Every autumn, the Baltics host two significant conferences on defense and security: the Annual Baltic Conference on Defence (ABCD) held in Tallinn and the Riga Conference held in Riga. Of the two, ABCD is more narrowly focused on defense, whereas the Riga Conference ranges much more broadly on issues of defense, security, economics, and foreign policy. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) took the fore in both conferences this year. Discussions of the strategic past and future were often poignant as this year they coincided with all three Baltic States’ 100th anniversary of independence.
The Annual Baltic Conference on Defence
The Annual Baltic Conference on Defence operates entirely under Chatham House rules to enable its speakers to speak frankly. This year’s ABCD, entitled NATO at 70: no time to rest, took place on September 26. Opening with a general discussion of this theme, the conference slowly narrowed down its focus during the panels, from considering whether or not NATO was the final pillar of transatlantic relations, to addressing the specific question “2% and then what?,” to a final panel on how to defend the Baltics. These and related themes appeared and reappeared throughout the day’s discussions.
Only Estonian Minister of Defense Juri Luik’s introductory remarks were made on the record. In his speech, Luik delivered a strongly transatlantic, liberal institutionalist message, one faithful to the theory of democratic peace. Among the specific points he highlighted was the importance of cyber issues, about which he speculated that perhaps the best organizational model would be to have NATO-level coordination for what are otherwise national capabilities. He argued that a deterring balance of fear exists, or at least could exist, in cyberspace, as countries have to know that retaliation can or will come, especially if cyber power were to be unleashed to its fullest hypothetical level. In other words, he believes that mutually assured debilitation can exist, resulting in countries not just deterring one another but also self-deterring as well, as no one would wish to call upon themselves assured cyber debilitation. Moving away from cyber, Luik also discussed Baltic participation in other NATO (and also EU) operations and noted that participation in such non-priority operations is, from the narrow perspective of national defense, vital as an indicator of unity and solidarity among allies. More importantly, it should not simply be a tit-for-tat trade. One vital aspect of such participation is to bring allies closer together and to foster a single European strategic culture.
One theme that recurred over the course of the conference was the notion of European strategic autonomy recently put forward by French President Emmanuel Macron. It was suggested that this should no longer be a concept specific to France but could in fact be pursued by Europe as a whole. Strategic autonomy comprises the ability to assess a problem independently, to decide independently how to react to it, and then to act independently. The idea as described at ABCD is meant primarily as a guide for European defense budgets and procurement—i.e., into what capabilities do specific countries need to invest to be strategically autonomous? Some commentators derided autonomy as unrealistic, given that the EU could not defend itself given its present military strength. Nor does it have a credible nuclear deterrent. Others warned against pushing the notion of strategic autonomy too far, at least in public, as it may lead the Trump administration to let the Europeans go their own way in defense, which would be a strategic disaster for Europe.
Whether strategic autonomy is desirable, plausible, or politically dangerous in the current transatlantic climate, it is clearly an idea that encourages European countries to spend their promised 2% of GDP on defense. Numerous European voices noted the importance not only of increasing defense expenditure, but also of ensuring the effectiveness of that expenditure. There were suggestions to include investment in European defense industries into the promised 2%, although this suggestion was somewhat deplored by American voices concerned by the notion of watering down defense expenditure. Moreover, it was suggested that one of the reasons that NATO was being challenged by Russia was because the European countries had habitually failed to invest in defense, thereby opening opportunities for challengers. Although Trump’s undiplomatic style of pushing for 2% might be considered counterproductive, one of the results of the Brussels Summit, emphasized at ABCD, was the requirement for countries not currently paying 2% to produce by the end of 2018 credible national plans to reach that threshold.
Some participants noted that financial contributions are not necessarily correlated with contributions to NATO defense efforts. Greece was cited as an example. Athens spends 2.4% on defense but is inactive in the Alliance, whereas Denmark spends only 1.2% but has been very active as an Alliance member, including participating in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Although one implication of this thinking is to minimize the importance of the 2% commitment, further discussion revealed that no European country, even in the south, doubted the importance of spending 2% of GDP on defense. Moreover, it also reveals how complex the issue of defense is. For example, the question of being able to move forces around Europe easily, which has been raised by many observers over the past several years, is vital for the defense of Europe. Yet, it has no connection to the 2% pledge or even to NATO members’ Ministries of Defense, as most decisions relevant to military mobility are the purview of ministries of transport, legal affairs, etc.
