Keep calm and carry on
Sep 18th 2008
Giant spiders will not attack Estonia—official
THE Baltic states are full members of NATO. In theory, that means they need worry about external threats no more than any other NATO member. If they come under threat from, say, Russia, they are entitled to exactly the same protection under Article IV (political support) and Article V (military support) as any other country in the alliance.
But viewed from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania it doesn’t quite feel that way. Baltic officials have been privately and semi-publicly urging NATO to increase its visible presence in the Baltic states, both in terms of planes, ships and soldiers, and through high-profile visits. If the response is cool, they question the alliance’s resolve.
It is true that the permanent NATO presence in the Baltic consists merely of a few warplanes, provided on a rota by NATO countries that, unlike the Baltics, have real air forces. NATO contingency-planning regards any military danger from Russia as a taboo (after all, Russia is a friend, isn’t it?). So formal threat-assessment gives no basis for the alliance to plan how to reinforce its north-eastern members.
All that is going to change, slowly. NATO’s “Military Committee 161,” which deals with threat assessment, will shortly consider how to rejig the bureaucratic basis for military planning. Other work is already under way.
But there is little to be gained, and much to be lost, by panicky talk in the Baltics about the need for more NATO support. It creates the potentially dangerous impression that the Baltic states are “lite” members of NATO. The alliance’s secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said rightly last week in Riga that there was no need to show “special solidarity” or create extra “NATO bases”: every Latvian military base was a NATO base, he noted.
The biggest threat to the Baltic states right now is not military, but psychological, as questions that should be ludicrous are treated seriously. Estonia’s media has been in a flap about a book to be published next week about the Bronze Soldier affair of 2007 (when the clumsy move of a war memorial from central Tallinn to a military cemetery prompted a night of rioting and splenetic Russian reaction). The book, by a Finnish author called Johan Bäckman, says that as a result of this, Estonia will be part of the Russian Federation within ten years. Perhaps. But perhaps Estonia will be swept away by a tsunami or colonised by giant spiders. Giving the book front-page treatment, albeit highly critical, suggests that the editors privately think its thesis is plausible.
Another flap illustrates the danger of over-reacting to such pokes. A smattering of Estonian farmers have supposedly (according to a dubious Russian news source) pledged loyalty to a restored “Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic” on the grounds that “bourgeois Estonia” is a country “where nobody cares about the common people . . . with raging unemployment and corruption, and everything depends on NATO and the Americans.”
That was picked up by the international media and appeared in sober news outlets such as the Denver Post. In a sense the story is just meaningless fluff. But it is worrying that anyone took it seriously at all: a similarly ludicrous story elsewhere—say a few South Tirolean farmers saying that they wanted to restore the Hapsburg empire—would have scarcely merited a line.
The best defence for the Baltic states is to steer their economies safely through the global downturn, to clean up corruption, and to make their fractious and sometimes opaque political systems work better. As far as Russia is concerned, impassive calm is, for now, the best approach.
Thursday, September 18, 2008