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NATO Enlargement and the Baltic States: What Can the Great Powers Do?

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | November 1997

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As NATO enlarges and approaches the borders of the Baltic states, it faces one of the most difficult and complex security challenges in contemporary Europe. While the Baltic states crave membership in NATO, Russia deems that outcome as unacceptable, threatens to break cooperation with the West in such an event, and NATO allies themselves remain divided over the wisdom of Baltic membership. The apparent irreconcilability of NATO's and Russia's positions, and the Baltic states' insistence upon consideration for their security interests, oblige both East and West to collaborate on devising a workable and acceptable security system for the region that respects both Russian and Baltic, not to mention Western, interests. Otherwise, this region might become the flashpoint of a political conflict that could eventually degenerate into a military one.

NATO must simultaneously deter Russia and reassure it and the Baltic states that their security will be enhanced. The key players in this process are Russia, Germany, and the United States. They have the means to shape the future parameters of any Baltic security system and are the principal players in Europe as well. And it is their policies that will define the limits of what can be done in the Baltic, as well as in much of Europe, since Baltic security is inseparable from that of Europe as a whole. Or, in other words, European security is indivisible, and Baltic security is part of it.

However, analysis of Russian policy through 1997 suggests that Russia remains fundamentally incapable of playing a constructive role in this process. Russian policies for Europe are incoherent and attached to models of European security that have little or no relevance to other states or that actually alarm them. Russia still disdains the small states, thinking them to be of no consequence, proposes infeasible and objectionable schemes of pan-European collective security that do not bind it but would bind NATO, and at the same time pursues unilateralist spheres of influence policies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Russian policy is also frankly and openly revisionist, demanding border revisions and refusing to sign formal border treaties to recognize the post-1989 changes in Central and Eastern Europe. Its spokesmen make demands for an exceptional position in Europe or for unworkable security systems that do little to advance faith in Russia's coherence or good will. Furthermore, its policy statements reveal a continuing addiction to old-fashioned doctrines of zero-sum games, of viewing everything in terms of correlations of antagonistic military forces, and of desires for exclusive rights over small states.

These obstacles to Russian success in Europe are prominent in Russia's Baltic policies. Russia continues to make threats against the Baltic states of economic war, of criminal subversion from without, and of refusing to recognize borders, while attempting to gain a veto over NATO's activities. Because Russia cannot carry out these threats, it only further antagonizes the Baltic states, makes them more intractable in their own anti-Russian policies at home and abroad, and only worsens the regional situation. Whereas 4-5 years ago Russia might have been able to achieve a genuine neutralization of the region, today that is impossible. Now many of NATO's members are involved in trying to secure the region. Until such time as Russia can devise coherent and responsible policies for Europe, it will continue to lose ground there and be seen as a threat more than as part of the solution.

However, it is precisely due to its military-political capability to be a threat that Germany has attempted to conduct a policy where, on the one hand, it wants to expand (or so it says) the European Union (EU) and NATO to the East but will otherwise do nothing that antagonizes President Boris Yeltsin and Russia. As a result, Germany has steadily backtracked since 1993 on Baltic admission into NATO and proposed terms for Russia's integration into NATO's policy process?the new NATO-Russia Council?that remarkably prefigured the final agreement on the Council in May 1997. Unfortunately, those terms went far beyond giving Russia ?a voice but not a veto? and certainly made it clear that Germany will not accept Baltic membership in NATO anytime soon. Indeed, German Foreign Ministry officials speaking in Moscow openly alluded to the need not to do anything that wounds Russian sensitivities, explicitly giving Russia a veto on future expansion. Thus, it is unlikely that Germany will shoulder the responsibilities of helping to underpin a security regime that is viable for the Baltic. If anything, all the evidence suggests that Germany is trying to force the Nordic states, mainly Finland and Sweden, and the United States to bear this burden while it basically gets a free ride.

Accordingly, it falls to Washington to take the lead here, as it has done in the general process of enlargement. Washington has done so. It has crafted new political and institutional formulas for NATO within the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program that will enhance the scope of Baltic and other states' political and military participation in the alliance's activities. It is devising programs like shared air defense and the U.S.-Baltic charter to allay their security concerns while seeking to integrate Moscow through the Council.

