Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why the Baltics should chill out, not heat up (Europe view no 99)


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.


Kristopher said...

Is there another Article V out there? The one I have says that such action will be taken as is "deem(ed) necessary", which may or may not include the use of armed force and may in fact consist wholly of economic disincentives for countries doing business with the transgressor.

If some real interpretive geniuses (let's say the current Supreme Court of the US, just for fun) took on Article V, I'm sure it could even be demonstrated that the actual intent of the drafters of Article V is to ensure that any action taken by "individual states" should be run by the UN Security Council beforehand and that members of the Security Council, such as Russia, should not let themselves be fazed by any such somewhat vigilantistic self-defense -- pending a Security Council decision to disagree and do nothing.

Giustino said...

One problem is that the Estonian national news media has three dailies, all of which have basically gone fully or partially yellow to compete against the other. Given their history, the Estonians are prone to worrying. Fear sells.

Russian English-language news sources are another challenge for Western media. We take it for granted that they must contain some accurate information. This is not the case. They exist but create content that cannot be independently verified, and unless the Denver Post can verify it, they shouldn't be running it.

It really should be treated as one would treat suspect e-mails -- filtered over to the junk news folder.

Dixi said...

So far and all through the cold war no NATO country have ever been attacked in Europe. So it seems pre-emptive deterrent has been fairly effective. I guess that's the very reason Russia hates NATO so much.

klx said...

how long before russia decides NATO really is a toothless tiger, and that the baltic states were only incorporated to further buffer non-lite members?

if there is no serious repercussions to aggression, then is there anything at all stopping the russians from "protecting the dignity" of their "citizens" in neighbouring countries?

western europe and the west in general needs to take the situation more seriously if they really meant it when they allowed an expanded NATO and EU.

Dixi said...

If a buffer is lost, who will be the next in line? I mean if the Article V collapsed, would there be any other members left but "lite" ones? In any case that would mean the end of NATO, which is the main pillar of each member country's OWN security. So, there is much more at stake than the "mere" moral credibility of the Western democracies..., that is, their own security.

Unknown said...

I am quite certain that NATO would help Estonia fight giant spiders, so let us leave this threat alone. Just suppose Russian Army entered Estonia. What would be NATO's reaction, I wonder? Call an emergency meeting in Brussels? Send Sarkozy to Moscow? Bomb Moscow? I do not believe there is any plan how to react, and military deterrent needs certainty of use. During the COld War, the Soviets knew that they cannot dream entering, say, West Berlin, without risking a nuclear attack, and that all NATO forces would absolutely certainly retaliate immediately with conventional warfare. Today, there no such certainty re. Estonia. I am afraid Russia can do as it pleases, as deterrents are weak and serious risks are nil. Oh, so few citizens of NATO countries know where Estonia is, and to face economic shortages because of them, let alone send their sons to fight... The Baltic states must clean up corruption and get their democracies work better, but they also must prepare very tough military resistance to unpleasant eventualities, be it giant spiders or "liberator" tanks. Learn from the Finns, not the French.

klx said...

>Baltic states must clean up corruption and get their democracies work better<

can you cite ANY examples of corruption in estonia, or reasonable examples of democratic failure?

even if both were rampant (which they are not) even russia, which engages in both as regular norms, would have trouble justifying much action based on these excuses - regardless of how many statues they move.

Giustino said...

I think that an attack on a NATO member should be immediately equatable with suffering a nuclear, or at least a strong, counter attack on comparable targets in the aggressor country.

How much of our space -- these countries where we travel and work freely -- would we be willing to cede to foreign military occupation? The answer is none.

Some say that you can live without Estonia. If you are not British, you can also live without Britain. So long as you are not directly under threat, you can live; sure -- but can you live with pride, with hope for your future? And without pride or hope in a better future, what good is life?

What is the value of security when you live in constant fear that "they" are coming for you and your family next? That's not security -- that's servitude.

