Baltic countries’ concern about Russia — justified?

Five European Union member states share parts of their borders with Russia: Finland and Poland, as well as the three Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

In the wake of the conflict in Ukraine, particularly the governments in Tallinn, Vilnius and Riga worry about Moscow’s intentions. They sense a threat — but is this threat real?

As I mentioned the EU in my introductory paragraph, let me reiterate that one of the key reasons for having a united Europe is that neither would any future war ever again erupt from European soil, nor would any of its member states ever again fight with each other. Yet, what about a scenario where one or a number of EU countries were attacked by external armed forces? I assume most analysts would argue that, as the Cold War is a thing of the past, this seems to be a highly hypothetical assumption. The threat of a terrorist attack has long since dominated the list of potential risk scenarios, posing threats of an air, sea or land invasion. But then there is Ukraine, with its eastern regions and, of course, the Crimean Peninsula. And there is Russia’s attitude, and role towards it in the civil war, and Russia’s interpretation of who has territorial rights in which parts of Ukraine.

And the latter issues make the Baltic states worry. Could a similar development ever occur involving their three nations? Phrased differently, would Moscow ever harbor ill-fated dreams of another expansion, another incursion into foreign lands, involving in this case three former USSR territories but by now fully independent countries?

Prevention is often the best cure, and hence, it does not surprise me that one month ago, upon the visit of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, her Lithuanian counterpart, Juozas Olekas, raised the issue of a stronger NATO presence in the region. Now it appears as if there will be a formal request sent to NATO, asking for a permanent NATO presence in all three Baltic states, involving around at least 1,000 soldiers in each country. The topic was also discussed last week in Antalya, where NATO member states’ foreign ministers came together for their annual spring summit.

It remains to be seen whether NATO will satisfy this request, or whether another arrangement — if any — will be found more suitable. One point is, nevertheless, absolutely certain. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is based on the principle of solidarity an attack against any individual member is seen as an assault on the entire structure.

But what about determining the net-risk level of a future conflict that has not, as of yet, become a reality, and that might never actually become one? This was the subject of prevention that I hinted at above.

An observer far away might perhaps shrug it all off as nothing but a vague emotional fear about what Moscow may or may not have in store. For someone with a more familiar insight into many Baltic matters — quite literally speaking, as my father was born in Reval, what then became the Estonian capital Tallinn — everything changes.

Emotional, yes, but for most Estonians, at least in the past, that fear was rather rational! Only a brief look at what is a much longer history suffices to make my point. Independence was declared in 1918, and implemented in 1920, after the country battled both Russian and German troops. In 1940, Estonia was annexed by Russia in 1941 it was taken over by Nazi Germany. It is estimated that 25 percent of the Estonian population perished during World War II. Finally, the country was independent once more in 1991, and an EU member nation by 2004. You simply would not want that nation’s freedom being taken away by anyone.

Thus said, playing the NATO permanent-presence card makes sense. It would act as just enough of a deterrent to convince any would-be aggressor that an invasion would be a non-starter. And please let me underline that I do not see President Vladimir Putin ever giving a go-ahead going northwest!

From a rational standpoint, all three nations are safe. However, prevention might be the best cure, both for hopefully unfounded worries and for avoiding any future Ukraine-like conflicts elsewhere. So, will NATO see the Baltic states’ request, once it is made formally by the latter, in a favorable light?

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman