air­baltic looks for a boost

The Baltic Times - - FRONT PAGE - Kes­tutis Girnius

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.”

Kes­tutis Girnius

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