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Opinion: "We’ve got your back, Balts"

NATO, after year of tip-toeing, promises a plan to defend its small, eastern-most members.

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.