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A nation must think before it acts.
In the Baltics, the NATO Warsaw Summit is viewed as a momentous event, marking a shift to a deterrent stance vis-à-vis Russia with the decision to deploy the four multinational battalions to Eastern Europe. This article contributes two new perspectives to the analytical voices discussing the key implications of the Summit. First, it reflects on and contextualizes the narratives and popular perceptions of the Summit in the Baltics that may not be immediately obvious to outside observers. Second, it highlights the views from the Warsaw Summit Experts’ Forum (WSEF) – a high-level Summit sideline event that considered the key agenda items in a less politically charged environment.
The multinational battalions have received disproportionate attention in the Baltic media. The boost to missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and greater consideration for cyber offensive measures were also discussed in passing. Meanwhile, the significance and implications of NATO-EU cooperation has been almost entirely lost on local audiences, and the return of nuclear issues to the table has hardly been mentioned. Perhaps most importantly, the Baltics seem to be missing out on NATO plans to address the underlying socio-economic causes of instability and insecurity that are of immediate concern to the Southern flank, but ultimately are also at the core of the alliance’s future direction.
Although many are questioning whether four battalions constitute a sufficient deterrent force, their core contribution is to signal alliance unity. For the past several years, public sentiment in many NATO member states has been playing right into the divide-and-conquer theme that epitomizes Russia’s policy towards Eastern Europe. On one side are opinion polls showing Western European reluctance to defend the Baltics in case of an armed incursion. On the other is the historic Baltic refrain that the U.S. is their real security guarantor while contributions from other NATO allies are welcome but almost second-rate. The gradual U.S. shift towards more substantive burden sharing, which includes trading away some of its consistent presence in the Baltics for that of the other allies, is thus unnerving for local observers. However, it ought to provide a strong impetus to revisit these perceptions. While the U.S. continues with statements and gestures of support towards the Baltics through (such as the recent Biden visit to Latvia), it is important to revisit some of these the perceptions surrounding European collective defense and recalibrate the internal balance of the Alliance in line with the shifting geopolitical realities
On the other hand, the strategic intent of signaling Alliance strength through unity risks being undercut by domestic political considerations in Western European NATO members. Thus far, Canada has been the only country to publicly advertise its upcoming presence in the Baltics, detailing the intended force size, accompanying military equipment, and planned deployment dates in early 2017. Meanwhile, Germany and France have historically sought cooperation and closer ties to Russia, and left the Summit with notable unease about the Alliance’s harsher stance. With 2017 an election year in both of these countries, there is already palpable reluctance to hold the force commitment up to public scrutiny, and to downplay it as a capacity-building mission not directed at any particular adversary.
Finally, there is the outstanding need for building greater inter-operability – recognized but not much discussed at the Summit. In each of the Baltic states, the multinational battalion seems to be composed of nation-clusters with substantial prior experience of jointly serving in out of area missions. However, political considerations aside, this might be a missed opportunity for the armed forces to get familiar with the operational practices of allies they have not worked with closely before but would have to call on in a crisis. Prolonged collective presence in day-to-day operations can build institutional memory beyond what joint exercises can offer.
Most Western experts speaking at the WSEF agreed that the battalions are an important first step on a long road ahead, while prominent Latvian and Estonian representatives claimed to be entirely satisfied with the outcome already, a sentiment subsequently echoed by Lithuanian officials. Herein lies another challenge – that of cultivating the Baltic perception of security as a continuous and all-encompassing process, rather than a task to outsource or a box to check.
Since joining NATO in 2004, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (to a lesser degree) seemed only too happy to delegate strategic security and defense decisions to Western partners, consistently reducing defense spending in favor of investments in social security and education. For example, after regaining independence through peaceful resistance in 1990, the first Lithuanian parliament considered armed defense forces unnecessary, and military matters have not been particularly popular or prestigious since. The World Bank data shows Lithuania spending 1.36% of GDP on defense in 2001, but continuously cutting that share for over a decade. It was not until 2013 that the numbers started to climb (from 0.76%), reaching 1.14% in 2015. Similarly, in 2006 Latvian defense spending peaked at 1.72% GDP in 2006, after which point it declined until 2012 (0.91%). It was then gradually raised to 1.06% in 2015.
