The Baltic states and Poland, forming NATO’s eastern flank, play a unique and strategically significant role in the security of the entire North Atlantic Alliance and are crucial for the security of the Baltic region, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said at the plenary meeting of the defense ministers of the Baltic region in Tallinn, Estonia, on Dec. 16.
As a result, transatlantic cooperation in bolstering Baltic security and defense is of major importance, the defense ministers of Baltic states and Poland agreed. In particular, they placed significant importance on the presence of American troops in Poland and also plan to develop air and missile defense systems on their territories that are similar to the Wisla system built in Poland in cooperation with the United States.
Blaszczak also emphasized that “Poland’s commitment to the security of the region is long-term,” according to the Polish government website.
The defense ministers of the Baltic states—Estonia’s Juri Luik, Lithuania’s Raimundas Karoblis, Latvia’s Artis Pabriks, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, and Poland’s Mariusz Blaszczak—gathered in Estonia to discuss the implementation of the security and defense decisions for the Baltic region and Poland made at the last NATO summit in London on Dec. 4.
They decided to establish a joint NATO brigade, “of which Poland will be a framework country,” and said that the creation of two NATO commands in Poland is part of the allied security and defense policy.
One already established NATO command is the corps in Szczecin, close to the German border and near a major port complex of the Baltic Sea comprising Szczecin seaport, and Swinoujscie seaport—where a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal is located.
Another NATO command is the division in Elblag—a city near the Baltic Sea and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, where a NATO Multinational division is currently stationed. A Lithuanian brigade will also be added to it.
Luik stressed the importance of Poland’s participation in air policing of the Baltic region and in the battlegroup in Latvia.
Ministers emphasized the importance of cyber defense for the region at the joint press conference. Blaszczak stated that cyber defense is a NATO operational space since 2016 and a special approach must be taken in the development of 5G in order to ensure its security.
What Threats Baltic States Face
“We should have no illusions, Russia is the main and, in my view, the biggest threat to the security of the Baltic States and NATO. It is important to identify external threats to the unity and strength of the Alliance. I urged NATO leaders to strengthen defense of our region to deter Russia”, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said at the NATO Leaders Meeting in London earlier in December.
Rand Corporation’s 2019 report identifies the threat posed by Russia as “hybrid warfare,” a term used to describe the combination of information operation like disinformation, use of propaganda, cyber-attacks, economic manipulation, use of energy dependence, diplomatic pressure, use of proxies and insurgencies, and may also involve military actions.
This type of tactic has been used by Russia in the Crimea and Donbas regions in Ukraine where local ethnic Russian populations created a crisis, giving Russia a pretext “to intervene militarily to protect the Russian minority,” according to the Rand report. Russia’s “compatriot policy” “claims a legal right to protect Russian citizens wherever they reside.”
According to a study published in Science Direct by Joe Kyle, a researcher at George Washington University, Russia historically used to maintain a land zone that served as buffer between its territory and Western Europe to ensure its security. After World War II, the countries that constituted the Eastern Communist Bloc served this role. The buffer countries protected the Russian heartland from invasion and provided additional time for Russia to prepare its defenses, according to Kyle.
After the end of the Cold War this zone disappeared as the Soviet Union and the Eastern Communist Bloc both disintegrated. Moreover the Baltic states, as well some other former members of the Eastern Communist Bloc, joined NATO, the Western military alliance created mainly to counter the threat of the Soviet Union.
Kyle states that the Russian National Security Strategy considers NATO a threat to the Russian Federation. “Preventing ‘NATO encirclement’ is a major rationale given for Russia’s invasion of both Georgia and Ukraine,” wrote Kyle.
The Baltic states, especially Estonia and Latvia, have regions with a significant number of ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking population bordering Russia. The population of Estonian county Ida-Viru is 73 percent ethnic Russian, and the Latvian border region of Latgalen is 43 percent ethnic Russian. Lithuania has a relatively smaller but prominent Russian population, according to the same source.
Although studies conclude that the Russian groups in the Baltics are less prone to Russian propaganda and other soft power tactics, according to Kyle, The Baltic states consider Russia’s military presence and preparedness near their borders a threat. Since their military forces are rather small the three Baltic countries joined NATO to boost their defense.
The coordinator of the secret service, Polish Minister of the Interior Mariusz Kaminski—who, as a student, was an anti-communist activist when Poland was still under communist rule—said in his speech at a conference at the Wilson Center on Dec. 10, “In today’s Russia the secret services are the backbone of the state. They decide who belongs to the political and economic elite and who does not.”
Kaminski emphasized Russia’s aggression in the information sphere. “The internet, social media, and discussion forums are all front and center in Russia’s hybrid warfare,” Kaminski said, “Russians implement strategies of so-called dedicated disinformation targeting groups of their choice. [Russia] grants support to political radicals who publicly peddle racial and ethnic hatred.”
