The mounting crises experienced in the past decade by the West have highlighted the many risks Europe faces. The effects of the financial crisis still plague many nations, debate about Middle Eastern refugees is kindling tension, and the Russian invasion of Crimea has half a hemisphere on edge. To shield themselves from further international upheaval, many European countries have shifted resources to bolstering cooperation with more familiar regional partners.
This trend is particularly important to the Baltic States, who in addition to facing economic and refugee crises, are also most vulnerable to Russian aggression. For the three states, greater regional collaboration brings many benefits. A symphony of three voices carries more gravitas internationally than a cacophony. Unified foreign policies offer clarity and ease coordination. Pooling resources increases competitiveness with regard to external partners. Most importantly, a sturdy Baltic partnership offers a bulwark against global turbulence. Yet, in the face of these advantages, a strong Baltic solidarity has only recently begun to surface. The question this analysis will ask is: how united are the Baltic states?
The keys to understanding inter-Baltic dynamics lie in the past 25 years. After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the three nations had one major objective – Western integration. In 2004, they became members of NATO and the EU. During the 13 years that it took to reach these goals, Baltic fraternization was of secondary importance. The current President of Estonia famously illustrated this sentiment in a 1999 speech titled “Estonia as a Nordic Country,” stating that Lithuania and Estonia have stronger links to Poland and the Nordic nations respectively, than they do to the Baltics. While cooperation between the states was at a relative low point during the 90s, Baltic cooperation sporadically continued. The early 1990s witnessed the formation of the Baltic Assembly and the Baltic Council of Ministers. Supplementing them was the Nordic-Baltic 8, which was initiated in year 2000. However, the main form of unity came via the shared aim of Western integration. For this objective, adopting the identities of their Western neighbors was more appealing for their goal than building a Baltic identity.
As members of the EU and NATO, regional cooperation was less significant, as the four freedoms of the internal market handled economic integration, while NATO coordinated defense. Focus shifted to properly implementing the accepted obligations. In spheres where the EU and NATO were absent authority, the Baltic states continued to lack a single voice. For instance, the countries’ leaders struggled to agree in 2005 about how to respond to an invitation from Moscow to celebrate with 54 other European leaders the 60th anniversary of victory in the Second World War. The Latvian ex-President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga attended the celebration, attempting to highlight that the date also marked the renewed Soviet occupation of Latvia. The other Baltic leaders stayed home. The disharmony was reinforced by internal disagreements between the states, like the failure of Lithuania and Latvia to ratify their sea border agreement for over a decade.
A noticeable change took place after the 2009 economic crisis with the creation of the EU’s Baltic Sea Strategy. As the first macro-regional strategy in Europe, it set three pillars aimed at protecting the sea, connecting the region, and increasing prosperity. While Brussels had previously shunned independent regionalization, the financial crisis forced a shift toward subsidiarity. Development of regional strategy was no longer a top-down scenario. As Professor Žaneta Ozoliņa highlighted, the states were now “firmly back in the driving seat.” The Baltic Sea Strategy was initially described as a” ‘soft’ strategy, based on goodwill, commitment and partnership.” A few years down the line it has been declared a success, barring the “lack of ownership” by participating states.
Concurrently, two shifts occurred in foreign policy. The first was an expansion of cooperation between the Baltic and Nordic States. The latter had formed the NORDEFCO defense cooperation framework in 2009. While initially the framework confined itself to its founding states, by 2011 Baltic participation was underway and has increased significantly.
The second policy shift was toward increased cooperation among the Baltic states themselves. Working in unison with the Nordic states, the Baltic nations began to unify their goals under the EU supervised Baltic Strategy. This in turn encouraged a convergence of foreign policy. A duplicate effect took place in the Nordic-Baltic 8. Extended NB8 cooperation formats like E-Pine with the US, the Northern Future Forum with the UK, and the Visegrad Group have all necessitated a more uniform position from the Baltic states, especially due to the rotating leadership structure of the organization. Given the overlap of these regional efforts with numerous smaller trilateral efforts between the states, the foundation of a coordinated Baltic external strategy has been established.
The past few years in particular have witnessed significant joint efforts. Several new military cooperation projects have been started, forming cooperative medical units, military management services, logistics, and information systems. The Rail Baltica project, which was discussed as early as the 1990’s, finally had a construction date set in 2011. As a result, a new railway will connect the Baltic States to central Europe in less than five years. As professor Toms Rostoks’ notes, between 2006 and 2013, debate about active Baltic cooperation in Latvian parliament has increased exponentially. Though what professor Rein Taagepera described as a “lack of Baltic emotions” is still an issue, the Baltic identity is no longer seen as ‘’shameful, but as a resource.’’
Yet despite the successes of Baltic cooperation, myriad challenges remain. The three states’ energy markets, for example, remain mostly unconnected, with no straightforward options to achieve greater integration. The Visaginas nuclear power plant project, in which companies from all the Baltic countries were to have a share, has come to a halt. Each country is wary of any energy disturbances which might affect their relationship with Russia, given that all three depend on Russian gas, and that the Kremlin has previously used the resource as a political tool. While the Baltic states have had great success in military cooperation, doubling their joint military projects in the past few years, cooperative materiel procurement is also a point of disagreement. Lastly, the differing attitudes towards Russia make it difficult to cooperate with the Eastern neighbor in a unified manner. For example, the outspoken stance against Russian actions held by the Lithuanian president Grybauskaitė, calling Russia a “terrorist state” post-Ukrainian invasion, and the dissemination of hybrid-war manuals among its citizens, is a stark juxtaposition to the subtler criticisms posed by Latvia.
To answer the initial question: the Baltic states still differ on many aspects, but they have taken large strides towards closer cooperation. In the past 25 years, the three nations have passed through several phases: they have joined the West, implemented its standards, and taken leadership positions in the region. The period of Baltic independence has been short enough to excuse the lack of significant unity among them. However, their efforts in recent years point to a ‘Baltification’ of their strategies, and suggest a slope of continuing cooperation. Of course, lasting convergence cannot be taken for granted. Each country must carefully examine what the extent of their cooperation will be, now that they are no longer constrained by the strategy of Western integration undertaken in the 90s.
Opinions about where the Baltic states should concentrate in the future differ greatly. Proposals range from grassroots Baltic integration via the development of a Baltic fund, to a focus on investing available resources further into the Nordic-Baltic partnership. However, if the Baltics are to follow the global paradigm of securing regional partnership, they will need more than simply a united foreign policy. Political leaders should focus on cooperation as a tool for solving some of the toughest problems, such as dependence on Russian gas. To this end, the Visaginas power plant project offered an effective solution. It should be restarted. Regardless of the methods chosen for anchoring the Baltic partnership, investments made today must weigh enough to entrench the Baltics against the tumult of future storms.