Lost in all of the U.S. presidential campaign news, one may be forgiven for missing the increasingly worrisome activity in northern Europe where the Russian bear is flexing his muscles. While there have been numerous incidents of Russian military ships and aircraft harassing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other friendly nations’ aircraft and vessels, especially in and near the Black Sea, some of the most provocative have occurred in and around the Baltic Sea.
The number of incidents began to increase in the spring of 2014 and through out the rest of that year there were approximately nineteen serious or high risk incidents including a massive Swedish Navy search for a Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago and simulated bombing and cruise missile attacks against NATO countries as well as exercises perceived to be practice for invading the Baltic States. Throughout 2015 and 2016 there have been numerous additional close encounters with the Russian military, precipitated by the Russians and interpreted to be deliberate provocations. This includes this past April when two Russian military aircraft flew a simulated attack 30 feet over the guided missile destroyer USS Donald (DDG-75) while in international waters. A few days later Russian fighters intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over international waters in the Baltic. And the (very long) list of such provocations goes on.
In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, at the height of the cold war, such incidents were frequent, and dangerous. In order to prevent misunderstandings which could lead to bloodshed and possible conflict, the United States and Soviet Union formulated the Incidents At Sea Agreement, signed by Secretary of the Navy John Warner, and his Soviet counterpart Admiral Sergei Gorshkov. By providing specific protocols when U.S. and Soviet ships and aircraft were in proximity to each other it was designed to “enhance mutual knowledge and understanding of military activities; to reduce the possibility of conflict by accident, miscalculation, or the failure of communication; and to increase stability in times of both calm and crisis.” Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of much of its military back to the homeland, there was very little need for the agreement and it ceased to be useful. It may be time to update it and renew it.
The real question, however, is what is going on? Why are the Russians resuming their provocative maneuvers against NATO and other western powers? The answer may be found in one of two names, or more likely a combination of two names: Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire and by that we mean that he is looking for good old-fashioned respect as a world and military power. The incidents are meant to remind the West that he is the major player in his part of the world and that he can (and may?) do whatever he desires. To paraphrase the old adage, “Russia is back!” In 2005 he made a major speech to the Russian people where he is translated as saying:
“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”
Remember that this was a large part of his justification for entering Ukraine and in annexing the Crimea. He argues that he is protecting Russian citizens and “ethnic” Russians and thus fulfilling his duties as head of the Russian state. During the time of the Soviet Union, many now independent nations around the periphery of the old Soviet Union were “colonized” by Russians and many also settled there for economic and other reasons. They and their descendants remain.
This background is important in understanding the current state of affairs in the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and to a slightly lesser degree, Poland. The Baltic States were part of the Soviet Union and Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact dominated by the Soviet Union.
Geographically they are at a strategic disadvantage. A look at a map reveals two important features. One is that between Poland and Lithuania is a part of the Russian state called Kaliningrad, a major Russian military outpost. Second is that the border between Russia and Poland and the Baltic States is mostly flat ground with no significant defensible geographic features that would impede a ground attack from rolling across the border and deep into the country under attack.
I had the pleasure of making a short stop in Tallinn the capital of Estonia recently. The people are very friendly, full of energy and eager to see their new nation become integrated into world affairs. They are also well aware that only a short time ago they were occupied by the Germans and then subjugated by the Russians as one of the republics of the Soviet Union. They became an independent nation in March 1990 despite resistance to their independence by the Russians. Their history is very fresh in their in minds and if they doubt the impact Russia can have on their new nation, they are reminded of it every day. Directly across from their parliament building sits the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral built in the late 1800’s as a Russian Orthodox cathedral during the time of Estonia’s inclusion in the Russian Empire. It was part of the Russification efforts underway at the time to assimilate the Estonians. It purposefully occupies the most prominent position in the Old Town on top of a bluff above the town. Although it fell into decay during the Soviet era, it was beautifully restored in recent years but is still considered by many Estonians to be a symbol of Russian oppression. It should also be noted that while Estonians consider themselves to be culturally different from Russians, approximately 25% of the population is Russian.
Needless to say, the combination of Putin’s desire to regain the “empire” coupled with his actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea makes the Russian military provocations in the Baltic area very meaningful to those that live there. The Baltic States and Poland are among the twenty-eight members of NATO. And that’s where it starts to get interesting.
Earlier this month, President Obama and the other heads of state met at a NATO summit in Warsaw. Many topics were covered ranging from Afghanistan to Ballistic Missile Defense to ISIS. But a major topic, the one capturing the attention of those following it closely, was a key decision concerning the Baltic area. For several years now, the United States and other members have rotated troops and fighter wings through the Baltic States as a reminder to Russia that NATO has a stake in their continued independence. At this year’s summit, those provisional deployments were made firmer. In response to Russian provocations, the NATO members decided to deploy ground forces (four battalions) on a rotating basis, but always there, in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. Additionally, air and naval forces will conduct periodic training in and near the area. The point is much the same as our stationing of troops in West Germany during Cold War I. Should the Russians make a move on one of these states, they will need to go through NATO forces to do it and thus risk war. To be clear, the numbers of NATO forces there are a drop in the bucket and would not meaningfully impede a Russian advance. They are there as a symbol of resolve. Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (the creation of NATO) an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. It is the principal of collective defense that has helped to keep the peace in Europe and provided the foundation for a period of economic and political stability that has lasted for roughly seventy years. The first time in the history of NATO that Article 5 was invoked was following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.
The idea of collective defense coupled with the military capability and political will to back it up has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy since World War II. There was never any doubt about the U.S. commitment to NATO and our allies. It served as a major block to Soviet adventurism in Cold War I and is a serious warning to Putin’s adventurism as Cold War II begins to build. Never a doubt. Until now.
In a foreign policy interview published by the New York Times on 21 July, Mr. Donald J. Trump (R-Manhattan) threw that commitment into doubt. You can read it for yourself using the link, but here is part of that interview:
SANGER: I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?
TRUMP: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.
SANGER: They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated ——
TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.
SANGER: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.
TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.
SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——
TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
HABERMAN: And if not?
TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.
Regardless to say, this created a high level of anxiety throughout the capitals of our allies and seriously casts into doubt the viability of collective defense. To be effective, Article 5 has to be an article of faith for every member and for every potential opponent. Otherwise, it has little meaning. As Cold War II develops, I’m sure Vladimir Putin was celebrating.