airbaltic looks for a boost
If anyone had any doubts that US Vice President Mike Pence is a hawk on Russian policy, his recent trip to Eastern Europe must have surely put them to rest. In Estonia, Pence met with the presidents of all three Baltic States, assuring them that ‘an attack on one of us is an attack on us all.’ He asserted that “no threat looms larger in the Baltic States than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east."
One can hardly quarrel with the claim, since Estonia’s other neighbors are Finland, Latvia and Sweden. In Georgia, Pence condemned Russia for its "occupation of Georgia's soil", stated that America stands with Georgia, and strongly endorsed its hopes to join NATO. France, Germany and several other Western European countries are firmly opposed, while Russia would consider such a decision to be an unacceptable provocation. In Montenegro, Pence accused Russia of trying to undermine the democracies in the Western Balkans, divide them from one another and from the rest of Europe. As in Estonia, he spoke of dangers emanating from the ‘east.’
Pence is hardly the first important US official who has travelled to the Baltic States, seeking to ensure them of the firmness of Washington’s commitment to their independence. Vice President Joe Biden visited Latvia in August 2016 and urged the Baltic countries not to take Donald Trump seriously. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a delegation led by Sen. John Mccain, another by Sen. Lamar Alexander also travelled to the Baltics last year, as did Secretary of Defense James Mattis and many high-ranking US and NATO generals. NATO troops are now stationed in all three Baltic countries. Discussions have commenced about deploying the Patriot air-and-missile defense system, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite being an exceptionally eager advocate of such a step.
If the steady stream of dignitaries and their fervent assurances of support were not enough to allay doubts about the strength of NATO’S commitment to defend the Baltics, one could hope that the new sanctions imposed on Russia would do the trick. The law was passed almost unanimously in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and included a clause stating that the president cannot abrogate them without approval of Congress. The clause is truly exceptional, since a Republican dominated Congress passed a measure limiting the powers of a Republican president. Only in the most extreme circumstances do congressmen shackle their own president. That they embarked on such an unprecedented policy indicates both Congress’ deep hostility towards Russia and its distrust of Trump’s intentions concerning the Kremlin. But, the request for permanent stationing of Patriot batteries indicates that misgivings about Russia’s intentions will not simply go away.
I believe that these fears are ungrounded. First, Putin has shown himself to be a bold, but also a cautious politician. In 2008, he halted military action after only five days, although the Georgian military was shattered and the road to Tbilisi wide open. Yes, he incited, supported and supports the rebels in eastern Ukraine, but despite Western anxieties, he did not urge the rebels to launch new offenses to capture Mariupol and other vulnerable regions when Ukrainian forces were in disarray. In Syria, he sent planes and advisors rather than troops.
Second, attacking the Baltic States would make no sense. They are members of NATO, while Georgia and Ukraine were not, and this makes a major difference. NATO has higher stakes in defending the Baltics than Russia has in occupying them, and both sides know this. Failure by the West to respond would mean the end of NATO, so in defending the Baltics, NATO would also be defending its own viability as a credible defense organization and also the credibility of the West in general. So, it would respond forcibly to any Russian attempt to escalate matters.
Russia has little to gain from occupying the Baltic States, but would be saddled with the high cost of imposing its will on a sullen and aging population. Putin knows this, and knows that NATO knows this, further ensuring that NATO will not back down. In Georgia, the situation was reversed. Russia believed its vital interests were on the line, while the US had only peripheral concerns, so Putin could act decisively. It is worth noting once again that NATO troops are stationed in all three countries, serving as a tripwire, thus making certain that their governments could not turn a blind eye to a situation in which the lives of its soldiers would be endangered.
Despite all the recent positive developments, Baltic leaders are still concerned or at least publicly continue to voice concerns, perhaps in order to keep the West focused on their region. For three years, Russia has not resorted to forceful military action in Ukraine, so fear of invasion or military provocation have eased somewhat. Now there is more talk of hybrid wars, cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns, and the like. Some analysts have suggested Russia could foment separatism, train local militants, even infiltrate activists, agents or ‘volunteers’ into the Baltics. But politicians and media still shower obsessive attention on various worst-case scenarios. Much has been made of the so-called Suwalki Gap, a slender 60-mile wide stretch of territory sandwiched between Kaliningrad and Belarus. The area is held to be NATO’S weakest point on its eastern flank, hence by occupying it, Moscow could cut off the Baltic States from Poland and the rest of NATO. In recent months, anxiety has centered on the Zapad military exercises that Russia will conduct with Belarus in Belarus itself, Western Russia, Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea. The West conjuctures that as many as 100,000 might partake in the exercise which is offensive in nature, and that some of these troops may stay behind, even if they do not try to provoke some incident. Russia and Belarus deny these claims, noting that only around 13,000 will participate.
Conspiracy theorists are not the only ones worried by Zapad. The Lithuanian Government considers it the most important security threat to the country in 2017. The New York Times, more prone now to editorializing and pontificating in its news features than in the past, has called Zapad an “exercise in intimidation that recalls the most ominous days of the Cold War.” In its August 5th issue, the Economist speculated that Russia might even occupy Belarus, seeking to push back against US sanctions. Such a step is implausible, for Russia would become a complete pariah and even China would object vigorously.
The proof is in the pudding, so it will be interesting to see how the Zapad exercises will proceed, and if any of the Western fears are corroborated. If Zapad ends up being harmless, critics are unlikely to be silenced, but will seek more fertile ground for their anxieties. I believe that fears of Russian aggression are groundless today, but may not be in a year or so, particularly if the US decides to arm Ukraine.
Kestutis Girnius is a Political Analyst of US descent, Associate Professor at Lithuania‘s Institute of International Relations and Political Sciences
“If Zapad ends up being harmless, critics are unlikely to be silenced, but will seek more fertile ground for their anxieties. I believe that fears of Russian aggression are groundless today, but may not be in a year or so, particularly if the US decides to arm Ukraine.”