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A nation must think before it acts.
On March 20-22, 2019, a new annual Baltic security conference was inaugurated: the Vilnius Security Forum. It joined the ranks of security conferences already held in Estonia and Latvia—the Lennart Meri Conference, the Annual Baltic Conference on Defense, and the Riga Conference. Despite the high profile competition, the Vilnius Security Forum seeks to fill a niche overlooked by those other conferences; its unique contribution is as a focused military conference, with a more hands-on approach to thinking about and discussing key security and defense challenges. This initial sally featured three distinct and sometimes overlapping parts: the first two days comprised the Baltic Military Conference, which overlapped on the second day with a crisis scenario simulation and discussion. Only on the third day did the titular Security Forum phase of the event occur, which ranged wider than the previous two days’ content and would be more familiar to attendees of other Baltic conferences.
The two-day Baltic Military Conference began with prominent keynote speeches, one by Jussi Niinistö, the Finnish Minister of Defense, and the second by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, previously commander of U.S. Army Europe. Niinistö spoke on Finland’s defense efforts and highlighted the increased importance Finland has attached to military readiness after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, including the observation that due to recent increases, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, Finland has reached a possible wartime strength of 280,000 soldiers, of whom 97% would be reservists. He also emphasized widespread Finnish military modernization, for both the navy and the air force, including a wholesale replacement of Finland’s aging F/A-18 Hornet fleet. Finally, he also discussed the legislative challenges of security, such as how to deal with little green men, drones near military facilities, and dual citizens in Finland’s security institutions.
In his keynote address, Ben Hodges sought to frame the subsequent work of the conference by touching on a number of interesting points such as Trump’s fulfillment of all Obama commitments for European defense; the need for its European neighbors to pressure Germany to reach 2% of GDP spent on defense; three key decisions which he believed saved the U.S. Army after the Vietnam War; the role of doctrine in defense and defense procurement; and the importance of interoperability in a military context and for military command.
Over the next day and a half were several panels on strategic-military changes in the Baltic region, how the Baltic militaries learned from other NATO member states, and the future of defense of small states. Except for the first, most panels were dominated by Baltic soldiers of various ranks from Lieutenant Colonel up to Lieutenant General. This allowed for a very practical, hands-on appreciation of the challenges which Baltic militaries have faced and may continue to face in the future.
In the first panel, topics ranged broadly from the regional military balance and specific Russian perspectives on current events to this author’s own contribution on the need to consider actual strategy, as a theory of success in war, in the Baltics—along with a few considerations vital to any such strategy, including the impact of Russian territory as a likely sanctuary and the difficulties of war termination.
A full panel of Baltic Generals addressed the question of how Baltic militaries learn. It was noted that everything which Baltic militaries do, and even the Baltic states as a whole do, is an information operation, and should be considered from this perspective as well. Other speakers found the Baltic militaries to be doctrinal voids after regaining independence from the Soviet Union, with no interest in sustaining Soviet military traditions. This allowed them very swiftly to take on board experience in Western-led 1990s interventions and to absorb wisdom from and the methods of Western professional military education, which then formed the basis of indigenous military education in the Baltic states.
Another panel comprised of Baltic Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels discussed similar questions from a lower rank, stressing the importance of Western military education not just for the professional education of individual Baltic soldiers but for how the education institutions of the Baltic militaries would be shaped. Estonian officers who attended Finnish military academies in the 1990s returned home not to command platoons, as they expected given their rank, but either to command companies or to shape Estonia’s own nascent professional military education institutions—thanks to their Western educations, these young people returning to Estonia were the most eligible in the country for either task.
Discussions on the future of small state defense revolved around issues of money and the astronomical growth of defense budgets—such as the Lithuanian budget, which tripled in three years—and how such budget increases result in procurement nightmares, as purchasing military capabilities in such a scale is challenging. The importance of integrating with allies was also emphasized, both in terms of coordinating with small neighbors and in demonstrating commitment to larger allies, who will over time repay that commitment.
A night owl session concluded the Baltic Military Conference with an in-depth discussion, again dominated by generals, on Baltic defense. The potential role of Belarus in any war was discussed, along with military mobility and the difficulty of military mobilization in peacetime conditions (for instance, moving military units would compete with civilian demand on the rail network and have to obey legal road regulations).
The final day of the Vilnius Security Forum turned to broader questions such as the future of NATO transatlantic relations, NATO and the EU’s readiness to counter hybrid threats and, separately, the future of such threats, and Europe’s relationship with both Russia and China. In these four panels, discussions included the durability of the U.S. commitment to NATO; Germany’s scandalously belated realization of the danger of Nord Stream 2 and its current inability to escape the pipeline; areas where Germany could be pressured to improve, such as on its inadequacies as a partner or its non-functional equipment; resilience in conjunction with the importance of NATO’s Article 3 (that nations first need individually to take measures for military defense and civilian resilience); and the dangers posed by Russia and China and the EU’s recent growing awareness of China.
The Vilnius Security Forum exploited its niche by focusing specifically on Baltic military matters and, just as importantly, giving Baltic militaries a forum to discuss professional matters not just for a purely military audience, but also to a civilian audience. By the third day, these topics of relatively narrow interest fed into more familiar general discussions on security and foreign policy. Such a first forum is a happy indicator of the ongoing maturation of the Baltic defense and defense education establishment.