Maintaining this new momentum for host nation support, and engaging Baltic societies as a whole (not just the defense and security professionals) will be key to the successful implementation of this allied deterrent move. For instance, with less than two months to go before Lithuania’s parliamentary election, only a couple of the major political parties have included national security or defense elements in their program. Despite the regional geopolitical situation, socio-economic matters remain at the forefront of the election campaign. As part of the host nation support efforts, finding pragmatic solutions to potential challenges associated with a significant increase of military presence on the ground will be just as important as investing in local security culture and demonstrating the direct relevance and impact of defense matters to both private citizens and businesses.
Indeed, a theme permeating most of the Experts’ Forum discussions was the need to engage the civil societies of NATO member states and increase their support and understanding of in alliance policies. Strengthening commitments to and investments in collective territorial defense is becoming an increasingly tough pitch in societies shaken by violent extremism and weary of immigration challenges. Nuclear member states and allies hosting U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil are challenged to tie the potential use of this particular type of deterrent to the values and priorities of modern day societies. Continued commitment of elite Baltic troops to NATO’s out of area missions might also be more a reflection of social disengagement from defense matters and consequent lack of opposition, rather than a sign of resounding support for this distribution of national resources.
One of the most significant Summit outcomes was the NATO-EU Cooperation Agreement, prompting further discussions about NATO’s role in addressing the underlying causes of long-term instability and insecurity. Experts emphasized the direct links between the growing popularity of radical and violent movements, and issues like systemic income inequality, corruption and cronyism in politics, limited women’s participation, and bleak economic prospects and lack of opportunities for the next generation. These problems are particularly severe in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region that is currently experiencing exponential demographic growth. Experts deemed it important to get ahead of the curve when it comes to violent extremism and address these challenges, rather than be forced to grapple with their consequences in the coming years. Curiously, even senior Russian experts speaking at the Forum underscored heightened Russian sensitivities to trade and economic tensions, and admitted to watching EU policies with greater concern than NATO’s military posturing.
In this context NATO-EU cooperation will be of particular significance, with each partner looking to bring its core competences to the table and jointly tackle these challenges. Among the initial efforts to alleviate these socio-economic challenges, NATO has already volunteered its competences to boost police capacity building efforts in the Middle East, and offered the use of Mediterranean fleet to help ensure safe transit for the refugees. Yet, it remains unclear, how the emphasis on socio-economic issues is compatible with NATO’s consistent requirement for its member states to increase their defense spending – which would almost inevitably detract from government assistance on poverty relief, education, and similar domains.
Developments on the intelligence and information sharing fronts were another important part of NATO discussions, though their significance is not immediately obvious. The decision to increase the aerial reconnaissance presence in the MENA region was viewed as perhaps the most significant NATO contribution to fighting ISIS. Nevertheless, sharing and processing the intelligence already at hand remains challenging for the alliance members. Moreover, the quest for reliable human intelligence remains particularly acute in NATO’s Eastern flank, as well as in partner states further east and south. With active ongoing disinformation campaigns conducted by Russian and pro-Russian elements in Eastern Europe, in a time of crisis, inability to swiftly establish the facts on the ground could be devastating. Years of experience in countering Soviet propaganda have made the Baltic states considerably more resistant to these tactics. However, the downside of that is the local propensity to accept or to dismiss certain narratives as obvious or as obviously wrong, and to fail to appreciate the significance of establishing the credibility of their own narrative with external partners.
In conclusion, the human face of NATO – challenges, needs, and fledgling versions of future strategic concepts – was at the forefront of the Summit agenda. However, the most pressing concerns and preferred solutions for individual member states are colored not only by current domestic realities, but also by the historic tradition of security discourse. Struggling to appreciate the underlying differences in its perspectives, national experiences, and narratives, leads to the development of NATO agreements to which each member state then applies a different meaning. This tendency ultimately undercuts NATO as a whole, especially if what the domestic audience was told they were promised fails to materialize. Only by doing their utmost to listen carefully without presumption or wishful thinking, and by working through the differences as they arise, can the allies stand prepared to address the challenges of the future.
The views and assessments expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent either the official position or bear the endorsement of the University of Maryland.