The Baltic States in European Security: A Report of an FPRI Roundtable at the 25th Biennial Meeting of the American Association of Baltic Studies
June 30, 2016
On May 27-30, 2016, the American Association of Baltic Studies held its 25th biennial meeting at the University of Pennsylvania. FPRI was pleased to be a sponsor of the meeting, host of a roundtable discussion, and co-host of the keynote address by Estonian President and UPenn alum Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Herewith is a report of the FPRI Roundtable.
The roundtable was chaired by Chris Miller, editor of FPRI’s Baltic Bulletin, who laid out the importance of the Baltic States: “[f]rom energy policy to e-government, from geopolitics to economic policy, the Baltic countries are playing an outsized role in Europe’s future.” He acknowledged the groundbreaking developments in new energy, technology, and media sectors across the Baltics before turning his attention to the security dilemma that the Baltic countries now face. Confronted by an aggressive Russia and protected by a European Union and NATO treaty alliance that have come under pressure at home and abroad, an understanding of Baltic security in the context of European and international security and stability is an important topic of discussion.
Ron Granieri, Executive Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of America and the West, began the roundtable discussion by raising the question of NATO security as a matter of symbolism and/or substance. He noted that the feeling of being secure – achieved by the Baltic States with membership in the European Union and NATO in 2004 – is circumstantially different from the actual state of being secure. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO membership engendered enormous symbolic significance as a member of the “West” committed to the norms of liberal democracy and governance. However, while NATO continues to wield its symbolic might, there is a burgeoning lack of enthusiasm to back up NATO treaty obligations, (specifically Article V), especially from within Europe itself. Therefore, Granieri brought attention to the fact that within NATO, symbolism and reality are in competition with each-other and the expectations of security harbored by NATO members has grown weak in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Granieri’s pragmatic pessimism over the current state of NATO served to heighten the urgency of the debate over the role of the Baltic States within this weakening architecture.
Mitchell Orenstein, FPRI Senior Fellow and Professor of Central and East European politics in the Slavic department of the University of Pennsylvania, responded by looking closely at Baltic Security after the Ukraine Crisis. Orenstein drew attention to the war games modeled by the Rand Corporation as described in early February 2016 in an article entitled “If Russia Started a War in the Baltics, NATO Would Lose — Quickly.” He drew a distinction between the fact that even though the prospects for a Russian invasion of the Baltic States is not necessarily high, the NATO alliance is in a position to be rendered meaningless very quickly in the event of an invasion in which the NATO consensus crumbles around Article V implementation. However, Orenstein also detailed the optimistic side of Baltic security; the countries bordering the Baltic Sea beyond the Baltic States, including Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Finland, taken together are quite comparable to Russia in terms of military strength, though they lack unity and commitment as the Nordic countries remain outside of NATO (and distal Norway is not a member of the European Union). Therefore, while the Baltics do in fact have a number of regional allies at their disposal, a lack of central planning and spending hamstrings Baltic Sea security as a whole. Nonetheless, Orenstein pointed out the gradual change in policy and awareness in the West, citing the recent Swedish Host Nation Support Agreement signed and ratified as a NATO cooperation agreement on May 25, and NATO’s plans to rotate four more armored brigades to Eastern Europe in 2017. With this buildup in mind, Orenstein concluded by noting the security dilemma in which NATO deployment (attempting to make NATO more secure) is actually perceived as a threat to Russia, which may choose to increase its own forces in the region (attempting to make Russia more secure) and vice versa. This security dilemma has a potential to spiral out of control, and evidence exists that Russia has already acted in retaliation by supporting right-wing civil society groups, preforming surveillance operations, blackmail, cyber threats, and disinformation campaigns within Europe itself, and building a new army base and anti-tank defenses on the border with Eastern Ukraine.
Next, Karl Altau, Managing Director of the Joint Baltic American National Committee, added his insights on Baltic security as understood by the policymaking community in Washington, D.C. He added that after NATO enlargement in 2004, Baltic security was seen as a done deal, with a focus on other concerns including human rights and sanctions on Belarus and later on Russia. However, Russia’s 2007 cyber attack on Estonia, 2008 invasion of Georgia, 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, and invasion of Eastern Ukraine alerted Washington to a greater level of awareness of Baltic and Eastern European security more generally. Altau praised efforts such as FPRI’s new Eurasia Program and Baltic Initiative for bringing attention to the Baltics while giving expression to his concern for other, more vulnerable nations like Georgia and Ukraine, that have not benefited from an arrangement like the Baltic States’ Cold War era “non-recognition policy” that preserved state continuity and diplomatic relations with the United States between 1940 and 1991. Thus, Altau called for more congressional working groups to engage with both the Baltics and other countries of Eastern Europe, and advocated the use of the newest forms of media, including social media, to combat Russian propaganda.