Yet here, too, American policy seems to run into difficulties. Evidently, as cited below, many U.S. officials have come to view Article 5 of the Washington Treaty as having outlived its usefulness and as merely a part of the political superstructure needed for reassurance rather than as an operative, vital part of the Alliance. Washington has told Sweden, for example, that it looks towards a collective security system in which all the states of Europe can participate through the PfP program. The language of this program's founding documents is very close to that of Article 4 of the Washington Treaty that calls only for consultations in the event of a threat to security. Thus membership in the PfP program only gives states the right of consultation in the event of a threat to their security, it does not give themthe security guarantee commonly held to derive from Article 5.

Even though the United States is the only state that is really trying to lead the formation of a regional and continental system, its approach attempts to advance NATO's enlargement while maintaining that a clearly increasingly anti-American and revisionist Russia is a democratic partner for Washington. This lack of realism betrays a substantial confusion in policy that is not warranted by Russia's truculent posture or Germany's interest in having others do for it what it will not do for itself, namely play a more active role in areas like the Baltic. While the innovations proposed by the United States to NATO and the PfP program are sound and will enhance Baltic security, it is not clear that they will go far enough to overcome regional tensions, unless the EU and Europe are also brought into the picture so that a true regional stabilization can occur. Likewise, we need to recognize that, however much Europe has changed since 1949, the pledge of collective defense to treaty members under Article 5 is still relevant, and that it is not at all clear if Russia truly has reconciled itself to the status quo. As President Clinton recently wrote to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), we still need to guard against the possibility of a regression in Russian politics that would threaten the accomplishments of the last decade. Among those achievements is the independence of the Baltic states.


NATO's enlargement will transform European security. But the Baltic states are not among NATO's first new members because their defense organizations do not yet meet NATO's standards, and they have problems with their Russian minorities and with Russia.1 Moreover, NATO members' reluctance to admit the Baltic states will probably continue, leaving the latter outside of any functioning European security structure.2 Admitting these states to NATO and/or the European Union (EU) presents European governments and security organizations with many difficult challenges, among them deterring Russian threats. H. Plater-Zyberg, a British military analyst, writes, ?Moscow will have no difficulty ensuring that the area is not sufficiently stable to join any security structures in the future.?3 If he is right, at least some of the Baltic states' entry into NATO, and maybe the EU, might be postponed indefinitely. Many pundits and diplomats also contend that these states are indefensible against Russian threats, an argument the Baltic states vehemently deny.4 Thus, these states' future status has become a major question in European security.

Russia unconditionally opposes their entry into NATO, calling it unacceptable.5 Russia's 1993 military doctrine also explicitly states that an alliance's expansion to states on its borders, e.g., the Baltic states, threatens vital Russian interests. Logically this means that Russia still seeks a veto over NATO and Central and Eastern European security policies even if it cannot obtain that goal.6 In the wake of the recent NATO-Russia Founding Act of May 1997, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov said that the issue of the Baltic states and NATO was a condition for future East-West cooperation.7 Thus NATO enlargement to the Baltic statescould trigger a strong Russian reaction there, even if it is only rhetorical, economic, and political at first. But a military riposte could follow later and feature still more political, and maybe military, pressure against the Baltic states and NATO.8 Moscow will, in either case, probably aim to preserve and/or perpetuate the current regional insecurity and prevent NATO's enlargement to the Baltic. This regional security dilemma confirms that the main problem with NATO's enlargement is that it complicates the task of building security in and around Russia.9 Nonetheless, NATO is committed to enlargement and must accept its obligations. While those obligations do not mean automatic defense of the Baltic states if they are attacked (as would be the case for members), it does mean that NATO cannot abstain from a substantive participation in the establishment of a regional security system for the Baltic region. NATO cannot simply wash it hands of those areas in Europe that are only included in the Partnership for Peace and ignore regional security issues either in the Balkans or in the Baltic.

Therefore among those obligations that NATO has incurred due to its enlargement is the challenge of building a durable framework for regional security. Otherwise, NATO's enlargement could aggravate, not reduce, Baltic tensions. NATO and/or all the littoral states, including Russia, might then adopt more confrontational postures. The Baltic states, being outside any European security system and there being no Western consensus over upholding their security and independence, might face strong Russian pressure to rejoin its sphere of influence. Such pressures could trigger a European, not merely Baltic, crisis. Therefore, to prevent such possibilities, we must consider how to enhance Baltic security.

