Opinion: "We’ve got your back, Balts"

NEW YORK — Back in the darkest winter days of the Cold War, the scenario which struck fear into the hearts of NATO military planners was not, as most accounts would have it, the sudden Soviet Blitzkrieg into West Germany. NATO always knew such an attack would quickly overwhelm its conventional forces and lead to a gradual trip up the nuclear escalation chain.

Moscow knew that, too, and so for 40 years NATO and the Warsaw Pact glowered at each other across the Iron Curtain, but the attack never came.

But in the early 1970s, staff officers at “SHAFE” — NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe in Brussels — hit upon a shocking problem. What if, instead of following NATO’s playbook, the Soviets seized tiny NATO member Denmark? Would the United States, which nominally held back the Red menace with its “nuclear umbrella,” really risk Armageddon over Denmark?

That same dilemma, moved forward several decades and east by some 500 miles, haunts the alliance today. Late last month, reports from NATO suggest that, after years of tip-toeing around the question, NATO is finally working on an actual contingency plan for defending its smallest and most vulnerable members: Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

The impetus for these reports — leaked by NATO officials to European correspondents — appeared to be the decision of Baltic leaders to go public with their fears at a regional summit in October. “We've been members of NATO for five years, but as alliances we still have no defense plan for emergencies,” Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite complained to reporters. Given Russia’s conduct in Georgia the previous summer, she said, this was more than a technicality.

A long way from Tipperary

The three Baltic states were ruled by the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1991, their independence was one of many casualties of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact. The U.S. and other western powers never recognized Moscow’s absorption of them during the Cold War, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, the three moved quickly to apply for NATO membership, which all of them attained in 2004.

The Baltic concerns about NATO’s security guarantees — the so-called “Article V” promise for all members to come to the aid of any other who is attacked — were shrugged off by many in NATO until 2008.

But Russia’s invasion of Georgia, another former Soviet republic which was seeking NATO membership, cast a new light on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s frequent use of the term “ex-Soviet sphere of influence.” Putin has publicly said he ranks the collapse of the USSR as among the great tragedies of the 20th Century — a comment that rankles and worries the tiny democracies that managed to escape Moscow’s orbit.

While the Georgia war ended with most Russian forces withdrawing, and certainly involved a good bit of foolish policy on the part of the Georgians, it also stopped dead a long-running American effort within NATO to allow Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance under expedited terms.

For the Baltic states, who watched with dismay the lack of support the West offered Georgia during the conflict, the war raised a host of uncomfortable questions. The “Denmark scenario” of the 1970s is one of them. But other, more historically minded residents point to an older example. If Russia’s foreign policy continues to harden — if Putin ever moved to resurrect the “Union” he misses so badly — the Baltics wonder if they might be cast adrift by the West to prevent a wider war, as France and Britain did to Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Tensions and tantrums

Some argue these views amount to the worst kind of paranoia, and it is true that Baltic nationalists like to paper over the fact that many of their grandparents sided with the Germans when Hitler attacked Stalin’s realm in 1941. Moscow plays up this side of history, similarly failing to note that the Balts’ collaboration with Germany came at a time when Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians were being rounded up and murdered as enemies of the Soviet Union by Stalin’s secret police.

But in spite of the fact that Moscow recognized their independence in 1991, there remains a strong suspicion among politicians in the Baltics that Russia sees that — like the oil contracts it signed with western companies in that same era and ultimately declared as null and void — as the result of predatory instincts led by America.

In support of their fears, Balts cite a litany of slights and subterfuge since independence:

  • In 2007, Estonia claimed Russia unleashed hackers which brought its government to a standstill after the relocation of a Soviet-era monument to the Red Army angered Moscow.
  • Sparring over the rights of the large ethnic Russian minorities in all three states, but especially Latvia, where ethnic Russians make up 40 percent of the population of 2.3 million, most have failed Latvian language “citizenship tests” imposed by the newly independent states. Some have moved away, but the perverse effect of these tests has been to cement loyalties to Moscow.
  • Regular disputes as each side characterizes the history of the other as “terroristic” or “genocidal,” outbreaks of rhetorical venom which have often caused one or the other to recall ambassadors.

Stick and stones

Of late, however, Russia has been rattling sabers, too.

Last autumn, Russia held military exercises with its ally, Belarus, along the Lithuanian border. The premise was far-fetched, but pregnant with meaning for Russia’s neighbors. It presumed that ethnic Poles in Belarus, a Russian ally, had risen in concert with Lithuanian terrorists in an attempt to seize the enclave of Kaliningrad, a piece of Russian territory wedged between Lithuania and Poland. The Russian and Belarusian troops — over 10,000 of them — repelled the phantom “terrorists,” keeping both countries safe for oligarchy. The Balts responded by demanding NATO’s Baltic Sea wargames be expanded next spring — a decision that is still pending.

Patriot games

January brought more tensions. Poland’s announcement that it would accept a shipment of U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries — the consolation prize after the Obama administration cancelled the much larger anti-ballistic missile system the Bush administration wanted to build there — caused hyperventilation in Russia.

“The deployment of U.S. soldiers and missiles close to the Russian border will be seen as a serious provocation and our military chiefs will likely interpret it as evidence of America’s continued ill intent and treachery,” writes Pavel Felgenhauer, Russia analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.

As Edward Lucas, a historian of the region, put it recently: “It used to be Belgium that was counted as the "cockpit of Europe” — the place where great-power interests clashed and were settled. Now it is the Baltic states.”

NATO’s development of a Baltic emergency plan, however, doesn’t answer any of the region’s real concerns. France and Britain, too, had contingency plans to protect Czechoslovakia, but they never dusted them off. Even when Poland was attacked, the best they could do in 1939 was to declare war from afar and watch Germany and Russia split Poland down the middle.

The Balts feel that history viscerally. What NATO could — or would — do about such a move in the Baltics remains as unclear today as it did for the Czechs in 1938 or the Danes in the 1970s. So we in the West may have to excuse them a bit of paranoia.