“Putin’s Russia knows exactly how to penetrate our open inclusive political and civic institutions because it can draw upon decades of experience accumulated during the Cold War,” he added.
According to Kaminski, Russia is not a free market economy, but an oligarch system, governed by the secret services. Russian oligarchs do not make money because of their business skills, but because “they are sanctioned by the regime,” which allows them to conduct their businesses and they in turn share their gains with the regime.
As Kyle stated in his analysis, Russia is not “strong enough to fight a protracted war against [NATO]”, because NATO as an alliance is much stronger economically and in terms of military spending. The GDP of NATO countries combined in 2017 is about 25 times larger than Russia’s GDP, and NATO’s military budget combined is about 26 times larger than Russia’s military budget.
However according to a study published by Viljar Veebel at the Estonian International Center for Defense and Security, in past Russian-Georgian and Russian-Ukrainian conflicts, it was “reaction speed and mobility, not the size of the forces, [that] provided a competitive edge.”
According to Kyle it would take at most 60 hours for Russian forces to reach the suburbs of the Estonian or Latvian capitals. Therefore enhancing NATO’s forward presence in the Baltic region will not only strengthen the defense of Baltic countries but also deter any potential adversary, as attacking NATO forces stationed in any of the Baltic countries would become an attack directed against NATO at large, rather than against a single country, explained Kyle.
In order to enhance forward presence in the Baltic countries NATO states have deployed “about 4,500 troops to the three Baltic States … and Poland,” according to the report, “2019 NATO Leaders’ Meeting: In Brief,” issued by the Congressional Research Service.
How the Baltic States Respond to the Threat
The director of the Eastern Europe Studies Center in Lithuania, Linas Kojala, said at the conference at the Warsaw Institute in Poland that a survey taken after the Crimea annexation by Russia in 2014 showed that 80 percent of Lithuanians feared “another military aggression against their country.”
Since 2004, NATO allies from several countries have participated in the Baltic air policing initiative and between 40 and 120 “instances of scrambles happen every year,” Kojala said. The initiative provides the Baltic States with “an extremely expensive asset” that would not be available if each country were to police its own airspace.
Kojala said that the Baltic countries can in return contribute to NATO’s “cyber security and other security measures” since this is an area in which they more capable.
Sven Sakkov of the International Centre for Defence and Security in Estonia said at the same conference that “three Baltic states which are roughly the same size” could combine their efforts when it comes to military procurement. Joint acquisitions will give the countries greater bargaining power to negotiate better prices which they may not be able to negotiate individually.
Estonia and Finland have a “very positive long-term relationship” when it comes to joint military procurement, said Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik in statement, according to Defense News. “We have bought self-propelled artillery and radar systems together,” Luik added.
Estonia, Latvia, and Finland signed on Dec. 17 “a letter of intent to pursue a joint purchase of new armored ground vehicles,” reported Defense News.
Ray Wojcik, director of the Warsaw Office of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in the U.S., talked about the principle of collective defense outlined in Article Five of the Washington Treaty—the legal basis of NATO—whereby an attack against one member is considered as an attack on members. For example, NATO applied Article 5 in 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States.
Wojcik said that NATO provided to its new members “the political membership, the military cooperation, but none of the real NATO infrastructure … on the eastern flank.” He co-authored a report, “Unfinished Business,” which justifies the need for a permanent presence of NATO forces—American forces in particular—on the eastern flank.
As per two declarations signed by the United States and Poland earlier this year, the United States will help Poland develop a world-class training center for all NATO members in addition to the existing premier training center in Germany. The United States will also fund the pre-positioned underground equipment storage in western Poland.
Sakkov recently co-authored a report on the European strategic autonomy. He argues that although small formal or informal groups of states may work together towards autonomy and achieve it in certain areas to a certain degree, Europe should “not to lose sight of the central importance of the US and NATO in European defense.”
He cites an example of the “European-led intervention in Libya” in 2011, when on the second day of the war the European forces ran out of ammunition and had to rely on the United States in such vital areas like “air-to-air refueling, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.” As a result “the defense was done by the U.S. mostly [using] Tomahawk strikes.”
At the Warsaw Institute conference, Poland’s government commissioner for strategic energy infrastructure, Minister Piotr Naimski, identified problems that prevent the Baltic region from achieving energy security. Among them are dependency on Russian energy sources, legacy connection of the electrical grid of the Baltic states to the former Soviet Union system, and dependency on Russian technology for nuclear power generation.
The diversification of natural gas sources has already been achieved by launching LNG terminals in Poland and Lithuania in recent years, said Naimski.
Naimski said that a project called Harmony Link will allow the Baltic States to switch their electricity grids through a new “interconnector” in Poland and synchronize them with the European system. Naimski told Biznes Alert that the synchronization will be completed by 2025.