, the ICDS hosted a delegation from Germany, led by Stephan Weil, Minister-President of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), for a roundtable discussion moderated by Dr Reinhard Krumm, the head of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s office for the Baltic States in Riga.

Launching the meeting, Dr Kristi Raik, the Deputy Director and Head of the Foreign Policy Programme at the ICDS, noted that there is now far more interest in Estonian analysis than ever before. She emphasised that Estonians are painfully aware that had Ukraine fallen in three days, as was Russia’s initial calculation, the Baltic states would have found themselves in a dire situation. Therefore, there is now an agreement: we must do everything possible to help Ukraine so that war does not come to us.

Similarly, the shock from the Russian aggression has brought the European and Transatlantic communities much closer together. Yet, the hard work shall continue as Russia will remain a difficult neighbour for many years.

Hopes vested in Russia during the 1990s did not materialise because Moscow wanted to hold on to its privileged status in the former soviet space, as evidenced by its initial refusal to withdraw troops from the Baltic states. In the 2000s, the authoritarian system within Russia grew stronger and so did its desire to restore the empire. Step by step, we came closer to the point of the big war that culminated with Moscow’s so-called security demands meant, among other things, to resurrect its sphere of influence.

Dr Raik’s introductory remarks were followed by Tomas Jermalavičius, the Head of Studies and Research Fellow at the ICDS. Mr Jermalavičius pointed out that one would never find a person in the Baltic states who believed that the Russian threat was not acute or that Russia would not resort to using military force — for Moscow, it is akin to riding a bicycle and a means of the regime survival.

What Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly demonstrated is that occupation — even if temporary — of our territory is not an option. In the 1940s, all three Baltic states experienced their own Buchas and Irpins. Today, Russia occupies a part of Ukraine that is roughly the size of Estonia and Latvia taken together.

Although the Russian armed forces suffered significant losses in Ukraine, our intelligence suggests that they might reconstitute in only two to five years — their capability might be poorer in quality but still higher in quantity. For the time being, NATO deterrence holds as both NATO and Russia try to avoid a direct confrontation. However, it is important to remember that deterrence is in the eye of the beholder.

Russian regime has also proven — by waging war against Ukraine — that it is prone to miscalculations. Therefore, we have no room for complacency. Baltic states need a forward defence to hold off potential aggression.

Allied collective capacity has hollowed out. The truth is that we will not be able to stay in the game for a protracted war should it come to us. Thus, were Russia to test us, we would likely have to resort to nuclear deterrence fairly early on. At present, we have a “boutique military,” while Russia has a quantity. To reach the level we need, capability buildup will take us decades. Our plans might be solid, but we still lack the societal and political will to do that, Mr Jermalavičius highlighted.

We do, however, have some positive developments, he continued. For instance, NATO has finally recognised the scale of this challenge. Finland has joined the Alliance, whereas Sweden’s accession will turn it into an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the vital region.

Hope is not a good method of defence planning, Mr Jermalavičius concluded, while Dr Raik stressed that we must make sure that Russia does not make another miscalculation.


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