Paradoxically, excluding the Baltic states from Europe's security structures magnifies the Baltic littoral's importance for Europe. Because Russia has made the Baltic states' exclusion from NATO a condition of future cooperation with the West, it is now more urgent for Europe and the United States to find at least an interim solution forregional security dilemmas. In particular, the key great powers?Russia, Germany, and the United States?who most directly shape the region's security framework must take the lead to assure mutual cooperation. Russia's importance is clear from the map. American preponderance is equally obvious. And both the Baltic states and neutrals like Finland and Sweden accept that German policy greatly influences regional trends and is essential to any regional or European balance. 10

As in the past, European security organizations must deter and reassure Russia while enhancing the security of the littoral states.11 These organizations must also jointly share in any Baltic security plan so that no state or organization obtains a free ride. Free riding occurs when one or more states, or organizations, knowing or believing that some other state or organization can or will formulate solutions for major issues like Baltic security, effectively abstains from serious participation in the solution. Instead that state/s or organization/s then lets other states act alone, gaining a free ride at their expense. If free riding pervades an entire alliance as in the 1930s, security guarantees are devalued and could even become worthless.12

Accordingly, to stabilize the Baltic region, states cannot keep looking, as they are now tempted to do, for others to ensure regional security. Free riding undermines Baltic integration in Europe by dissolving the cohesion of the new NATO-led security system. It also fosters renationalized and unilateral security policies. Germany could incline further to make a bilateral deal with Russia over Central and Eastern Europe. As it is, Baltic cohesion, too, is already eroding. Lithuania poses, not as a Baltic state, but as a Central European one that seeks unilateral entry to European organizations, while forsaking Latvia and Estonia. Estonia follows suit regarding its future entry into the EU and supports admitting at least one Baltic state into NATO so that others might later gain a hearing. 13

Free riding and allied divisions regarding the Baltic could create new and unforeseen regional problems and clearly are due to the EU's and NATO's hesitations over Baltic issues.14 Regional cooperation, which is already weakened due to NATO and the EU's reluctance to expand, will further decrease where free riding and renationalized agendas prevail.15 Russia could then be tempted to extend an unwelcome protectorate over the Baltic states.

To prevent such outcomes and protect the Baltic states, NATO must continue to provide security, deter Russia, reassure, and lead the non-NATO littoral states and Europe's other security organizations, the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), toward regional as well as European military-political integration. Failure to do so will have grave consequences. Ex-Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt wrote that Russia's Baltic policy is a litmus test of its European and security policies.16 Volker Ruhe, Germany's Minister of Defense, wrote that the Baltic states are the practical testing ground for meeting the challenges of reshaping NATO's missions, territorial scope, the relations between the United States and its European allies, the hoped for partnership with Russia, and, in general, for building the Europe we want to see.17 German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel also stressed these states' importance for future European security.18

Thus failure to attend to Baltic issues could jeopardize NATO enlargement and European security. Karl Kaiser, of the German Society for Foreign Affairs, worried that the U.S. Senate may make meaningful security for states not admitted in the first round, like the Baltic states, a precondition for ratifying enlargement. Dutch analysts Alfred Van Staden and Gert de Nooy call the Baltic Europe's most contested area where failure to reconcile Baltic, Western, and Russian interests could reignite East-West confrontation.19 The 1991 Soviet coups in the Baltic and Moscow led Central and East Europe to press for NATO membership, so renewed pressure in the Baltic could have equally grave consequences for the region, Europe, and Russia.20 Not surprisingly, much European diplomacy now revolves around the issues raised by NATO enlargementand Baltic exclusion from it. On the one hand this diplomatic activity acknowledges the indivisibility of European security, but, on the other, it also reveals the reluctance to accept the full implications of that fact. 21


1. Rita F. Peters, ?The Baltic Search for Security,? Perspectives, Vol. VII, No. 2, November-December 1996, pp. 4-5, The Monitor, September 20, 1996.

2. Thus Slovenia's Prime Minister Janesz Drnovsek reports that, ?The Americans emphasize that NATO expansion will be a continuous process that will occur over a number of rounds. The Europeans are more skeptical about future NATO expansion and believe that it would be good if as many countries as possible are accepted now,? Ljubljana, Delo, in Slovenian, May 26, 1997, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Eastern Europe (henceforth FBIS-EEU)-97-150,May 30, 1997; Ronald Dietrich Asmus, ?NATO Enlargement and Baltic Security,? Bo Huldt and Ulrika Johannessen, eds., 1st Annual Stockholm Conference on Baltic Sea Security and Cooperation, Stockholm: Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Conference Papers No. 20, 1997, pp. 11-12.

