Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies
From the Wall Street Journal Europe
Op-ed By IASPS Senior Fellow Vladimir Socor
Credibility, with its twin political and military aspects — is what makes NATO the longest-lasting and most successful alliance in Western history, and underlies its attractiveness to old and new members and to aspirant countries as well. To keep that credibility intact, NATO has never allowed deadline-driven public-relations goals, or electoral campaigns in one or another member country, or the pursuit of special relations with a non-member power, to interfere with the alliance’s policies.
These unique strengths are now more important than ever, as the alliance completes its enlargement from the Baltic to the western Black Sea, and acquires major strategic interests in the South Caucasus.
Yet at this very moment, those aforementioned strengths are unnecessarily being put to the test. Russian President Vladimir Putin is well aware that some member governments in NATO are eager for political reasons to obtain his participation at the alliance’s upcoming summit. For that questionable favor, Mr. Putin hopes to extract a price, ahead of the upcoming summit.
He wants NATO collectively — and the U.S. in particular — to tolerate only partial and uncertain compliance with Russia’s 1999 Istanbul Commitments on troop withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova. Mr. Putin also wants NATO to initiate prematurely the ratification of the adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE, adapted also in 1999) and the accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the CFE Treaty — which originally did not apply to the territories of the Baltic states.
According to NATO’s as well as Washington’s long-held position, the fulfillment of Russian obligations to withdraw the forces from Georgia and Moldova is inseparably linked with the CFE Treaty’s ratification by the state-parties, and the accession to it of the three Baltic states. As of now, it seems almost certain that some Russian forces will stay on in Moldova and Georgia for a number of years to come. Nevertheless the Kremlin wants to hurry the CFE treaty’s ratification, in hopes of setting limits to defensive forces that the allies might introduce in the Baltic states if necessary.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will in a few weeks become members of NATO. These are small countries that have created their armies from scratch, and possess almost none of the heavy weaponry in the CFE Treaty-limited categories (tanks and armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft). They have neither the means nor the wish to acquire those types of weaponry.
For their defense, the Balts rely mainly on small, well-trained, lightly armed infantry and on NATO allies’ ability to bring in reinforcements in times of crisis. The allies’ ability to do so depends in turn on creating adequate infrastructure in the Baltic states, and on holding exercises on the territory that might one day have to be defended.
Along with all NATO member countries, the Baltic states will be covered by Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty — the bedrock of NATO’s credibility, which guarantees member countries against possible aggression. In this alliance there are no zones with unequal levels of security; nor should such differentiation ever be permitted to emerge. This is why, in the interest of the alliance’s overall credibility, CFE Treaty constraints must never impair the alliance’s ability to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The Baltic states fully concur with the NATO position that Russia’s complete fulfillment of its Istanbul Commitments regarding Georgia and Moldova is necessary in order to move forward on CFE ratification. By the same token the Balts share the long-held allied view that a premature ratification — with Russian troops entrenched in those two countries — would run counter to Euro-Atlantic values and interests. Decisions on that entire set of issues are now under debate within the alliance.
NATO and the Baltic states should first determine the defense requirements in that region, and the force levels necessary for upholding Article Five guarantees. Only after that determination is made, and not before, will it be possible to proceed with Baltic ratification of the CFE Treaty and with negotiations on force ceilings in the treaty-limited categories.
The alliance can already now initiate the process of planning for the defense of the Baltic states in various contingencies. Such contingency planning is normal practice in NATO (and indeed any alliance). While direct threats to the Baltic states’ security seem highly unlikely at this time, contingency planning to meet such threats is the way to minimize their probability in the future. If Article Five is to maintain its credibility, it must translate into contingency planning for the types of situations in which that article is meant to be invoked.
Some time ago, NATO and the Balts initiated Host Nation Support (HNS) programs, designed to create the necessary infrastructure for allied forces to bring in reinforcements if necessary, to pre-position equipment, and to hold joint exercises in the Baltic states. HNS programs focus on building or upgrading ports, airfields and roads; these programs have both military and civilian uses in allied countries. As the Baltic states now join NATO as full members, it is time for HNS programs to advance from ideas to plans, joint financing decisions and implementation.
Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, next to Lithuania on the Baltic coast, serves as a base for conventional forces that are still incomparably more powerful than those of the three Baltic states put together. To its credit, Russia has steadily reduced its forces in Kaliningrad; the cuts should continue there in the interest of regional stability, which equally requires that Russian force levels remain stable in the Pskov region next to Estonia and Latvia.
The three states urgently need air policing. They have no air forces of their own, and have wisely followed allied advice to refrain from acquiring “toy air forces.” Policing of their air spaces can only be a NATO collective solution, possible within the alliance’s integrated airbase system, and using allied planes.
In sum, whenever the CFE Treaty comes into force and the Baltic states embark on the treaty accession process, it must not be allowed to constrain NATO’s collective defense capabilities in this region and those of the Balts themselves. Russia seeks constraining provisions both in the CFE framework and outside it, professing to see threats on its border if the Baltic states are adequately defended.
This type of logic has already been disproved in the first round of NATO enlargement, which — as Moscow now agrees — has clearly increased, not decreased, stability and overall security in Central-Eastern Europe. Those invalidated arguments of the past can not serve as a basis for putting the Baltic states in some sort of a disadvantaged category with respect to force levels under the CFE Treaty or outside of it.
Mr. Socor is senior fellow of the Washington-based Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies, publishers of the Policy Briefings series on Eurasia.
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