Panel Discussion: NATO Protection of the Baltics

This week's post is an edited transcript of a panel discussion featuring many of our usual blog and podcast contributors. We discussed the alliance NATO alliance and the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, & Lithuania). One contributor, who is an expert on Latvia, requested to remain anonymous and has been assigned the pseudonym "Daniel Storm."

Daniel: The Baltics are considered to be a role model for European post-soviet countries and for Georgia.

Stephen: So - just going to throw you right into it here. We were debating how aggressive NATO would be in defending the Baltic states against graduated encroachment by Russia, I personally think that the Baltic states are so far outside of a standard NATO zone of influence that when push came to shove, NATO would, if not surrender, look for a Ukraine type solution, where they recognize the Russian zone and maybe even surrender those states... I know it's not the rosiest outlook 🙂

Daniel: No worry. I think that you are right as long as Poland is not pushing Americans to intervene.

If Poland starts pressuring U.S. to intervene and combine it with threats to leave its zone of influence.

Matthew: Daniel and I learned at university that nearly all areas in the Russian sphere of influence have some degrees of cultural exchange vis a vis Russia. And that is a profound phenomenon.

Daniel: Then the decision of Washington could be different. Yes...they do have some cultural exchange.

The question is whether Eastern European countries want to follow this exchange in terms of Russia friendly policies. In this case it depends.

Stephen: I'm concerned that even in the scenario you've submitted that an isolationist US and centrifugal EU wouldn't want to intervene on behalf of an increasingly fascist or nationalist Poland.

Well as long as Poland wasn't being invaded itself. I think they could "justify" cutting their losses... which makes me question NATO itself.

Daniel: It doesn't matter what kind of ideology Poland has. Its geopolitical location matters.

It is a buffer between Russia and Europe and it is essential to control or influence to prevent political unification of Eurasia. Which is essential for US dominance.

Stephen: Maybe in terms of if that state was invaded, but would people listen to its call for defense of the Baltics is what I'm getting at.

Daniel: And I disagree U.S has become more isolationist.

Stephen: I'm not so sure the US wants to be dominant anymore, to be fair.

Daniel: People or countries? There is a difference. I disagree. Trump is definitely flexing his muscles in terms of JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) and Korea. And air base in Syria. My point is that if the Baltics would be given away, there would be panic in Poland.

Stephen: I honestly think that has more to do with internal politics and repudiation of his predecessor than anything international. Trump is driven by the want to be considered great.

Nick: Ninety-nine percent of Washington still wants to be dominant so I think we will be. Personally, I think the US would have to intervene in a Baltic invasion because if Article 5 is proven to be meaningless people will question even the most seemingly secure US commitments. Peripheral nations could never trust the US to have its back again.

Stephen: Those are just words, and ones that Trump has yet to reaffirm.

Daniel: True. That goes together with my point for Poland. It will start to look for alternative security guarantees if that happens.

Stephen: He specifically didn't mention article five when he visited Europe.

Daniel: Even if it is driven by internal calculations, Trump has achieved pretty beneficial results for the increase of U.S. dominance. For example, the EU is considering addressing the regional role of Iran in JCPOA now, which didn't happen before. China reduced the supply of fuel to North Korea and North Korea is now trying to normalize relations with South Korea a bit. Also moving the capital to Jerusalem within Israel-Palestine conflict has sort of given new dynamic within the conflict. Even though it has failed to produce tangible results yet, there has to be more sophisticated plan.

Stephen: So I'm going to completely disagree with you there, yes, you could say that each of those things was created by uncertainty at what the US would do, which makes them cautiously address our concerns, but it also creates the perfect atmosphere for decoupling.

So yes DPRK (North Korea) and ROK (South Korea) are tacitly moving towards each other, but that's only because ROK doesn't believe they can rely on the US anymore.

All states are going to reevaluate their relationships with the US, and in the end, those relationships, not any hard power, are what made the US a superpower.