Dixi said...

to Pasipiktines (I'm afraid this one is rather long but blame it on me)

Pre-emptive deterrence is not about whether the aggressor KNOWS FOR SURE there will be a massive military counter-attack. Instead the most fundamental issue is whether the aggressor knows WITH CERTAINTY that the opponent is in THE POSSESSION of military capabilities to launch a full-scale counter-strike threatening the aggressor’s own security fatally. The tragic fate of Chechenya is a perfect example of what pre-emptive deterrence is all about. Russia failed once but they came back again for they knew that, while the worst possible risk was failing twice, even in this case there would be no risk of full-scale military counter-strike threatening the very existence of Russia including its ruling elite.

So, I'm quite sure that at least all the former Warsaw pact countries know where Estonia is. And they are now NATO member countries... So if Estonia fell and NATO remained passive, it would mean the main pillar of all these new NATO member countries' (from Latvia to Bulgaria) own security would be in ruins as the Article V quite unambiguously states that "an armed attack against one or more of them...shall be considered an attack against them all". So Estonia (or Latvia, Lithuania, Poland …) is a “West-Berlin” of tens of millions Europeans living in the new NATO member countries. No doubt, Kremlin has wet dreams about reconquering all these countries of its former empire but they surely know that attacking even a smallest of these would contain a huge risk of a united counter-reaction of all the new NATO members raising jointly the stakes within NATO with entirely unpredictable consequences. In any case the pressure would be huge, for all these countries know that if Article V fails once it fails for good and they will be next in line. Besides, political pressure would arise even within the US as the American electorate contains millions of people with family background in the new NATO countries.

Thus whereas Georgia was basically a "mere" moral issue for the West, an attack against a NATO member (even a minor one) contains a real risk that NATO would be serious about the content of Article V. The point is that Russia does not know the size of the risk but it does know that even if it considered the risk being small, if it were to materialise the entire nation incl. Putin et Co would pay a fatal price for miscalculation. This is the very content of pre-emptive deterrence which have worked just beautifully at least this far also during the Bronze statue dispute between Russia and Estonia.

Of course, in reality the only alternatives are not either bombing Moscow or remaining completely passive. For example, given the heavy reliance of Russia (and especially its major cities Sankt Petersburg and Moscow) on supplies of food and consumer goods from the West, the new NATO countries are in the possession of very real economic leverage in being in fact capable to empty the shop shelves in Moscow and Sankt Petersburg simply by denying the transic traffic from the West through their territories. The impact of this option on inflationary pressures or the stock markets of Russia is easy to predict. Given the historical experience of the new NATO members a cold winter is hardly the most terrifying thing they can think of. For freedom and it having a certain price are still more than abstract conceptions for these nations.

Unknown said...

to dixi - very well. A clear plan, rehearsed tactical routines, straightforward decision making lines and mechanisms of alert are as much a part of military capabilities as is availability of military resources. I think that Russia knows with a credible degree of certainty that these components are not present in NATO's capabilities in the event of limited military intervention into a Baltic State (or another former Warsaw Pact country). The case of South Ossetia clearly shows the scheme. So, should a compact Russian minority in Estonia call for help after series of provocations and legitimate Government's attempt to re-establish control, should Russia decide to invade just a small part of Estonia, what would be NATO's reaction in the face of the situation where no "plan" exists? I am afraid that a "meeting in Brussels" would only demonstrate weakness and squabbles, and there is a high degree of certainty that no military retaliation against Russia would follow. That is why I would not be surprised if Russia tried it on Estonia - even if just to demonstrate that Article V cannot be easily enacted in the current circumstances. Russia does not risk much - not more than withdrawal of the forces. What they gain is a yet deeper division of the new Europe and a wider chasm between EU and the USA. Besides, I think some of the Eastern European Governments would surprise you in their sudden absence of solidarity that you seem to be expecting...

Unknown said...

