Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Baltics and NATO

Small world

Jun 15th 2006 | TALLINN
From The Economist print edition

Doubts about Baltic membership of NATO have subsided

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TOO small, too risky, and too unprepared. That was how NATO saw the Baltics in the 1990s. Their armed forces were an ill-equipped, untrained and sometimes disreputable lot. Bad old habits lingered from the Soviet era (bullying, alcoholism) and bad new ones had been picked up (mutiny, corruption). So why, many asked, should NATO extend its defence guarantee to such troublesome and useless allies?

Yet two years after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the alliance, things look rather different. Russia's huffing and puffing over the Baltics joining NATO has proved empty. NATO's practical commitment is cheap and minimal: just four foreign fighter aircraft, based in Lithuania. In return, NATO has gained a few things. Lithuania has useful special forces; Western spies speak highly of their Estonian colleagues. Estonia and Latvia have modern radars that snoop deep into Russia and Belarus. “You can see things from here that you can't see from Norway,” says Sven Mikser, a former Estonian defence minister.

Another plus is tough soldiers and supportive politicians—nowadays a rarity in Europe. “The quality is much higher than we have at home,” says one Western adviser. “They have ordinary soldiers with degrees, who speak three languages.” Boots with brains come in handy for the Balkans, and farther afield: scores of Baltic soldiers have served in Iraq, and hundreds in Afghanistan. They have “liberal rules of engagement, coupled with tough self-control,” says Kadri Liik, director of Estonia's International Centre for Defence Studies.

The Balts are also well placed to advise other countries how to turn rough-and-ready, ramshackle armies into something more professional. At the Baltic Defence College in Estonia, officers from Ukraine and Georgia study alongside locals. It is admittedly small stuff compared with Poland, the biggest, strongest and most useful new NATO member. The Balts still need to treat their soldiers better, and to increase defence spending (though so do bigger and richer members from western Europe).

The biggest lesson of bringing the Balts in is that it resolves security problems that might otherwise fester. “If they weren't in NATO, there would now be a huge tussle for influence here between the West and resurgent Russia,” says a veteran observer. “Because the Balts are in, it's not really an issue.”

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