Since 2004, NATO has defended the independence of the Baltic States, but more can be done. In 2014 NATO’s member countries agreed to enhance the deterrence capabilities of the Alliance – a set of measures called the Readiness Action Plan (RAP). These were updated after the NATO summit in Warsaw to become NATOs Forward Presence. The combination of the RAP and the Forward Presence offer a new piece of mind for the Baltic States, as we continue to face harassment from Russia. The nearly 5,000 troops stationed in Latvia, Poland, Lithuania and Estonia serve as a first line of defence against any potential aggression.
Russia’s tactics and actions within the context of the illegal annexation of Crimea and, more generally, the “internal conflict” in Ukraine were a surprise to some. Not so for Latvia and its two Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania which were not naive enough to believe that there is such a thing as a “softer” or “more pragmatic” Russia. The Baltic States have suffered under the Soviet Union for long enough to build an immunity against the lies of the giant neighbour to their East. It might be a different matter for those inhabitants of Latvia who are still living pre-independence memories which includes a large daily dose of Russian TV news and thereby belonging to a different society – notwithstanding their failure to becoming fully-fledged citizens.
Despite all the progress achieved thus far, there is still work to be done to increase the defence capabilities of Eastern Europe. We had to wait until the Warsaw Summit of 2016 for troops to finally be deployed in Poland, which shares a border with the militarised Kaliningrad oblast. It also took until 2016 for more troops to finally be deployed in Latvia and it’s neighbours.
One could also add that the Baltic States, particularly Latvia, are still reliant on Russian gas as well as being partly incorporated in the ex-Soviet electricity grids and rail market – thus already being involuntary integrated in the wrong region to some degree. Given the slow and painful progress of the Rail Baltica railway project that aims to connect the region with the rest of Europe, the situation is even gloomier still.
On the other hand, it needs to be understood that NATO is made up of a number of countries whose interests are somewhat divergent. For that reason it should not be assumed that there is a unified voice within NATO that lists the security of the Baltic States and Poland as its number one priority.
As NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe increases, there are voices calling for this to be reversed. The argument goes that Russia feels threatened and should not be provoked. Such claims are unfounded and the opposite is in fact true. It was indeed a lack of opposition and a credible threat that enabled Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Baltic States are no different. Russia’s imperial ambitions have not diminished whilst the wishful thinking of certain people in the West only plays into Russia’s hands. In a way one can hope that people advocating a “dialogue” with Russia are at least benefiting from this because otherwise one has to conclude that Putin’s propaganda war has also gained an audience in the West.
I believe in the right of every country to choose its own foreign policy, including mine. I am certain that the Baltic States and Poland choose security. If we do not, Russia will choose for us. The sooner the wishful thinkers understand this, the better for everyone. More NATO means more security
Originally published in Time to Act, New Direction Publication Summer 2016, Revised and updated for The Conservative 2019