Daniel: I disagree about all of them, I think it depends on case by case basis. And in a certain way unpredictability is good. It kind of allows one to get out of deadlock in many situations.

Stephen: Yes, when there is a plan behind it, but there isn't one right now. In other cases it creates miscalculation, which can lead to disaster. But I’d be hard pressed to find a state not acting more independently or with less US influence right now.

Daniel: Baltics 😀

We are completely under U.S. influence

Stephen: Touche.

Daniel: Trump hasn't changed anything. That's why I think it depends on a case by case basis. There was some fear that Trump would have detente with Putin, but so far nothing has happened.

Stephen: To be fair, that's because that's the only topic which our legislature is willing to stand up to Trump on.

Daniel: Maybe. Speaking of unpredictability, Trump has managed to get the EU more concerned about their defense budgets as well. Part of the reason why PESCO was created.

Stephen: True enough, but I'm concerned that the flip side of that coin is going to be less unity on issues. For instance it's in the obvious interest of East Europe for Nord Stream never to come to fruition, but with states acting more independently it becomes easier to divide and conquer, if it were, East and West Europe. Not that the states finally making their own military spending goals is bad, mind you. But it should come about through bullying of allies.

Daniel: True, but bullying or not, most of Europeans didn't want to spend anything anyways.

Stephen: Very true.

Max Powers: Reading over everything now I’m interested on Daniel and Stephen’s take that the US wouldn’t come to the Baltic’s aid if attacked by Russia.

Article 5 is article 5 no?

Nick: That's what I'm saying Max. There is no ambiguity in Article 5. If any member is attacked everyone must come to that nation's aid. If they don't then what's the point of the alliance?

Max: Nick, I think Daniel’s thoughts speak to a losing perception battle between the U.S. and peoples of Eastern/Baltic Europe.

They think we will abandon them

Daniel: Honestly around 60% people believe that

Max: We never should have left Europe in strength.

I am only really worried about Latvia.

Daniel: Why so?

Max: That Russian population is a little too friendly in my opinion with the motherland.

Daniel: Not as much as shown in media.

Max: Ahhh, interesting.

Daniel: Around 80% of them have a Latvian national identity over a Russian one. Of course there are some loyal elements to Moscow. But not nearly as strong as in Ukraine.

Max: What do you think the numbers are? I mean Ukraine has never had true nationalism until Putin decided to invade. I guess I am worried about a Crimea type invasion.

Claim harassment of ethnic Russians, send Spetsnaz into cause some distractions, shut down the internet and major communication nodes, and then send in an armored brigade to enforce dirty elections.

Daniel: It's harder to pull it off here. Yes...it is possible, but thing is, in Crimea they always had Russian soldiers there. So basically they just had to use them when the time was right.

In Latvia we got last Russian soldiers out back in the 1990's.

Cohesion of society and the economy are also a lot better. And the level of corruption is lower.

Max: Your Army is also top notch. Tiny, but top notch. The Baltic Defense Force is good, they can turn Spaniards and Germans on their heads.

Daniel: Yes. Thing is...people are really patriotic here.

Max: Does Latvia have a national guard, equivalent to Estonian Defense League?

Daniel: Yes. It is pretty popular to go to army here. You can make a good salary.

However we are still the only Baltic country which has not reinstated the draft.

Nick: So Latvia sounds like an unlikely option. But what about Estonia or Lithuania?

Daniel: Estonia and Lithuania are even less likely. Estonia is the economic motor of the Baltic Republics with significantly higher quality of life and Russian speakers there are pretty satisfied while Lithuania has a very small minority of Russian speakers. Institutions there are even stronger and they don't have as big of a disparity in terms of the development of different regions.

Latvia has the region of Latgale for example, which is less developed than the rest of Latvia.

And mostly inhabited by Russian speakers.

Nick: Well hopefully the promises of NATO Article 5 are not challenged any time soon.