These discussions lead to the related theme that some defense requirements can be addressed by money, while others cannot—at least not by money invested in defense budgets. If every European country reached 2%, then this would provide an additional 130 billion euros for defense. However, to contradict a common European refrain, pan-European 2% will not run out of defense capabilities to purchase. This would be true with or without strategic autonomy. One vital capability for speedy European defense is air lift, as one of NATO’s greatest challenges is ensuring the right forces are in the right place at near-enough the right time. Another key capability against Russia in particular is the ability to detect and counter cruise missiles, for which European armed forces are currently underprepared. Indeed, it was suggested that European armed forces need to be reconstituted from the ground up within their current structures to upgrade them to combat readiness. As an example and given current trends in the expansion of its defense budget, Germany is planning to maintain four deployable brigades by 2031, which would be sufficient for present tasks for deterrence—but not for actual defense.
The final theme of the conference was how to defend the Baltic states, a debate which touched upon conceptual as well as practical issues. The notion of deterrence by reinforcement was posited, as deterrence by denial is unrealistic—i.e., Russia would have to be deterred by the prospect of NATO reinforcements joining the fight, rather than by the NATO forces already present in the Baltic, which would be unable to deny Russia success on their own. Yet, deterrence by reinforcement may only work in case of attack if the forces already present in the Baltic states can hold out for reinforcements to arrive. Translating this concept into practice requires that NATO become better at reinforcement—hence the issue of military mobility but also of political and military mobilization—but the Baltic states and Enhanced Forward Presence forces, those non-Baltic NATO battlegroups currently deployed in the Baltics, also must be able to buy time for reinforcements to arrive. Several observations were made relating to this latter issue. First, Russia-watchers at the conference argued the Russians would not invade Lithuania from Kaliningrad, which would be an interesting strategic choice for the Kremlin as it seems to suggest that Russia would have to invade from Belarus, which might involve closing the Suwalki Gap either first or simultaneously. Second, Baltic forces could and should focus on counter mobility to slow Russian forces down. If Baltic forces had longer-range artillery and air defense systems, they could seriously hamper Russian forces in a way that they currently cannot. This was emphasized by the example of the Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia, which has all the firepower it requires, but is short on enablers such as anti-armor and anti-air weapon systems. An important operational consideration that was also mentioned is the presumed inability to concentrate forces in defense, as this would call down Russian missile strikes.
This brief listing is but a small selection of representative themes, topics, ideas, and observations touched upon during the 2018 Tallinn ABCD conference’s very rich and interesting program.
The Riga Conference
Following the Tallinn Annual Baltic Conference on Defence, the 2018 Riga Conference took place on September 28-29. As usual, the topics discussed ranged widely, encompassing issues such as the strategic lessons of the past century for the Baltic states, whether or not the Baltics can count on NATO for the next 100 years, the Kremlin’s strategy for Russia, the world according to Russians, the role of Germany in a changing Europe, and numerous others, all of which it would be impossible to cover. The following selection of speakers, panels, or topics is highlighted here as particularly pertinent or thought-provoking for those interested in Baltic defense.
Some of the reflections on the past century’s lessons for the Baltic states were particularly poignant. Former President of Latvia Vaira Vike-Freiberga (1999-2007) observed that one of the main lessons of history is that there are occasionally windows of opportunity to change history, which require both will and ability to take advantage of them. Otherwise, small states cannot usually determine events, but only adapt to them and chart the best course possible in the circumstances. Fellow panelist Sven Sakkov, Director of the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, noted that, especially for small states, the phrase “let’s be realistic” is a curse; the Baltic victories of 1918-1920 were victories of Baltic idealists, not realists, whereas the defeatist depths of 1939-40 were due entirely to the Baltic realists. After all, what is political will if not sturdy idealism?
The question of NATO’s future provoked a wide range of replies, from the confidence of Latvian and Lithuanian Ministers of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Raimundas Karoblis, respectively, in the future of NATO, to the considered disregard of defense analyst Julian Lindley-French who emphasized the question of who would assure the freedom of the Baltic states over the next hundred years in favor of whether or not they would still be free in a century. Yet, Bergmanis emphasized the importance of working consistently toward one’s own defense rather than hoping uselessly that the enemy will not come, whereas Karoblis noted that Russian military readiness is higher than not only NATO’s present readiness but also than its aspirational readiness.
Lindley-French ultimately conceded his perspective and put forward a sixteen-point plan on strengthening NATO to ensure that it could preserve Baltic independence for the next century, including creating powerful and mobile follow-up forces; modernizing NATO Article 5 to accommodate hybrid warfare, cyber power, and other non-traditional threats; aligning the EU’s 34 Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) processes to actual military shortfalls; and so forth. U.S. Lt. General (retired) Benjamin Hodges filled the panel out by discussing other steps he believes NATO must take, including upgrading Baltic air policing to air defense and improving the transport infrastructure through Germany as well as into the Baltic. Only one single brigade at a time can be moved by rail through Germany; there simply is not enough capacity for more. And only one railroad (of a different gauge) and one highway link Poland and Lithuania through the Suwalki Gap.
