In 2014 President Obama told an Estonian audience: ‘Article 5 is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, “who will come to help,” you’ll know the answer — the NATO Alliance, including the Armed Forces of the United States of America…We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.’
As sincere and inspiring as those words are, in reality what can NATO do to protect Baltic independence? Recently there have been several studies that suggest that NATO has neither the scale nor the type of rapidly deployable and available military forces required to defeat a large short-notice Russian military invasion of the Baltic states. There has been a lot of debate amongst NATO policy makers about whether existing Baltic and other NATO military forces in the region would act as a speed bump or a trip wire to a determined Russian assault. However no one is seriously suggesting that NATO could prevent the Russians from occupying some or all of the Baltic states within weeks if that is what Putin decides to do. Of course that is the current situation and it will change. The Warsaw Summit agreed to strengthen NATO forces in the region through the deployment of four battalion-sized battle groups. Combined with agreed procedures for more rapid decision making by NATO governments, as well as other potential changes, this will substantially improve Baltic security.
Nevertheless it is difficult to see any situation in which NATO agrees to forward deploy sufficient forces into the region to actually stop the Russian Army at the border. In the event of a Russian invasion of the Baltic states it is likely that large numbers of NATO citizens will be forced to live under foreign rule for some time. This dilemma is not new for the Alliance. For most of the Cold War, cities such as Hamburg and Hanover close to the inner German border would have been rapidly occupied if the Russians had attacked. Only after reinforcements from the US and elsewhere had arrived would it have been possible to launch a counter attack to liberate them. We appear to be in a similar situation today. NATO may well have to launch a major offensive by land, sea and air to free the Baltic states from occupation, just as during the Cold War detailed plans were developed and exercised by NATO to recover West German territory after the initial Russian attack. The same problem that beset NATO planners then seems to exist today. If significant forces are deployed on the border they are vulnerable to sudden direct attacks and to being cut off from their reinforcements. If they are deployed further back in order to maintain freedom of movement they cannot provide direct protection to civilians close to the border. At present, and by default rather than design, the latter approach has been adopted by NATO. This implies that Baltic governments should actively consider whether or not to plan and prepare for the worst case – how to survive and fight back under Russian military occupation.
Fortunately, once fully mobilised NATO has the military capabilities to launch an operation to free the Baltic states. Casualties would be substantial and, of course, there is no guarantee of success. Various factors will influence the outcome. Would Sweden and Finland be able to preserve their neutrality and protect their airspace and territorial waters from Russian incursions? Would they abandon their neutrality and join NATO? How would China react, and would they allow the Russians to benefit from their substantial arsenal of anti-ship and anti-air systems? Above all would NATO governments have the political will to authorise this type of strategic military action?
The last question would in normal circumstances be relatively easy to answer. NATO stands or falls on its ability to act in unity. Successive generations of NATO political leaders have implicitly endorsed this position and fully understood its implications. When the Baltic states joined the Alliance it was accepted that if necessary North American and West European soldiers, sailors and airmen and women would fight and die for their independence. Today that is still the case but there are already disturbing signs that one or two of the smaller NATO governments may not be as committed to collective defence as they used to be. This is worrying but the current political uncertainty in the US and the UK is even more alarming. Imagine how much more damaging the situation would be if by January 2017 NATO has an isolationist US Government and a UK economic recession that results in cuts to British defence capabilities.
Given this context it is hardly surprising that the Kremlin is continuing to use ambiguous methods (aka hybrid or political warfare) to try and break Alliance cohesion. These operations range from propaganda to assassination, economic boycotts, bribery and encouraging criminal activity. Expensive lobbying and PR companies based in London and elsewhere are employed to try and shift elite opinion. The activities described are partly designed to delay NATO decision making by encouraging as much uncertainty amongst policy makers as possible. We already see some limited Russian success in the battle of ideas being fought amongst those who influence NATO leaders. Earlier this year a British backbench Conservative MP said that the British Government should accept that Crimea will remain Russian for the foreseeable future and not link this to the continued imposition of sanctions. At present this is a minority view within the UK and probably elsewhere in NATO. Is the next logical step for the Kremlin to try and persuade Western politicians that Narva or Daugavpils was and always will be Russian?
US Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump has recently said that US military support to the Baltic states should be conditional. As US President he would only fulfil his obligations under the NATO Treaty ‘if they fulfil their obligations to us’. So far there has been no clarification of what he thinks those ‘obligations’ should be. It may be the case that Mr Trump is unaware of Estonia’s longstanding commitment to deploying troops to combat operations in Afghanistan or its commitment to spending 2% of its GDP on defence. He may also be unaware of the illegality of recent Russian actions in Ukraine. Like some politicians in the UK he is prepared to consider recognising Russia’s claim to Crimea. He also seems to endorse the view of the UK’s new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson expressed before he took up his current post – that the West should back the joint Assad regime/Russian military campaign. Whether Mr Johnson is still arguing for this approach is unclear at present but the continuing uncertainty is a growing concern to policy makers across NATO.
Ministers and their advisors in Western Europe and North America do not have the detailed knowledge of the Baltic region that is needed to rapidly and effectively counter Kremlin-inspired disinformation and other hybrid tactics. There are significant and often controversial debates about citizenship, identity, culture and history. These are of course internal domestic issues which can only ever be resolved locally. However the more knowledge and understanding of these debates that NATO Governments and their electorates have, the more likely they are to resist Russian efforts to mislead and distort the truth. When it comes to distinguishing between truth and falsehood it is well worth recalling the words of the 18th Century British writer, Jonathan Swift: ‘If a lie is believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after’. Deceiving NATO policy makers for even a few days could make the difference between success or failure for the Kremlin’s efforts to de-stabilise the Baltic states. A much richer and more nuanced understanding of the challenges facing these states is urgently required. It is the Governments and civil societies of the Baltic region that are best placed to provide that understanding and guide policy makers on how to tackle Russian deception efforts.
No one believes that decisions made at the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw will provide military parity in the Baltic region. Matching the very substantial Russian military capabilities across the border with equivalent NATO forces in the Baltic region is unlikely to happen soon, if ever, and some would argue that in any case this would be strategically unwise. Nevertheless there will be some strengthening of NATO military capabilities both in the region and elsewhere. What is also under consideration is strengthening the public commitment to defend NATO states. A clear statement about the consequences of any attack on NATO territory could help strengthen deterrence. With the exception of the first use of nuclear weapons, NATO could reiterate its view that all necessary means will be used to defend its member states, including attacks on military targets wherever they may be in Russia. Some will see this as provocative while others will claim it’s too weak. However it could help change at least some mind-sets within the Kremlin.
Strengthening NATO’s deterrence posture in the Baltic region is an essential but costly and challenging task. Therefore at the same time as deterrence is improved, efforts to enhance and expand dialogue with both the Russian people and the Russian Government should and will continue. Despite recent tensions scientific and cultural relations between Russia and European states continues to develop. Are there other areas where dialogue could be encouraged? In the late 1970s and 1980s the Helsinki Accords provided an important mechanism to encourage direct communications between citizens on either side of the Iron Curtain. Now is the time to re-visit those accords and make them fit for the 21st Century. There needs to be far more properly informed debate about security issues in both Europe and Russia. We need to encourage ordinary citizens to challenge their leaders on these questions, whether they are in St Petersburg or Stockholm. However we also need to understand that Russians seeking to encourage an objective debate about these questions face state harassment, imprisonment or worse. In addition the Kremlin is now far more sophisticated in its efforts to undermine civil society. A recent Chatham House paper exposes the extensive efforts made by the Russian state to distort efforts to build citizen-to-citizen contacts
Ultimately the use of military capabilities to deter Russian attacks on NATO is the continuation of politics by other means. The decisions made in Warsaw have military consequences but they are essentially political processes and actions. Defending the Baltic states is not simply a question of funding and deployment of military forces. The key issue is political – what priority do NATO political leaders give to defeating an attack on NATO territory? That is, and will always be, the key political decision.