CEPA expert: the first word in Baltic defense needs to be deterrence
Peter B. Doran, the Executive Vice President and Interim Director of CEPA, a non-profit policy institute dedicated to the study of Central and Eastern Europe, with offices in Washington and Warsaw, claims that the task for Baltic militaries amid tense geopolitical times is all about creating doubt or anxiety in the minds of Russian military planners. “Because of their potential combat power—then deterrence has occurred,” the recognized expert on Russia and Ukraine, transatlantic defense and energy security, emphasized in his interview with The Baltic Times.
What do you make so far of the start of Donald Trump’s Presidency?
Donald Trump was elected on a political wave that Americans have not seen since the presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 19th century. This time around, voters said that they were deeply unhappy with the status quo. What is different about our 45th president is that he is a disrupter. This makes his presidency much like a new disruptive technology, or an idea in business. These disrupt the old ways of doing things. We welcome disruption in—say—the tech sector. It makes for better Smart phones and apps. Voters have clearly shown that they want something new in the White House. Now we get to see how it plays out in politics.
Despite the ambivalent notions on the presidency, with Trump in the White House, the US markets have been buoyant, the confidence of the labor market has surged, and even the flow of Mexican immigrants has decreased to half lately. Do you believe it has nothing to do with Trump?
We’re still in the very early days with the Trump Administration. The president has not even finished out his first 100 days—a symbolic and substantive benchmark. So, it is still far too early to assess his impact on the economy, or the labor market, or even on illegal immigration. Donald Trump is in the White House because millions of voters felt that the post-crisis recovery passed them by, that the labor market is lethargic, and that illegal immigration could no longer be ignored. Addressing these issues will take far more than 100 days to implement—much less assess. So, the jury is still out.
How do you explain that Trump, a belligerent figure, has so far little addressed the tensions in the Korean Peninsula, which are an aftermath of a series of missile tests by North Korea? What do you believe will be the litmus paper for Trump’s foreign policies in the near future?
Actions speak louder than Tweets. A presidential Tweet, or even a stirring speech, will never stop a North Korean missile—but American missile defense technology can. This is why I’m encouraged to see U.S. anti-missile tech being deployed in South Korea. I’m speaking specifically of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or the THAAD system. It’s a weird name that means one thing: South Korea is safer against the threat of North Korean missiles. We can also
look to Japan, where longstanding technological cooperation with America has fielded advanced Patriot missiles to defend that country from North Korean threats. Frankly, I’d like to see more efforts on missile defense bear fruit in Central Europe and the Baltic States.
It is in Europe, where Vladimir Putin can threaten millions of citizens with the deployment of illegal nuclear weapons—thanks to Kremlin violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. Early into the Trump Administration, Putin is still pressuring America and its allies. So it is with Russia, where I would like to see Trump demonstrate great strength and solidarity with allies. Russia must see that American greatness is tied to solidarity with allies.
Vice president Mike Pence and the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, assured NATO allies of US support at the Munich conference earlier this year. Do you believe the damage control they did at the gathering in the wake of Trump’s anti-globalization statements was sufficient?
This is where Trump has the greatest opportunity! He can be the first president in recent history to—make NATO Great Again.
The defense numbers do not lie. For decades, Europe has languished in a weird bubble of low defense spending, atrophied fighting capabilities and indifference to growing threats from neighbors. The president’s national security team should be applauded for assuring allies—but the era of European underinvestment in defense must end. We should all be encouraged to see countries like Estonia and Poland already meeting NATO spending targets. I’m equally encouraged by recent Baltic pledges to increase defense spending. The important task now is how to spend those new defense euros wisely. Clearly the biggest priority for the Baltic States is to defend territory. The Baltic States have a lot to offer NATO, if they invest in capabilities that will defend European borders.
Trump has announced of a 54 billion USD hike on US defense buildup. What do you make of it? Especially in the light that the US wants to work out a friendlier relationship with Russia, and that Trump has blasted China over its economic policies, not over its military might?
Clearly, better relations with Russia could have some benefits. But, the normalization of America’s relationship with Russia should be the end result of repairing the damage of Putin’s war against Ukraine—not the prerequisite. Europeans and Americans can have no doubt: Russia’s own actions are the reason why relations
“When Russian defense planners look at the Baltic States, they need to see highly-potent, well-armed professional soldiers and citizen reserves, who can pack a punch, and work seamlessly with NATO allies in the event of an unwanted conflict. If Baltic militaries can create doubt or anxiety in the minds of Russian military planners-because of their potential combat power—then deterrence has occurred”
are sour. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, its war against Ukraine, its military build-up on NATO’S border, and its treaty violations are the reason why relations are bad. Russia must demonstrate that it is willing to play by international rules before relations can get better.
