The Baltic States and Poland are not easy to defend due to their geographical location, but they are no longer easy to attack either.
The Wales national football team has not yet had the good fortune of beating Russia, which is why the football score in the title cannot be found on Google. I am thinking figuratively of the decisions reached at the NATO Summit held in Wales on 4–5 September 2014, which, in one way or another, are very unpleasant for Russia and sustain the idea of a strategic defeat of the policies of Vladimir Putin’s regime, its ambitions and adventures, at least in the direction of the countries that joined NATO after the end of the Cold War.
Back to Basics
It is worth recalling that the North Atlantic Alliance was formed in 1949 in order to fight against the direct military and ideological threat posed by Russia (at the time in the form of the Soviet Empire), so that Russian tanks located in Berlin, Warsaw and Prague, not to mention Tallinn, could not reach the English Channel. The Alliance remained a unified and strong front, despite the fact that Charles de Gaulle kept losing his temper, and tension between Turkey and Greece.
The Western world triumphed at the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union collapsed. Not only did NATO continue to exist—unlike the Warsaw Pact, which fell apart quickly—but it also initiated new strategic courses of action in addition to its primary mission of collective defence. The first of these was to launch military operations outside its territory, whether to end genocide against Albanians or to fight against the terrorism of the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan. Secondly, NATO established partnerships and started to cooperate with many countries—including Russia with the Founding Act of the NATO–Russian relationship being signed in 1997. The most important thing for us was that the Alliance continued its “open door policy” by accepting into the organisation countries, including Estonia, that shared common values with the liberal and democratic Western world. Those values are now remarkably topical, at least for President Obama, who visited Tallinn in this atmosphere just before the summit in Wales.
Now, however, a new phase has begun in the history of the Alliance as well as in relations between Russia and the Western world in general. Military cooperation with Russia has been effectively ended, ideological opposition is heating up and NATO is returning to its raison d’être after the long and exhausting years in Afghanistan. People state with concern, some more explicitly and others more euphemistically, that Putin’s Russia is still—as the Baltic States and Poland have tirelessly repeated over the years—a real threat to European security. This means that the “frontline states”, or allies which it is easiest for Russia to attack due to their geographical location, quickly need to get enough efficient military assistance from the stronger NATO allies to deter Putin, or at least make him really scratch his head before he embarks on another military adventure.
The Founding Act Still in Force, but on the Ash Heap of History
Russia annexed Crimea, part of a sovereign neighbouring country, in a most brutal manner and then began wider aggression against Ukraine, with the clear intention of reversing the political course of Kiev and subjecting it to the will of the Kremlin; or at least, in the short term, of gaining a firm foothold in Eastern Ukraine in order to put Kiev’s new government under severe strain and force its surrender. In this situation, the allies went to the summit in Wales facing a dilemma about whether the NATO–Russian Founding Act was of any continuing value or should be cancelled. Putin has clearly thrown this Founding Act onto the ash heap of history, like the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Several allies justifiably demanded the cancellation of the Founding Act, which has lost its meaning, but Angela Merkel did not think so when she visited Riga. Such a political step, which would not actually change anything, was too much for her. According to her, NATO needs to adhere to the Founding Act precisely and point-by-point, regardless of the fact that Russia does not respect it.
The saga of the Founding Act would not really matter had it not been strictly ensured in Wales that the methods for strengthening the defence of the eastern allies would not contradict the wording of the Act and that, as a result of the decisions reached at the summit, no “notable forces”—not to mention the permanent NATO bases at which Russia could get “justifiably” irritated—would be established in Estonia, Latvia etc. thanks to the contribution of the other allies. When looking at the messages of the leaders of France and Germany addressed to Russia and, on the other hand, to the Baltic States and Poland, it feels as if they are telling us, “Do not interfere in our relations with Russia – we have big(ger) interests at play there. With our smart, diplomacy-oriented politics, we prevent military threats to the members of the Alliance in the best way possible. We contribute to your defence and you need to be satisfied with that.” Unfortunately, when Russia defeats Ukraine, such a political scheme will become increasingly implausible. I am afraid it is not possible to politically “divide” Ukraine in cooperation with Putin, i.e. to find a satisfactory modus vivendi, much less to ensure the sovereignty of the country and restore its territorial integrity. After all, it is stated in the Founding Act that Russia is NATO’s strategic partner. In the current situation, it is all the more peculiar that Russia is clearly defined as the greatest military threat to the Alliance.
Our Military Defence is Getting Stronger
Indeed, as Eerik-Niiles Kross aptly put it, a unique historical window has mysteriously opened to Estonia every ten years since 1994, which enables us to strengthen our security and military defence substantially. The ongoing process actually began after the quick annexation of Crimea. About ten years ago, I participated in the negotiations on the initial plans for the Ämari Airbase and I recall how the Estonian Ministry of Defence worked hard for years afterwards to ensure that the airbase would be actively used, having gone through a very modern renovation that was largely funded by the other NATO countries. Putin sort of solved this issue in just a few days by cutting the Gordian knot of Lithuanian reluctance and soon there were so many planes present that the airbase apron could not accommodate any more. Barack Obama, President of the United States, asserted in Tallinn and in Wales that the Ämari Airbase would also host a US-administrated regional air force training centre, where the Americans also plan to bring their own unit—this in addition to NATO’s Air Policing mission and the fighter aircraft used for it. We could hardly have hoped for a better outcome.