3. H. Plater-Zyberg, ?NATO Enlargement: Benefits, Costs, and Consequences,? Conflict Studies Research Centre, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Camberley, Surrey, England, 1996, p. 8; London, The Daily Telegraph, in English, July 19, 1996, Foreign Broadcast !n formation Service, Western Europe, (henceforth FB!S-WEU)-96-140, July 19, 1996, p. 1; Thomas L. Friedman, ?The Big Bang,? New York Times, November 27, 1996, p. A25.

4.Asmus; Friedman; Rene Nyberg, ?The Baltic Countries and the Northwest of Russia: A European Challenge,? European Security, Vol. III, No. 3, Autumn, 1994, p. 537; Vygaudas Usackas, ?NATO's Role in Baltic Security: A Lithuanian View,? in Huldt and Johannessen, pp. 78- 79.

5. Moscow, !zvestiya, in Russian, July 6, 1996, Foreign Broadcast !nformation Service, Central Eurasia, (henceforth FB!S-SOV)-96-131,July 8, 1996, pp. 17-18; ?Secret Yeltsin-Clinton Correspondence,? Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, (henceforth CDPP), XLVIII, No. 27, July 31, 1996, p. 20; Michael R. Gordon, ?Russia Accepts Eastward Growth of NATO, but Only Inch by Inch,? New York Times, March 5, 1997, pp. A1, 8. More recently, Yeltsin and Primakov have both stated that any effort to admit former Soviet republics to NATO would cause Russia to revise its relationships with NATO and its members.

6. ?Basic Provisions of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,? Rossiyskie Vesti, November 18, 1993, in Russian, FB!S SOV-93-222-S, November 19, 1993.

7.Moscow, Novoe Vremya, in Russian, No. 15, April 20, 1997, FB!S SOV-97-084, April 20, 1997.

8.The Monitor, January 10, 1997; Tallinn, ETA, in English, November 26, 1996, FB!S-SOV-96-230,November 29, 1996.

9.Robert Legvold, ?The ?Russian Question',? Vladimir Baranovsky, ed., Russia and Europe: The Emerging Security Agenda, Oxford; Oxford University Press for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 1997, p. 67.

10.Jaako Blomberg, ?Finland's Evolving Security Policy,? NATO Review, Vol. XLI, No. 1, February, 1993, pp. 12-15; Vilnius, Elta, in English, January 6, 1997, FB!S-SOV-97-004,January 8, 1997.

11. Michael Howard, ?Reassurance and Deterrence: Western Defense in the 1980's,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. LXI, No. 2, Winter, 1982/83, pp. 309-324.

12. For a discussion of the term free riding or buck-passing and its harmful consequences for security, see Thomas J. Christensen and Jack Snyder, ?Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks; Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity,? !nternational Organization, Vol. XLIV, No. 2, 1990, pp. 138-168; and Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986, pp. 12-127, 156-157.

13.Vilnius, Elta, in English, February 4, 1997, and Moscow, !nterfax, in English, February 4, 1997, both in FB!S-SOV-97-025, February 7, 1997; Warsaw, Sztandar, in Polish, October 24, 1996, FB!S SOV-96-211, October 24, 1996.

14.See Carl Bildt's remarks in Stockholm TT, (Pohjoismaiset Uutiset Database Version), in Swedish, March 21, 1997, FB!S-WEU-97- 080, March 21, 1997.

15.Posen, Snyder and Christensen highlight the erosion of mutual cooperation under such circumstances.

16.Carl Bildt, ?The Baltic Litmus Test,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. LXXIII, No. 5, September-October, 1994, pp. 72-73.

17.Volker Ruhe, ?NATO Positions for Growth,? Defense News, October 21-27, 1996, p. 33.

18.Tallinn, BNS, in English, August 29, 1996, FB!S-SOV-96-170,August 30, 1996, pp. 52-54.

19.Alfred Van Staden and Gert De Nooy, ?The European Security Space: An Analysis of Possible Arrangements, Commitments, and Instruments,? and Karl Kaiser, ?Expanding the European Security Space,? both in Guido Lenzi and Laurence Martin, eds., The European Security Space, Working Papers by the European Strategy Groups and the !nstitute for Security Studies of Western European Union, Paris: Institute for Security Studies, Western European Union, 1996, pp. 3, 22.

20.Stuart Croft, ?Competing Visions of European Security and the Inevitability of NATO Enlargement,? paper presented to the annual convention of the International Studies Association, Toronto, March 18- 22, 1997, p. 16.

21. The Founding Act of May 27, 1997 between Russia and NATO openly declares both sides' commitment to the indivisibility of European security. Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between NATO and the Russian Federation, Paris, May 27, 1997, NATO Internet.