At a panel discussion one year ago on United States and Russian relations, Imants Liegis, Latvia’s former ambassador to NATO, labelled Russia ‘a somewhat unpredictable and aggressive neighbour out to reassert its influence’ and he highlighted the Georgian conflict of 2008 as justification for concern. Little has changed.
The five-day war in Georgia was instigated by Russia on the pretext of protecting Russian nationals in the country. Each of the three Baltic nations in NATO have a higher percent of Russian nationals than Georgia, with Latvia and Estonia’s numbers climbing above 25 percent, according to the United States Department of State.
The Georgian conflict coupled with the cyber-attacks against Estonia that originated from Russia in 2007 justifies the weariness of the Baltic Nations. These recent acts of aggression left the Eastern European members of the alliance craving security reassurance at the 2012 Summit.
Some comfort came with the formal announcement of an indefinite extension of NATO policing of the airspace above the Baltic region. The programme has been in effect since the countries gained alliance membership in 2004 and its continuation was expected, but soothing. The policy extension perhaps received more fanfare than it otherwise would have as it was repackaged as part of the Smart Defence initiative.
‘The big success for the Baltic states was the air policing,’ said Andres Kasekamp, the director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute. ‘That’s why people here can say we had a successful summit. Otherwise the summit was pretty lacking in success.’
Kasekamp went on to say that the four fighter jets stationed in Lithuania as part of the programme may not offer a significant deterrence to Russian intervention. The Baltic Nations may be prompted to increase their defence spending to allay their fears while other NATO member’s expect to cut back.
Russia has more than doubled its military spending since 2006 and spent nearly four percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence in 2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. By the Alliance’s own admission, only six of the 26 European members of NATO spent at or above the organisation’s benchmark of two percent of GDP on defence the same year.
These trends combined with times of austerity that make a reversal unlikely, have Kasekamp concerned about a shift of military power on the continent. While Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, the director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University in Lithuania, agreed with Kasekamp’s sentiment for the long-term, his trepidation was directed at a change of focus rather than defence spending.
‘I think a concern is the shifting of the United States attention into the Asian region from Europe, as if the situation has been stabilised and fixed in Europe,’ he said. President Barack Obama announced his country’s continental refocusing when reviewing defence strategy on January 5.
This myth of stability has come from Russia’s differentiated approach to the Baltic States compared to other NATO and EU members. That difference often goes unnoticed by other alliance members, Vilpišauskas said.
The Baltic nations would like nothing more than a cooperative and productive relationship between NATO and Russia, they just don’t expect one.
Following the first sessions of the 2012 Summit, Rasmussen confirmed intentions to cooperate with Russia on missile defence and a commitment to an open dialogue. These words rang hollow for some, however.
Scepticism, driven by a Soviet past, is rampant among the Baltic Nations. The countries go along with initiatives to engage Russia (they are too small to block them if they wanted too), but do so with little confidence of real results.
Friendly relations with Russia would stand to benefit their neighbouring NATO nations the most. Russia’s strong lack of interest in legitimate cooperation, however, has left the Baltics weary of the attempts and mostly concerned with NATO’s traditional territorial defence as the alliance enters a new era with new threats.