Secondly, the NATO Response Force (NRF) that was established years ago has received reinforcements in the form of operational forces in an even speedier manner. Sven Mikser, Estonian Minister of Defence, and the ministers of the UK, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands signed a memorandum of joint intentions, on the basis of which these countries will launch preparations for the formation of a new military rapid response force—a joint expeditionary force. It is planned to include about 7,000 servicemen from all three military branches.
Thirdly, the presence of the allies, but especially the United States, is crucially important. The Americans are present—there is one army company in each of the three Baltic States and Poland. More serious heavy weaponry, such as main battle tanks, but also the arrival of other allies such as the Danes or Germans, can soon be expected. All of this costs, but—to paraphrase appeals dating from the time of the Battle of Britain—no amount of money is too large when our freedom and independence are at stake. The number of allied forces present in Estonia, in addition to the Estonian Defence Forces and Estonian Defence League, may not be enough in every situation, but this is why joint expeditionary forces are formed. What is more, a certain amount of allied military equipment will probably be positioned in Estonia and the infrastructure necessary for the support of the recipient country will be improved in order to greatly facilitate the rapid arrival, movement and action of the allied forces. According to Bronisław Komorowski, President of Poland, the EU Observer relayed that “the only new facilities will include airfields, vehicle parks, and ammunition depots to help it to deploy more quickly” instead of bases. Indeed, we do not need those large and very expensive bases dating from the Cold War, which would be easy to attack.
Fourthly, NATO training will take place on an almost continuous basis in the Baltic Sea region to ensure constant readiness. Russia has shown that, at the right moment, the country can turn extensive and quickly organised military exercises into an active offensive on the basis of the forces involved in the exercises, and the reaction to the offensive needs to take place not in days, but within hours. There are also other elements of hybrid warfare, such as the “little green men”, to consider. Ongoing exercises and the increased presence of the Allies constitute a deterrent factor which Putin can no longer underestimate. The Baltic States and Poland are not easy to defend due to their geographical location, but they are no longer easy to attack either. In addition to the political and economic consequences, Russia now also needs to take strong military resistance into account.
And finally, Estonia achieved another feat in Wales in a field in which we—a small country!—have performed equally with the great Allies: cyber protection. The cyber laboratory of the Estonian Defence Forces will become the official training centre for NATO.
European Union 0 Russia 1
Before the summit in Wales, François Hollande, President of France, decided to postpone the handover to Russia of the first ultramodern and powerful Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok for at least a month (i.e. to organise delivery no earlier than in December instead of November). This did not directly concern the issues officially discussed and settled in Wales, but it was naturally an important, necessary and expected step, especially in the capitals of those Allies that fear the continuance of aggressive Russian policy the most—and with good reason. Several capitals rushed to welcome Hollande’s decision. It seemed to be a fundamental turn and a highly positive development in current French policy, especially before the summit, in a situation where Russia generated more tension, and in the context of the new and more severe sanctions that the EU had designed for the forthcoming weekend. However, it was only a tragicomic effort to save face, which lasted for just a few days because it only took a telegram-like message from Kiev saying that a ceasefire deal had been reached in Minsk with the so-called separatists—a deal that no longer holds in any way—for Hollande to enthusiastically overturn his decision about the carrier. He added that he would think about it until the end of October. What is there to think about?
On the other hand, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, also hurried to announce that it was no longer necessary to impose the latest anti-Russian sanctions, which had been developed but then put on hold. Do Merkel and Hollande really believe that the aggressive policies of Putin or his puppets (the so-called separatist leaders, who have, by the way, stated that they will not give up “independence”) are becoming acceptable to Europe (as a whole) and the United States?
France and Germany are increasingly playing their game (let’s say it is chess) by the rules of Putin’s game (let’s say it is draughts). This is why Hollande needed to take back his knight and why Merkel hurried—in the face of a totally possible checkmate for Putin—to return her chess pieces as near as possible to their initial positions. Hollande’s U-turns, which took place only a few days apart, are not signs of serious policy, and neither is the German Chancellor’s enthusiasm for clutching at straws, no matter how implausible and uncontrollable they are, so as not to “punish” Russia. If Putin survives this critical situation, then it will be not so much due to his armed forces and alleged popularity in his homeland, but rather to the aforementioned hypocritical game of chess, which is played by the rules of draughts. And Putin can bravely look to the future and calmly choose his next victim, because Ukraine has already been brought to the altar of the Kremlin.
Estonia can be satisfied with what NATO has already done and is planning to do to ensure our security and protection. As Pauli Järvenpää rightly said in the columns of the daily newspaper Postimees, the Alliance is starting to pay off for us. On the other hand, as long as Putin is in power and keeps on shaping and carrying out aggressive Russian policy, we have no choice but to continuously strengthen our military defence. The fate of Ukraine has not yet been decided, but the European Union should follow NATO’s lead and show more solidarity and determination over the Russian issue. Otherwise, the synergy of NATO and EU actions towards Russia will be wasted and solving problems will just be postponed.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.