As small states in a challenging neighborhood, the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – rely heavily on the collective transatlantic security order to counter the Russian threat. The dynamics of this order, underpinned by both the EU and NATO, have entered an era of considerable change. While the United States remains centrally involved in European security affairs, the character of Washington’s diplomatic and military roles has changed significantly. The sharp drawdown of the US military presence from Europe over the past decade has led to the US conventional deterrence posture assuming a lighter, more scalable form. Diplomatically, during the years of the Obama administration, Washington has often preferred a supporting role, encouraging the major European powers to exert greater influence on security matters of transatlantic concern through either the EU or NATO.
Typically supporting the position of the US, the United Kingdom continues to be a strong partner for the Baltic states regarding military cooperation within NATO. However, the upcoming UK referendum on EU membership means that the Baltic states are focused on retaining the UK within the EU, while focusing on other powers. This article will assess Baltic security relations not just with the US, but also with Germany and France, two powers that increasingly influence transatlantic security.
The United States and NATO Deterrence Policy
The US is unquestionably the most important security partner for the Baltic states. In terms of conventional deterrence, Baltic officials trust Washington not just because of America’s military power, but also because they have faith that Washington will fulfill its defense obligations under NATO’s Article 5, which guarantees that an attack on one ally is an attack on all. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the US stepped up its military presence in the region via Operation Atlantic Resolve. 150 US Marines have been deployed on a rotating basis in each Baltic state since April 2014, where they have been conducting joint training.
Despite the increased NATO military presence, some Baltic leaders have traditionally doubted the credibility of NATO defense capabilities in the region. To address this, NATO agreed to create a 5,000-strong “spearhead” Very High-Readiness Joint Task Force in 2014. Yet this, too, has failed to assuage Baltic nerves, as some Baltic politicians have expressed fears that Russia’s military buildup around the Baltic Sea could restrict the arrival of NATO ground troops. The Very High-Readiness Joint Task Force is said to be able to respond within 48-72 hours. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, however, has remarked that the program is “a great idea but it probably is, in terms of the realities, just too late.” 72 hours is too long for an adequate crisis response.
Given this, some Baltic analysts question whether NATO is capable of deterring a Russian attack. If Russia were to occupy territory in the Baltic states, it might threaten a nuclear strike in order to dissuade NATO from responding militarily. Henrik Praks, a researcher at Tallinn’s International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS), advocates stationing considerably more NATO combat troops in the Baltic states to prevent such a threat. Washington, however, has to deal with the Middle East and China as well as Europe. Given these commitments, a significant increase in the US military presence in the Baltic states remains unlikely unless the security situation deteriorates considerably further.
As relations between the Baltic states and Russia remain tense, Germany has had to balance the need to demonstrate solidarity with its Baltic allies while also attempting to salvage Europe’s ties with Russia. Germany is the pivotal player in many EU decisions, and the Baltic states have prioritized relations with Berlin.
However, this does not mean that Berlin and the Baltic states always see eye to eye. Germany prefers a more accommodative policy towards Russia compared to Poland and other European states. The reasons for Germany’s desire to maintain a working relationship with Moscow include its lack of a direct border with Russia, as well as strong trade ties. Moreover, Germany’s strategic culture focuses on economic rather than military levers. Many in Berlin are uncomfortable with military options.
Because of this, German preferences often diverge from the Baltic states’ preferred policies. For example, many in the Baltic states advocated sending lethal weapons to Ukraine in spring 2015. This was strongly opposed by Berlin. Despite a vote in favor from the US House of Representatives, this policy was also declined by President Obama. Whereas German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Obama ultimately feared that such a policy would escalate the conflict, many Baltic leaders argued that supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons would deter Russia from expanding its military operations in Ukraine.
A second disagreement relates to the permanent stationing of NATO troops in the Baltic states. Visiting Latvia in August 2014, Merkel reaffirmed that NATO would defend the Baltic states, but she ruled out permanently stationing combat troops. Berlin argues that such a move would violate the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act which stated that the alliance would not station additional large-scale combat forces as NATO integrated new allies. This provision was agreed in light of the “current and foreseeable security environment” foreseen at the time of the Founding Act’s signature.
The German position continues to disappoint many Baltic officials, who argue that the East European security environment has deteriorated far beyond the benign conditions of the late 1990s. These officials would prefer a larger, longer-term NATO military presence in the region. Given America’s increasing delegation of transatlantic security policy to the European powers, many in the Baltic states hoped that Berlin would play a major role in solidifying NATO deterrence on its “eastern flank”. Disagreements over how to do this, however, represent an ongoing challenge in security relations between Germany and the Baltic states.
France: A Reliable Newcomer?
Since reintegrating into NATO’s military command in 2009, France has played a greater role in Western security. Of the Baltic three, Estonia has been the most agile in adjusting to France’s new prominence within the transatlantic fold. For example, Paris contributed 1,200 of the 6,000 troops that participated in NATO’s Steadfast Jazz military exercise in the Baltic states and Poland in November 2013. In return, following France’s decision to lead the EU military mission in the Central African Republic, Estonia was the first ally to offer assistance, sending 50 troops to the country in 2014. When the Estonian contingent returned from the expedition, Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas argued that: “Estonia gave a clear promise and started fulfilling it. Our determination gives Estonia a moral right to expect immediate help from others should we ever need it.”
However, some doubts hang over fledgling Baltic-French security relations. First, French security engagement with the east has frequently focused narrowly on relations with Moscow. The Baltic states strongly backed the EU’s Eastern Partnership, which promotes regional stability through the promotion of liberal political and economic reforms in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. However, France placed little diplomatic energy into the Eastern Partnership. Instead, Paris wants the EU to focus on stability around the Mediterranean.
Second, following the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, France’s decision to sell two Mistral assault vessels to Russia in 2009 was roundly criticized by Baltic politicians. Indeed, three months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, 400 Russian naval officers arrived at the French port of St. Nazaire in late June 2014 to receive the training required to operate the vessels. Eventually, Paris was persuaded to cancel the deal, but the Mistral episode did little to foster greater trust in security relations between the Baltic states and France.
Finally, France and the Baltic states emphasize different threat perceptions. As early as January 2015, for example, President François Hollande said he would consider dropping EU economic sanctions against Russia. During the crisis following the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, French diplomats again suggested lifting sanctions in order to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation with Russia. This suggestion was met with hostility in Baltic capitals. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė argued that Russia should not be exonerated given its “acts of war” against Georgia and Ukraine while her Latvian counterpart, Raimonds Vējonis, emphasized that combating the Islamic State should not distract from the Western effort to confront Russia. Thus, the prospects for enhanced Baltic security cooperation with France remain mixed.
In terms of collective transatlantic security provision, the Baltic states do not always get what they want, but they mostly get what they need. As the Baltic countries seek to enhance NATO’s deterrence ability in the region and to maintain Western pressure on Russia, their diplomacy should focus on a wider set of allies. Washington will continue to play a key role. However, the Baltic states need the strategic foresight to continue accumulating diplomatic capital in both Paris and Berlin. Increased influence in shaping European security affairs means that over the coming years both powers will play a larger role in upholding the security of the Baltic three.