VILNIUS, LITHUANIA — Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and ongoing war in Ukraine have cast a shadow across Central and Eastern Europe, but nowhere is it darker than in the Baltic States.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are the only former Soviet republics to have joined either NATO or the EU. That factor especially seems to stick in the craw of the Kremlin, which has, over the past 18 months, upped its intimidation of these three Western allies.
In addition to their small size and proximity to Russia, the three Baltic States possess other strategic vulnerabilities. Estonia and Latvia are both home to large ethnic Russian minorities, whose grievances Moscow could exploit as it did in Ukraine. Lithuania, meanwhile, sits next to Russia’s militarized Kaliningrad exclave, a potential territorial flashpoint.
Over the past year and a half, NATO has intensified its presence in the region by increasing patrol flights over Baltic airspace and creating a “spearhead” unit that can deploy within 48 hours. Last week, officials in Brussels began discussing the possibility of rotational troop battalions to both the Baltic States and Poland, supplementing the small numbers of American soldiers deployed there
on a bilateral basis.
Talk to leaders here, however, and they will tell you this is not enough. Earlier this year, Lithuania reintroduced conscription, a signal of its suspicion that the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, mandating that an attack on one member is an attack on all, is not sufficient in deterring Russian aggression.
Due to this concern, Poland and the Baltic States have been clamoring for the establishment of permanent NATO bases on their territory. Standing in their way have been France and Germany, who argue that such a move would heighten already tense East-West relations. Opponents of a robust deterrence posture in the East habitually cite the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between the NATO and the Russian Federation, an agreement that the two sides signed to institutionalize their relationship.
Critics of permanent bases in the East routinely invoke the Act’s clause stating how NATO will avoid “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet they routinely overlook the words coming right before, conditioning such restraint to “the current and foreseeable security environment.” To get a gist of just how much the “security environment” has changed in the nearly two decades since the Founding Act was signed, consider its sanguine proclamations as to how “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries,” how both sides have a “shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe, whole and free,” and that “Russia will exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe.”
Simply put, the security situation in Europe has changed drastically since 1997, due entirely to Russia’s aggression. Russia has repeatedly violated both the letter and the spirit of the Founding Act, rendering it null and void. Some say that the West should still uphold its obligations, regardless of how Russia behaves. But this isn’t a legal matter as the agreement is not a treaty but a political understanding. As former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Europe John Kornblum told the Wall Street Journal last year, “There’s nothing to violate,” by NATO building permanent bases in the East.
Poland’s new government can be expected to make an issue out of NATO’s refusal to station permanent forces on its territory, and the Alliance will be confronted with the controversy at its summit in Warsaw next year. President Andrzej Duda has said the issue will be a crucial component of his foreign policy agenda; his Law and Justice Party, which won last month’s election overwhelmingly, is both hawkish on Russia and wary of Germany. From the Eastern perspective, it’s rather hypocritical for Berlin to stand in the way of NATO beefing up its Eastern periphery. Easy to warn against “provocation” and “escalation” with tens of thousands of American soldiers stationed on your territory.
“Today the west is guided by the following logic in relation to Russia: If I will destroy the thermometer, the fever will disappear,” Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s incoming foreign minister, recently told the newspaper Rzeczpospolita. Russia has a fever, and the only prescription is more deterrence.