By the way, have a look at Europeans see Moscow as security threat on . Not much chance for Article V, it seems...

Doris said...

If there's one clear "result" of the Georgia crisis, it's the further consolidation of Europe's and NATO's Eastern Front. From Finland (though not in NATO, was at the time the chair of OSCE) through the Baltics and Poland to Ukraine, the feeling is common: "we might not have the rest of NATO with us in this, but we do have each other". If any one of these countries were actually physically attacked, the rest WOULD mobilize because NATO or no NATO, they perceive the threat to themselves. We can only hope that IF it comes to it, the Frontier will clang the pots and pans hard enough and put up enough of a fight for the Sleeping Beauty of Western Europe to wake up and take notice. I've said it before: this situation is a surreal reminder from a classic fantasy novel - the soft heartland dozes away while vigilance is kept on the borderlands.

Jonas said...

True what was said in the article. The main threat towards the Baltics is not military but psychological or economical. However military defence systems should be upgraded knowing that Baltic countries virtually have NO anti-aircraft defence (if not counting short-range Stinger missiles which can be used against helicopters but certainly not SU-27's) and embryonic anti-tank defence with a dozen or so Javelin systems in Lithuanian army.

I understand the ease with which we can discuss such issues in our offices or homes in London but we have to keep in mind that at the present there is absolutely NOTHING to stop Russia to enter Lithuania with a division of tanks and fully take over its territory in about 3 hours with zero confrontation simply because you cannot shoot a tank with a rifle... Living in Vilnius or Tallinn that might sound slightly differently than in London.

To put it simply, Baltics need decent mid to long range anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems to make their territory defendable for at least a day or two before any assistance from other NATO countries could be sent. Therefore this is a very reasonable and legitimate concern expressed by authorities of the Baltic countries.

Dixi said...

to pasipiktines (this one is even longer)

You say “there is a high degree of certainty that no military retaliation against Russia would follow.” Of course, we could start arguing how to estimate the degree of certainty of military retaliation and which of us is nearer to the correct value. But we both know that none of us knows for sure. And here we come to the very point, that is, neither Russia does which is, ironically, one of the few things it does know for 100 % sure.

You also assume that the scheme seen in South Ossetia might work in Estonia too. However, there are, at least, two differences between Georgia and Estonia. First, Georgia is not a NATO member and therefore Article V does not commit NATO to what so ever action in the case of an aggression against a non-member (and Russia knowing that used the "window"). Second, by attacking its neighbour country Russia has crossed the Rubicon, it means that after 08.08.08 NATO has a “legitimised” reason to mistrust Russia and consider it even as a potential military aggressor against any independent nation for the first time after the collapse of the USSR. Consequently, the taboo of planning how to reinforce militarily its north-eastern members has gone for good. Still, you do have a point (as does John, by the way, in his comment) when referring to the apparent lack of a detailed contingency plan how to defend the Baltic countries against an aggression from east within the framework of Article V. This needs to be fixed and things do seem to be going in that way now. In fact, by fixing this NATO will make a friend’s favour to Russia by alienating it definitely from any unrealistic illusions of re-establishing its former empire.

Finally, I disagree with your claim that “Russia does not risk much - not more than withdrawal of the forces.”

First, Russia risks facing a military conflict expanding beyond its control (for example, first some of former Warsaw countries get involved and Russia has to fight even them and “the big wheel” starts turning so that, all of a sudden, there is no turning back for either sides). That is, Russia may surely decide by itself against which country it attacks, but not against whom and for how long it will actually have to fight.

Second, even if it withdrew its forces before ending up as a target of strong military (and/or economic) counter-strikes, it would have lost the war and on the top of that would also risk turning the Baltic countries into a new South-Korea with constant "well-justified" presence of US/NATO military bases (and, actually, something like that did happen with Poland as Russia sent its forces to Georgia).

Third, even without economic sanctions the consequences of the crisis would be unpredictable (or, eh, perhaps even worse, quite predictable) for the country’s stock markets and its economic future in general.