The Riga Conference’s night owl sessions are traditionally held under Chatham House rules, and such was the case again for the panel on the Kremlin’s strategy for Russia. Various perspectives were enunciated on Russia’s plans and behavior. One expert anticipated more of the same because Russia’s current approach is not only working but also becoming ever more successful than before. The domestic situation is under control despite some minor problems, but even these are over-exaggerated; in the recent Russian elections, even though a handful of winners were not from Putin’s party United Russia, they were still within the politically accepted systemic opposition. Russian foreign policy has been a triumph: the world has acquiesced to the annexation of Crimea; EU and NATO enlargement has been halted; Russia has become a crucial player in the Middle East; trade with Europe, including but not only natural gas, has been growing despite sanctions; and Europe is becoming increasingly divided in its views on Russia.
Noting that Russia is good at creating and using real power in foreign policy, another specialist agreed but warned that the various disparate centers of power in the Russian governmental establishment have gradually been vanishing, leaving only the elite around Putin. This has led to a situation in which the elite is breathing only its own oxygen. It does not receive alternate perspectives and may ultimately begin making serious mistakes. There was also a belief that the Trump administration poses a unique challenge to Russia: that Trump is personally unpredictable in his relations to the Russians, while the rest of his administration is tough on Russia. Nonetheless, Russian expectations of and efforts towards the West’s collapse outweigh the present and future anticipated costs of its current policies. Yet, another perspective posits that the Russian General Staff exerts a dominating role on Russia due to its control both of threat assessment and of military operations, a control which even extends into and influences other governmental activities such as urban planning. There was some agreement that Russia’s increasing lack of representative institutions is creating blindness among the Russian elite about the public and that mounting new domestic pressures may increasingly only be detected when they actually explode.
As the conference’s second day began, Germany was immediately the target of broad criticism by Latvian politician and former Minister of Defence Artis Pabriks and NYT Belgium Bureau Chief Steven Erlanger for not having any grand political ideas, but preferring increasingly inadequate technical solutions for Europe’s problems. The German government has become too inward looking and too wedded to soft power, which in turn is becoming insufficient to deal with the challenges facing Europe. It was suggested, especially given how well the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been doing in parts of Germany, that the German establishment has become afraid of and no longer understands its population’s voting habits. The panel also anticipated the end of an era in German politics—the Merkel era—after which coalition building is already becoming more difficult.
The challenges facing the Baltic are significant, but manageable. Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute Oslo noted that several Baltic security issues have already been addressed, such as the introduction of Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states and Sweden’s re-garrisoning of Gotland Island. The Baltics must rely on deterrence since full defense is impossible without certain developments which are presently politically implausible. Nonetheless, although Baev noted the contingency that deterrence can deter rational thought but not attitudes or feelings, he also noted that over the past several years Russia’s arena of greatest adventure has been around the Black, not the Baltic, Sea, with the annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbas, and the intervention in Syria.
Kęstutis Palauskas, a NATO defense planner, provided his organization’s perspective by observing that the strategic environment has become non-discretionary: it is now the adversary, rather than NATO, who has the power of choice whether to embark on an invasion or intervention. NATO’s expected warning time for a potential defensive conflict dropped in 2014 from an anticipated 10-year time horizon to only a few days, because the ten year expectation was unrealistic considering the sudden Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea. NATO must simultaneously improve not only its situational awareness, but also all Alliance processes from political decision-making to filtering those decisions through the command structure to actual operational implementation, to get the forces to where they need to be. Echoing Hodges, he also emphasized that it takes time for NATO forces to cross Alliance seas and lands, which needs to be accomplishable more quickly than is currently possible.
Many of the themes and issues discussed at both the Riga Conference and the Annual Baltic Conference on Defence were repeated again and again, strongly indicating not just present concerns about Baltic defense but also indicating which issues have evolved over time, whether due to being already addressed by NATO or by having become irrelevant in some other manner—as well as those which are still relevant and require continued NATO effort despite years of work already invested.
The two conferences agreed on many points, particularly concerning the need to continue improving NATO. A handful of the greatest recurring themes on these lines were the inadequacy of 2% as a metric of Alliance solidarity and capabilities, however without doubting the importance of investing more money into defense, as well as the issue of military mobility, which seems to be one of the most pressing challenges the Alliance currently faces. Whether or not these challenges will be met successfully will depend on future efforts and undoubtedly will be discussed in future Baltic conferences.