Why NATO’s Baltic Security Assurances Will Hold Firm

A prominent recent exchange in the Estonian media between the well known political columnist Ahto Lobjakas and the Chairman of the Riigikogu’s Committee on Foreign Affairs Marko Mihkelson has once again shown the need for deeper analysis on what exactly holds NATO’s Baltic security assurances in place. By claiming NATO as an uncertain and potentially incoherent collection of individual states, Lobjakas was, in essence, arguing that a worrying political paralysis would be in store should NATO have to react in Estonia’s defence.[1] As well as other points, this was disputed by Mihkelson who underlined NATO’s high proficiently for collective action in implementing Baltic air policing, a crucial element within the wider portfolio of security assurances.[2] The exchange focused on the integrity of the Washington Treaty’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one NATO ally constitutes an attack on all and that the alliance will respond in self-defence as necessary. Omitted from mention was the way by which NATO is designed in order to maintain the credibility of its security guarantees under this article. Considerably more so than Lobjakas gives it credit, NATO is stronger than the sum of its parts due to its long-standing collective civil-military command and control structures. While some NATO allies are more experienced within the alliance than others, all are well drilled in NATO’s civil-military procedures. Participating in these structures over many years means all allies are well aware of the prime threats facing the alliance as well as the responsibility of individual allies to provide troops and military hardware should they be required for collective defence under Article 5. As with many international organisations, it might not be possible to achieve absolute consensus within the North Atlantic Council all of the time, but NATO nevertheless retains a high-proficiency to take collective action should key matters of the alliance’s security mandate be placed at risk. The security situation for NATO’s Baltic allies falls firmly into this category.

NATO and the Baltic Security Predicament

While the Baltic security situation represents a difficult balancing act for the alliance, deterrence and territorial defence are fundamental for NATO’s core purpose. Western policy and military officials have long been aware of the security issues that the Baltic states face. In terms of conventional military manoeuvres, defence officials have often said that the Baltic states are somewhat isolated, resembling a “peninsula” largely detached from the wider NATO alliance system.[3] Moreover, due to the large Russian speaking minorities resident in Estonia and Latvia, both countries face a considerable unconventional threat should Russia attempt information warfare in trying to mobilise these minorities as destabilising factions against the states within which they reside. If Vladimir Putin’s Russia wishes to test NATO’s mettle in terms of the credibility of its collective deterrent, then the Baltic states present an opportune place to begin. This is what many US, British, French, German and other NATO officials believe. Moreover, this is not just a matter of seriousness for Baltic security, but for the whole alliance, as NATO’s credibility as a source of defence primarily rests with a tangibly existing Article 5. Were the security situation to worsen, it is highly unlikely that the major Western powers would allow Putin to exploit the Baltic states in any attempt to erode the credibility which NATO’s strength and purpose depends upon.

Security Assurances

In March 2014, I listened as the commander of NATO’s Joint Force Command North, General Hans-Lothar Domröse, spoke at the University of Tartu stating that NATO’s Baltic security assurances are strengthened further by a parallel defence arrangement between the United States and the Baltic states. While General Domröse explained that his NATO forces would be on the ground swiftly should Baltic security be existentially threatened, he also emphasised that the deployment of separate US forces could take place within an even tighter time-frame. US and NATO security assurances for the Baltic states should also be seen within the wider international context. Europe, the Middle-East and the Asia-Pacific are core regions for US security interests. With US allies in Eastern Europe currently in need of assurances, Washington has no wish to set negative precedents which would provoke doubt elsewhere. With the rise of China, US security assurances in the Asia-Pacific, granted to Japan and South Korea as well as those for Australia and New Zealand under the ANZUS Treaty are of central importance for wider international security. In particular, insecurity in Japan and South Korea arises from the proximity of nuclear armed neighbours. Were US security assurances to be thrown into uncertainty elsewhere, both these states could grow doubtful and consider the self-help option of developing the deterrent of a nuclear arsenal, a scenario perhaps risking dangerous arms-racing in an already tense region.[4] Hence, with NATO’s Article 5 an eminent security guarantee within Washington’s wider alliance network, the US administration takes very seriously its responsibilities given the negative global repercussions which could be caused by a lapse anywhere within its web of alliance commitments.      

NATO’s Eastern Strategy

Finally, Baltic politicians should be clearly aware of the strategy which NATO is pursuing. At a conference at the University of Ghent, Belgium in July 2014, I listened to Jamie Shea, NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Emerging Security Threats, discuss the alliance’s strategy of ‘scalability’ for Eastern Europe. This currently means keeping a light US military presence in the region for joint training and reassurance purposes. For the Baltic states, this has also led to the enhancement of NATO’s air policing. In disagreeing with Lobjakas, Marko Mihkelson was correct in stating that NATO’s collective performance has been excellent in this area. Hence, the experience so far gives no indication whatsoever that NATO will be unable to act collectively when implementing its Baltic security assurances. What German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Riga a number of weeks ago is consistent with NATO’s scalability strategy, the alliance is not willing to increase its military presence further at this time, nor will it now break previous agreements made with Russia. From the wider perspective of conflict resolution in Ukraine, this has its merits, as Vladimir Putin will simply use heavier NATO defence measures as a domestic propaganda tool in order to enhance his hard-line position. Nonetheless, the scalability strategy does not leave NATO exposed, as it crucially underlines extensive rapid response capabilities should Russia militarily signal a breaking of the current status quo with the alliance. Thus, while the current Baltic security situation is challenging, the credibility of NATO’s security assurances should not be in doubt. 

[1] Eesti Rahvusringhääling ‘Lobjakas: NATO is Ultimately the Sum of Individual Members’ Decisions’ 22.08.2014. http://goo.gl/ZCrwBr (Accessed 02.09.2014).

[2] Eesti Rahvusringhääling ‘Lobjakas Wrong on NATO Boots on the Ground, Says Mihkelson’ 22.08.2014 http://goo.gl/ltGX1g (Accessed 02.09.2014).

[3] Eesti Rahvusringhääling ‘Retired General Speaks on Baltic Isolation, Russian Fears’ 14.01.2014. http://goo.gl/FBSrJZ (Accessed 02.09.2014).

[4] For analysis discussing the pacifying influence of US security assurances in the Asia-Pacific, see G. John Ikenberry (2004) ‘American Hegemony and East Asian Order’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, 58 (3): 353–367.

Publicēts 02. septembris, 2014

Autors Eoin Micheál Mcnamara