UK-Baltic Security Cooperation: A Reliable Partnership?

An earlier version of this article appears in this week’s issue of the Baltic Times.

Last week, the security situation of the Baltic states again returned to international prominence. The initiator on this occasion was British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, who stated that Russian aggression presented a “real and present danger” to the three states.[1] These sentiments were later reaffirmed on the floor of the House of Commons by Prime Minister David Cameron.[2]  Media discussion of these remarks has largely focused on the extent of the Russian threat. However, there is another important side to this debate that has remained largely untouched. Expression of sharp rhetoric warning against aggression is one matter, but ability to influence proceedings for the benefit of your allies in the event of that aggression is one entirely different. Is the United Kingdom really in a position to be a reliable partner for the Baltic states in security affairs? The answer has positive elements, but doubts certainly exist.

NATO Assurances: the UK’s Input

Within the NATO setting, the UK-Baltic partnership has often been strong. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Cameron talked tough; his government’s offer of six RAF Typhoon fighter jets marked a key contribution during the initial scramble to increase the volume of NATO’s Baltic air policing in light of the deteriorating security situation. The UK has also provided significant support for NATO’s wider reassurance / deterrence framework in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Starting this year, 1,000 additional British troops will be stationed in the region on a rotational basis for joint training exercises.[3] The UK plans to be a major contributor to the rapidly-deploying “spearhead” component within NATO’s Response Force as the prototype phase is surpassed in 2016. Furthermore, on the fringes of the NATO Summit in Wales last September, it was the UK’s initiative which engineered the beginning of a further inter-allied high-readiness Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF). With London providing the backbone, the JEF’s letter of intent has been signed by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as Denmark. While the JEF aims to be deployable for crisis management anywhere in the world, it also provides an opportunity for the partaking allies to hone their interoperability, this standing to improve integrated defence should it be required around the Baltic Sea region.

NATO: A Changing Balance of Power in Europe?

Coming to wider alliance politics, owing mostly to the UK’s traditional position as the main NATO deputy for the United States in Europe, London has in the past been of high strategic importance for the Baltic states’ security diplomacy. Britain’s long-held interest has helped to ensure that the Baltic security situation receives relatively broad prominence within NATO. However, NATO’s European balance of power has changed significantly during the past decade. Discarding the legacy of Charles De Gaulle, in place since the mid-1960s, France returned to NATO’s military command structures under President Nicholas Sarkozy in 2009. Paris has strived strongly to emerge as a leader in European defence policy. This has been evidenced by recent French leadership of European crisis management in Africa. French initiative behind greater allied burden-sharing has been greeted with relative satisfaction in Washington.

Meanwhile, it has been argued that Germany has become the leading European ally shaping the NATO “Framework Nation Concept” important in guiding the alliance’s flexibility for emerging security challenges. It has also been claimed that Berlin was the main influence behind the Wales Summit’s assurance package design which prioritised mobile rapid-response capabilities in preference to the deployment of a large permanent presence for NATO troops in the CEE region.[4] These developments involving both France and Germany challenge the UK’s traditional role as the major power anchoring NATO in Europe. For the Baltic states, the reality of these changes means the attraction of partnership with London is partially reduced. Instead, in their efforts to squeeze influence within NATO, they must increasingly adjust their diplomatic posture towards Paris and Berlin.

EU Crisis Diplomacy: Consequences of British Absence

While the Baltic-UK partnership has performed well within the NATO context, it must be remembered that Baltic security policy has evolved considerably beyond the confines of NATO over the past decade to include a substantial EU dimension. NATO is the ring-fence standing to protect Baltic sovereignty. However, the NATO environment provides few policy instruments allowing the Balts a role in exerting influence on the security situation beyond their eastern borders. This is where the EU’s foreign policy actions have become increasingly important. Placed into an uncertain and self-inflicted limbo by Cameron’s promise of an “in/out” referendum on the UK’s EU membership should his Conservative Party hold power until 2017, London continues to miss out on the golden opportunity to shape a developing EU foreign policy. Including the UK, this is bad for many. The EU incorporates a fairly wide degree of collective influence when it comes to regular foreign policy initiatives thought-through for the long-term such as the Eastern Partnership. However, when crucial crisis diplomacy arises, the past decade has seen the frequent tendency of France and Germany to shut others out and simply grab the reins and bargain on behalf of the EU. In terms of the EU’s foreign policy towards Russia, this has become a troubling point of unease between the Union’s eastern and western member states.

Doubts have been prominent among the Baltic states and Poland who often fear that the pragmatic “business as usual” ethos, which has largely come to define French and German relations with Russia since the Cold War’s end, might lead to CEE security interests being bypassed. Given that London’s position on Russia aligns more closely with many CEE states, by re-engaging constructively, London perhaps still has the weight to prevent eastern EU unease while pragmatically directing EU foreign policy in a more representative direction. Poland is well placed to be an ally in this respect. Once central to EU diplomacy as the Ukraine crisis began in late 2013; it has been argued that Poland’s hard-line stance towards Russia saw Germany take the view that Warsaw could become a problematic spoiler harming a possible compromise with Moscow.[5] Considering the relative like-mindedness between Warsaw and London on this matter, if the UK was centrally embedded in the process, it would be much harder to dispense with Poland as was done during 2014. If EU crisis diplomacy is to be conducted through great power realpolitik, a concert taking in Berlin, Paris, London and Warsaw as well as Brussels represents a far more legitimate compromise compared to the currently dominant Franco-German duopoly.

While the Balts would not be at the table, considering their denser security ties with the UK and Poland and many shared aspects with the latter two in their Russia policies, the concert model grants the Baltic states more channels to influence those negotiating on the EU’s behalf. Nevertheless, some leadership on sanctions aside, in today’s reality, Britain largely resides in self-imposed exile when it comes to EU-Russia relations. As the Baltic governments can currently only deal with this reality, they must divert more diplomatic resources into the difficult task of persuading Paris and Berlin towards a more deterrence-orientated stance for the EU’s Russia policy while London remains of marginal relevance. In short, while UK-Baltic security relations perform well in the NATO setting, London’s blindness to the importance of the security dimension of EU foreign policy leaves the Balts among others somewhat in the lurch.

[1]  ‘Russia “Danger” to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – Fallon’, BBC News, 19.02. 2015. (Accessed 03.03.2015).

[2] ‘British PM Seconds Warning that Baltic States Could be Russia’s Next Target’, The Lithuanian Tribune, 24.02.2015.  (Accessed 03.03. 2015).

[3] Ben Farmer, ‘Britain Announces 1,000 More Troops for Eastern Europe Exercises’, The Telegraph, 16.01.2015. (Accessed 03.03.2015).

[4] Both claims made in Claudia Major and Christian Mölling, ‘Not a Hegemon, But the Backbone: Germany Takes a Leading Role in NATO’s Strategic Adaptation’, European Leadership Network, 23.02.2015. (accessed 03.03. 2015). 

[5] Adam Reichardt, ‘Where is Sikorski?’, New Eastern Europe, 09.07. 2014. (accessed 03.03. 2015).

Publicēts 05. marts, 2015

Autors Eoin Micheál Mcnamara