As for America’s defense spending: it’s a good start. We will now see what Congress has to say about the president’s proposed budget. But at a minimum, it is crucial for Congress to prioritize our military readiness, our nuclear deterrent, and our persistent rotations of fighting forces in frontline Europe.
When it comes to China, I see events in Europe as linked to developments in the South China Sea—for example. When Moscow challenges the democratic West, Beijing is watching. Chinese leaders are keen to see how we respond in Europe, as a barometer for what China can—and cannot—get away with in Asia. The bottom line here: a strong line in Europe makes Asia safer and more secure.
Do you believe the mitigation of Western sanctions against Russia is inevitable? When will it likely happen?
Sanctions are in place, because Russia invaded Ukraine, and took its neighbor’s territory by force. Russia broke at least a half dozen international treaties and agreements when it invaded Ukraine. Russia remains in violation of those solemn promises to this day. When Russia starts keeping its promises, then sanctions should be removed—quickly. But until then, I do not see any rationale for removing sanctions.
How do you explain Trump’s fondness of Russia, and its leader Putin?
Both American presidents, who preceded Trump, tried to engage Putin in a spirit of trust. This was a mistake. Putin used their good faith, and optimistic intentions against them. That is a lesson that I hope the president and his national security team take to heart. Putin sees good intentions as an opportunity to exploit.
No fierce Russian backlash followed Trump’s announcement on the military spending hike. Why?
Why should it? Americans of all stripes are deeply troubled when they discover how military readiness has fallen. We will now have to see how Congress responds to the president’s budget request for increased defense spending. But the bottom line is this: corners were cut on defense. American readiness has fallen. That makes the world a more dangerous place. The White House is trying to address this fact. I am encouraged by the president’s first step. I want to see how the budget negotiations play out in Congress.
What does a closer alliance of the United States and Russia bode to the European Union? Ukraine? The Baltics?
There can be no mistake here. Russia is not an ally of the United States. Russia is not even a trustworthy international partner. Russia’s trail of broken promises and treaties are testament to this. So, I would hold off judgement on what the future of U.s.-russian relations might mean for Europe, Ukraine, or the Baltic States.
What do you believe the Baltics have to do in propping up the region’s defense abilities besides meeting the NATO commitments?
The first word in Baltic defense needs to be—deterrence. When Russian defense planners look at the Baltic States, they need to see highly-potent, well-armed professional soldiers and citizen reserves, who can pack a punch, and work seamlessly with NATO allies in the event of an unwanted conflict. If Baltic militaries can create doubt or anxiety in the minds of Russian military planners—because of their potential combat power—then deterrence has occurred. This is what we should be aiming for when it comes to plus-ups in Baltic defense. Each Baltic State can work with NATO and the United States to identify how existing gaps can be filled, and how to make the Kremlin think twice before testing the Alliance.
Europe is to hold some crucial votes for the EU bloc later this year. What do you expect from the elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany? Will the populists likely win them? And then what?...
For starters, I would look closely at Russia’s role in attempting to shape the contests in France and Germany. Right now, Russia’s propaganda outlets are active in trying to influence public perceptions ahead of both elections. The Russian government has a clear stake in the outcomes. That is why the Kremlin must stoke public distrust for democratic institutions and electoral systems. It does this by seeding the Western media space with slick, 21st century propaganda. If the Western public is divided and distracted, Russia can challenge the existing security order in Europe. That is why Russia is funding a sophisticated media campaign in the West. The aim is to keep us distracted, divided and incapable of defending the system that has maintained peace since the Cold War. If Russia succeeds, it will create great harm to Western interests.
Do you believe globalization and integration are stories of the past? Do you see that the trending nationalist politics can see a reverse any time soon? What will it prompt?
Everyone’s world is global. What happens in Korea tomorrow morning can flood Facebook before sunset in Kentucky. This will not change. How we adapt to this change will be the challenge of our generation. Some voters are responding to this challenge by giving a hearing to leaders who promise a return to the past. But, there are real benefits to an interconnected world. So, it is going to be a process. And that is not going to be settled by a single event or election.
“Donald Trump has the greatest opportunity to be the first president in recent history to—make NATO Great Again. The defense numbers do not lie. For decades, Europe has languished in a weird bubble of low defense spending, atrophied fighting capabilities and indifference to growing threats from neighbors.”
Peter B. Doran is Executive Vice President and Interim Director of CEPA.
Peter B. Doran contributes to a number of international news outlets.