John Haines, FPRI Senior Fellow and co-Director of FPRI’s Eurasia Program, brought up American diplomat George Kennan’s distinction between vital and peripheral interests to analyze both NATO and Russia’s conceptions of doctrinal versus military force. He also questioned the doctrinal commitment of NATO members, citing the low support for NATO’s Article V within Europe. Haines stressed the growing importance of the Baltic waterway as a path both into and out of the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Sea. The latter is playing an increasing role in naval strategy as Russia’s interests in Arctic oil have begun to materialize. Haines later added that the frequency of sub-acute threats, including serial provocations such as the buzzing of vessels, planes, and bases, and the insertion of “little green men,” has begun to strip away the credibility of large regional organizations such as NATO, and forces a sober reconsideration of interests and threats – both vital and peripheral – for NATO to be an effective form of deterrence and security in the future.
Finally, the panel was joined by Andres Kasekamp, Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and Professor of Baltic Politics at the University of Tartu in Estonia. Kasekamp brought his expertise on the Nordic countries in Baltic security to the table, discussing Finnish and Swedish attitudes towards NATO, the concerns from Finland over the benefits of NATO membership, and the concerns from Estonia over Finnish wavering. He explained that Finland and Sweden would ideally like to move together, either joining or not joining NATO together. Kasekamp expressed his concern over keeping the Nordic States out of NATO, and particularly the Baltic Sea contingency planning, but cited Sweden’s new NATO Host Nation memorandum as a small step forward towards bringing the Nordic countries into the fold. In Sweden, public opinion is currently in favor of NATO membership whereas the country’s politicians remain opposed. In Finland, the situation is reversed, and Finnish policymakers approve of NATO membership while public opinion disapproves. Finishing on a note of irony, Kasekamp noted that the Finns should have joined the NATO with the Baltic States in 2004 when there was little notion of Russian revanchism. However, during that time there was no need for the Finns to join NATO as Russian remained weak and were busy rebuilding after the tumultuous economic collapse of the 1990s. Kasekamp added that is now too dangerous to join NATO without the threat of provoking Russia, which has been made apparent by the abundance of mischief that Russian jets, cyber hackers, and media propagandists have been practicing over the past few months.
After this vigorous and informative roundtable discussion, the panelists invited the audience to ask a series of questions moderated by Chris Miller.
Granieri answered questions on divergent NATO threat thresholds by detailing that a larger and more diverse NATO is susceptible to more vulnerabilities as well as more diverse policy responses that threaten the cogency of a united NATO response. Furthermore, Granieri acknowledged that the terms of NATO’s Article V are non-binding, simply asking each member (in the face of an attack on another member) to “exercise… the right of individual or collective self-defense… as it deems necessary.” This soft language is therefore another weakness of a NATO collective action. As Granieri reminded the audience, the only time Article 5 has ever been invoked was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and the United States declined the assistance of other NATO members, rendering Article V effectively useless. Later, Granieri argued that the regime in Russia is fundamentally opposed to U.S. liberal interests, and that a partnership with Russia is unlikely in the near future, as tensions over vital and peripheral interests will continue to persist.
Orenstein answered questions on international relations theory and explained the model of a security dilemma to the audience, adding that realist cooperation remains a viable solution to the puzzle of unwanted escalation, but that this type of geopolitical compromise would be unpalatable to the policies of the European Union. Later Orenstein took up a question regarding the Baltic economies. He noted that the once-dominant neoliberal agenda was being dismantled from the inside out, and that even in the Baltic States, where the commitment towards austerity and the neoliberal agenda once won the Baltics a spot in the European Union and the Euro, has been bad at providing jobs and has increased outward migration, thus threatening the sanctity of the neoliberal model across all of Europe.
Finally, Kasekamp addressed a number of questions on Estonian efforts to integrate Russian-language speakers and ways to improve trans-Atlantic security and cooperation. On the one hand, he noted that Estonia is not Eastern Ukraine, and the model of Russian-language speakers in Russia’s near abroad is different in the Baltics due to the successes of local assimilation efforts and programs, such as Estonia’s new Russian-language broadcast channel, but could use more support in the form of cultural integration projects and affirmative action programs. Furthermore, Kasekamp argued that the political benefits of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could anchor trans-Atlantic unity. He acknowledged that European sanctions on Russia, and Russia’s retaliatory sanctions primarily on European food imports, have done some harm to the Baltic economies, but the effects go both ways as many Russians have emigrated to Estonia instead. Kasekamp lauded the Baltic States for anchoring themselves within the NATO alliance, Estonia housing the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, Lithuania housing the NATO Energy Security Center of Excellence, and Latvia housing the new NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence. However, Kasekamp ended by worrying if NATO and the Baltic States themselves are too preoccupied by Russia’s so-called hybrid strategies and spend too little money or attention preparing the hardware for actual material defense – questions that will assuredly be raised and debated in Warsaw at the NATO Summit on July 8-9, 2016.
 See “NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,” by Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes, and Jacob Poushter, Pew Research Center report, June 10, 2015.