Fourth, withdrawing its forces in the face of NATO force would mean losing its face before its own audience. Furthermore, this possibility would contain a fatal threat for the very existence of the current regime which has fed its domestic popularity for years by manifestations of having made Russia again a powerful and proud nation being capable to defend Russians where ever they live.

Fifth, even the Russo-Georgian war strengthened the warning voices of “New Europe” within EU and NATO. Attacking a member of both of these organisations would hardly weaken the “hawkish” voices warning about Russia’s imperialistic aspirations. This in its turn would strengthen, for example, the ambitions to diversify EU’s energy sources thus counteracting one of Russia’s most fundamental long-term strategic goals.

Yalta1945 said...

"Fourth, withdrawing its forces in the face of NATO force would mean losing its face before its own audience."
Not at all. They will say "The enemy has been punished enough". The virtual reality will be their only reality. Approval ratings of such leaders as Putin and Medvedev will grow over 100%.
Article "Europeans see Moscow as security threat" shocked me. It reads: "Only in Britain and France do more people support the idea of their armies defending the Baltic states than oppose it." I think there might be still many people in the Baltic States who are unaware of the information for the time beeing but it is just a matter of a day or two to reach the rest of the audience for so compact communities.
How do you suppose to help us chill out given the attitude towards the Baltic Sattes expressed by the poll results?
I don't believe we might expect Russian military intervention into the Baltic States soon, however I am afraid it is becoming a real threat in the 21st century.

klx said...

whether or not to defend allies shouldn't be reliant on populism.

i would hope article V doesn't have a clause delegating tabloid polls authority in place of ACTUAL leadership by governments.

governments are there to make the hard decisions, and do what is right when it needs to be done. the countries of europe and members of NATO have a clear responsibility, and as members of NATO ALL countries should feel a sense of security and solidarity as a matter of course from this membership.

the fact on both sides is they don't, and i think that's a problem.

Unknown said...

Well, we are looking for justification of our opinions not so much by facts, rather by perception and sentiment of the others in Russia, the "Old" and the "New" Europe. I couldn't agree more with karlos who says "as members of NATO ALL countries should feel a sense of security and solidarity as a matter of course from this membership. the fact on both sides is they don't, and i think that's a problem." Perhaps the Balts are seen as troublesome members by many in Europe: many politicians may hate their inability "to keep their mouth shut", the people hate the influx of small time criminals with Baltic passports, and anyway, aren't they just a kind of Russians who seceded for some strange reasons, and now we have all this mess in the Balkans, and what about our Basque, Transsylvania, Corse, Scotland etc. ... Sentiment, ideology or whatnot, NATO (as well as EU) seems to be divided and incapable of making difficult decisions. Russia can see that and she would be stupid not to use it for its own purposes. From our point of view we rationalise that these purposes are increasing Russia's role in the world and returning some of the former "grandeur". I am afraid that we are simply unable to realistically conjecture the way of thinking in Russia. Remember, this is the country that killed tens of millions of its people just to follow some ideological whims, and that its current leadership came to power by bombing its own people. For them, nothing is impossible as long as they believe it helps to bring them closer to their goals, however insane the ends and the means may seem to us.

soturi said...

I see that Dr. Bäckman is quoting Edward Lucas in support of his "Estonian theses":

The Economist-lehdessä Bäckmanin kirjaa kommentoinut Edward Lucas sanoo, että kirjan saama valtava huomio Virossa kertoisi siitä, että virolaiset kuitenkin pitäisivät kirjan johtopäätöksiä oikeina.

Dixi said...

To Yalta1945
(it gets ever more longer…a beginning of a book?)

