NATO’s Baltic chal­lenge

Only a cred­i­ble de­ter­rence can keep the Rus­sians at bay

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Gary An­der­son Gary An­der­son is a re­tired U.S. Ma­rine colonel and was a spe­cial ad­viser to the deputy sec­re­tary of de­fense from 2003 to 2005.

Pres­i­dent Trump was coy about his com­mit­ment to NATO’s Ar­ti­cle 5, which con­sid­ers an at­tack on one mem­ber state is an at­tack on all. Most in­formed ob­servers saw this as a bar­gain­ing ploy to get the at­ten­tion of those mem­ber states who have not met the NATO de­fense spend­ing tar­get of 2 per­cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP). The ad­min­is­tra­tion has since reaf­firmed our in­ten­tion to honor Ar­ti­cle 5. Per­haps the most re­lieved NATO mem­bers at this devel­op­ment are the Baltic States — Latvia, Es­to­nia and Lithua­nia. If any NATO mem­bers should be wor­ried about the Rus­sian threat, it is those three.

Those of us who were skep­ti­cal about ex­tend­ing NATO mem­ber­ship to for­mer mem­bers of the War­saw Pact had two ma­jor con­cerns. The first was that NATO was over­reach­ing in East­ern Europe. Prior to World War II, the French had ex­tended se­cu­rity guar­anties to Poland and Cze­choslo­vakia when Ger­many was too weak to protest. How­ever, when Hitler called the Al­lied bluff in the late 1930s, France and Bri­tain re­al­ized that there was lit­tle they could do to stop Ger­many if she de­cided to launch a light­ning at­tack on ei­ther east­ern na­tion. Our sec­ond con­cern was that the loss of their east­ern pos­ses­sions would be a fes­ter­ing sore with the Rus­sians for years to come and could be a flash point for fu­ture trou­ble with Rus­sia. The sec­ond fear was valid. Many Rus­sians, Vladimir Putin among them, have never ac­cepted the loss of the Baltics and their Rus­sian mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tions any more than they ac­cepted the loss of Ukraine. It re­mains to be seen whether the first con­cern will also come to pass.

The NATO ex­pan­sion ship sailed any­way. NATO now has com­mit­ments to its new­est mem­bers. The ques­tion now is how do we honor those com­mit­ments if a real cri­sis oc­curs? The Baltic states are largely com­ply­ing with NATO re­quire­ments. All have more than dou­bled their de­fense spend­ing since joining the al­liance and are ex­pected to triple it by 2020. Each state is pro­jected to meet the 2 per­cent of GDP mark by 2018 sug­gested by NATO, and de­manded by Mr. Trump. How­ever, in 1939, Poland had a ro­bust mil­i­tary; but it was no match for the Ger­mans. The al­lies could only watch as Ger­man and the Rus­sian forces dis­mem­bered the hap­less Poles be­fore any help could reach them. The al­lies de­clared war on Ger­many, but it was too late for Poland. NATO’s prob­lem is how to de­ter Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion in any or all of those states.

Vladimir Putin has pub­licly dis­avowed a mil­i­tary so­lu­tion in the Baltic area, but that line was also used re­gard­ing Crimea where a trumped-up threat to Rus­sian mi­nori­ties be­came the pre­text for an in­va­sion that was pre­ceded by mil­i­tary ma­neu­vers on Ukraine’s bor­der. The build-up to cri­sis is a crit­i­cal time for NATO to show re­solve. Once Rus­sian troops have crossed the bor­der in over­whelm­ing force, the in­cur­sion be­comes a fait ac­com­pli un­less the Baltic States in ques­tion have been re­in­forced sig­nif­i­cantly with enough NATO com­bat power to threaten a re­ally se­ri­ous war. This is the point where NATO is weak­est. Be­fore a mem­ber is ac­tu­ally at­tacked and Ar­ti­cle 5 can be in­voked, it takes con­sen­sus on the part of all NATO mem­bers to move troops un­der NATO com­mand. That is very un­likely, and this is where Amer­i­can lead­er­ship is needed. There will al­ways be weak sis­ters in NATO who will defer ac­tion un­til it is ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary. That is why Napoleon liked fight­ing coali­tions.

To re­in­force the Baltics dur­ing a cri­sis, some NATO mem­bers will need to craft bi­lat­eral agree­ments with each Baltic state to send rapid re­ac­tion forces there be­fore a con­flict be­gins. To make this a truly cred­i­ble de­ter­rent, the United States must be one of the states craft­ing such agree­ments. The com­po­si­tion of such re­in­force­ments must be rapid and sig­nif­i­cant enough to make the Rus­sians re­al­ize that they will be in­volved in a real war if they cross the red line that is a Baltic State bor­der in­stead of a Crimea-like walkover. Cred­i­bil­ity is the essence of de­ter­rence.

In 1939, Hitler ac­cepted the risk that Great Bri­tain and France would go to war over Poland be­cause he knew that he could fin­ish off the Poles be­fore the al­lies could do any­thing about it. He hoped that he could then get a ne­go­ti­ated peace once the al­lies ac­cepted the fait ac­com­pli. To­day, it is im­por­tant that Mr. Putin not use that cal­cu­lus. Peace rests on a cred­i­ble de­ter­rence.

In 1939, Hitler ac­cepted the risk that Great Bri­tain and France would go to war over Poland be­cause he knew that he could fin­ish off the Poles be­fore the al­lies could do any­thing about it.

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