Thanks to Poland, NATO will defend the Baltic states

21.01.2010 / 06:00 CET
Under US pressure, Germany and others appear set to answer one of Europe’s most fundamental security questions.

In a crunch, would NATO stand by its weakest members – the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? After five years of dithering, the answer now seems to be ‘Yes’, with a decision in principle by the alliance to develop formal contingency plans to defend them.
The shift comes after hard-fought negotiations, in which, at US insistence, Germany and other countries dropped their opposition.

This is a big change. Since the three Baltic states joined NATO in 2004, defence planners have tried to sidestep the question of what their membership means in practice. If Russia is a friendly NATO partner, not an adversary, then defence plans for the new member states from the ex-communist part of Europe should not be necessary. Indeed, until late 2008, NATO’s threat assessment – the basis for its military planning – explicitly discounted any threat from Russia. That seemed to send a dangerous signal that north-eastern Europe was a security soft-spot, open to mischief-making and meddling from outside.

The main push came from Poland, a big US ally in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the first to gain contingency plans – initially only against a putative (and implausible) attack from Belarus, a country barely a quarter of its size. When the war in Georgia highlighted NATO’s wobbliness on Russia, Poland accelerated its push for a bilateral security relationship with the US, including the stationing of Patriot anti-missile rockets on Polish soil in return for hosting a missile-defence base.

Meanwhile, military officials in NATO began low-key but wide-ranging efforts, called ‘prudent planning’. Under the authority of the US supreme allied commander in Europe, these did not require the formal consent of NATO’s governing body, the North Atlantic Council, where they risked being blocked by countries such as Germany.
Speaking in Prague last April, US President Barack Obama publicly demanded that NATO develop plans for all of its members, which put the Baltic case squarely on the alliance’s agenda. But in the months that followed, inattention and disorganisation in his administration brought no visible follow-up.

Instead, snubs and missteps, particularly on the missile defence plans, deepened gloom about how seriously the US took the safety concerns of its allies in Europe’s ex-communist east. An open letter by security bigwigs from Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and other countries publicly bemoaned the decline in transatlantic relations.
A muted NATO response to extensive Russian military exercises on the Baltic and Polish borders last autumn sharpened the worries further. Many feared that NATO’s intense focus on Afghanistan was leading it to neglect its core mission, of territorial defence of its members. That risked undermining the alliance’s credibility.

Now that seems to have changed. Formal approval is still pending and the countries concerned have been urged to keep it under wraps. But sources close to the talks say the deal is done: the Baltic states will get their plans, probably approved by NATO’s military side, rather than its political wing. They will be presented as an annex to existing plans regarding Poland, but with an added regional dimension. That leaves room for Sweden and Finland (not members of the alliance but increasingly close to it) to take a role in the planning too. A big bilateral US exercise already planned for the Baltic this summer is likely to widen to include other countries.
Assuming the plans prove specific and credible, politicians in the Baltic states should now have plenty of time to address their countries’ far more pressing economic, political and social problems.

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