The virtual reality is not immune to the “real” reality…even in Russia. Consequently, the successful “selling” of a withdrawal of troops as a victory to the home audience depends on circumstances of the withdrawal. Naturally, a withdrawal combined with sacrifices back home, for example, high own casualties and/or negative economic consequences at the home front (say, empty shop shelves and consequently rising food prices) is much harder - even for an authoritarian regime - to sell as a success story. Just reminding how the military regime of Argentine collapsed in the aftermath of the Falklands/Malvinas war. They too claimed having first “punished” the Britons and withdrawn the “successful” troops after that. I mean, we are talking here whether attacking a NATO member involves risks not whether there is a certain (though for everybody unknown) probability that everything would turn out just beautifully for the aggressor.

I also understand the last FT polls being of concern for many. But I wouldn’t consider the sample of one thousand forming a very reliable statistical basis for drawing far-reaching conclusions about the variety of sentiments and thoughts prevailing among the individuals of nations consisting of 60-300 million people (by the way, I did not find what was the margin of the forecast error?). One example how volatile FT polls are is that according the same poll in March-April 2008, while Russia was even hardly being rated, China was considered the biggest threat to global stability and now in September Russia and China are both considered as almost equal as to threatening global stability. This is nothing new, per se, and surely still “la donna e mobile”, for both Chamberlain as well the American isolationists enjoyed a considerable support among their respective domestic electorates by the end of the 1930s just briefly before the UK and the US did enter the WW II. Finally, Germany is a special case being basically a mirror image of Russia in how to come into terms with its militaristic past. Germans are still adapting to the fact of having violated for the first time after the WW II one of the nation’s most sacrosanct taboos in having sent German troops abroad to Afganistan. So, I think, the poll reflects more how strong that taboo still is among the Germans than that them being against defending the Balts, per se.

Still having said all that, concerning the security of the new NATO members, I would not advice these countries to count too much on Western Europe (especially the still toward pacifism inclining Germany) either. A more realistic and solid approach is to invest in “the alliance of the willing” within NATO basically consisting of the countries of “New Europe” forming the new front line and the US (with the UK as a potential member). The reasons are the following. First, the security of the new NATO members is first at stake if Russia really aimed to rebuild its lost empire. For these countries it is then not “merely” a question of moral or solidarity, for them the stakes are highest possible…their own future as genuinely independent nations. Their choices are quite Franklinian: either they must hang together, or assuredly each one will hang separately. That is, “free riding” is not an option for any of them. Second, the US is a global actor whose own security calls for reliable allies on the Eurasian continent in order to contain potential threats arising in the Middle and Far East and now also from the resurgent Russia. While Western continental Europe has ever more distanced itself from the US especially during the GWB regime the new NATO member countries still regard the US in a much more positive light. Finally, the UK may be included for its long-term strategic partnership across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, this “group of the willing” cannot count on Americans as a constant supplier of all the ground forces. Instead the new NATO members have to actively build their military potential (especially infantry and air defence). The trickiest part here are the Baltic countries with their small populations. The best what I can think of is that the Baltic countries increase significantly their military co-operation with each other and yet, in my view, this still needs to be combined with NATO’s increased military presence in the area. The US can offer financial support, military technology and training plus play the major role as forming the backbone of allied air and naval forces. The Western Continental European NATO members’ contribution will be restricted to such issues where it can be expected to being most reliable as generating added value for the common defence: ensuring the routes and facilities of maintenance of their new NATO allies plus supporting financially the rearmament of the Eastern front line countries. In the field of military input air forces are the most realistic form of participation to expect from the Western European countries. For ensuring this military input, at least, is a fairly decent price for, say, Germany in order to avoid waking one morning to the new reality of having become a front-line country itself all over again.

Admittedly, in this way Western Europe will fully enjoy benefits of a “free rider”. But, honestly, they already do. If Western Europe seriously aims to outsource its own defence to the new NATO members it is at least best to make sure that the outsourced defence has the adequate financial means. For strengthening them who will bear the main burden in any case if things get bad is the best guarantee for NATO’s pre-emptive deterrent remaining credible even in the future.