NATO, the Baltic States and Russia:

Have Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania been reassured by the outcome of the NATO Summit in Newport and Cardiff, in Wales? For many months, from the very first day of the Crimea/Ukraine crisis, the three small republics have insisted on additional measures being taken by the alliance to safeguard their security, now that Russia, their former colonizer, has evidently relinquished its reticence to conduct an aggressive, neo-imperialist policy, aimed at regaining the Platz under der Sonne as a super power that it so ‘tragically’ lost in 1991. “I would like to see more boots on the ground, and more jet fighters in the air”, as Estonian Defence Minister Mikser put it.

Foto: Danske Opklaringssoldater deltager i øvelse i Litauen

Prior to the alliance meeting on 4-5 September 2014, probably the most important one since the end of the Cold War, there seemed to appear a crack within the ranks of the European NATO partners. On 31 July, the Defence Committee of British Parliament had published a report, in which it advised, among other things, ‘a pre-positioning of equipment in the Baltic States’, and ‘a continuous (if not technically “permanent”) presence of NATO troops, on exercise in the Baltic’, recommendations that Prime Minister David Cameron would adopt a couple of days later. German Chancellor Merkel displayed considerably more cautiousness. During a visit to Riga on 18 August, she indicated that she was not enthusiastic about the prospect of a long-term military presence in the region, not to mention the establishment of military bases there a permanent scale. Merkel stated she wanted to take into account the stipulations of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, “which, at this moment, I do not want to exceed.” 

Baltic disbelief
Although Merkel reiterated her country’s commitment to Article 5 i.e. the principle of collective defence, criticism to her ‘soft’ approach could soon be heard and read in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Kaitseminister Mikser reminded Germany that showing signs of weakness can be hazardous when dealing with Russia and that the latter had evidently violated the 1997 Founding Act, not NATO – which once again illustrates the ambivalent character and multi-interpretability of the document.[1]

Even President Ilves of Estonia could hardly surpress his discontent: “Onus is to prove security environment of 1997 has not changed. That after Georgia, Ukraine, Crimea, we’re still in Lala-land”, he wrote on Twitter. In a rambling and hysterical comment, Estonian newspaper Postimeescontended that “the attitude of the Germans towards smaller nations has always been arrogant and often incredibly cruel – one only needs to think of the attrocities they committed against the Belgians during the First World War.” With the 75 anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in sight, Germany had to be aware of its special, moral responsibility towards the Baltic Republics, it continued.[2] 

NATO's Spearhed Force
            The decision to found a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) to protect the perturbed eastern member states appears to be a compromise between the rigorism of David Cameron, the aloofness of Angela Merkel and the fatherly reassurance offered by U.S. President Obama. In a speech in Tallinn on September 3, one of the most beautiful he ever delivered, Obama reassured the audience that “the defence of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defence of Berlin and Paris and London.” Then he touched upon the delicate security situation in Eastern Europe: “NATO forces need the ability to deploy even faster in times of crisis. […] That means we need to step up our defence planning, so we’re fully prepared for any threat to any ally. It also means we need to have the infrastructure and facilities that can receive rapid reinforcements, including here in the Baltics. We need to enhance NATO’s Rapid Response Force so it can deploy even more quickly and not just react to threats, but also deter them.”[3]

            In this manner, the leader of NATO’s leading nation gave his blessing to the formation of the VJTF in Wales (that Air Force One would be setting course for, after Obama had finished his speech). This special ‘spearhead force’, part of the so-called NATO Readiness Action Plan, will be formed by 4,000 to 5,000 troops. It “will be able to deploy within a few days to respond to challenges that arise, particularly at the periphery of NATO’s territory” and “should consist of a land component with appropriate air, maritime, and special operations forces available.” Short-notice exercises will test its alertness and accuracy, command and control presence and “in-place force enablers” on the spot will sustain these, and, if necessary, facilitate reinforcements.[4] 

Baltic disappointment
            Reactions in the ‘periphery’ were mixed. Some commentators in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were pleased that the improvement of the defence of NATO’s northeastern flank had finally become a key issue. The alliance was willing to add a concrete dimension to the principle of collective defence and had proved that it was able to reinvent itself.[5] Others hardly made efforts to conceal their disappointment. The three countries had expected more than just fine words and statements, a Lithuanian daily wrote, establishing permanent military bases on their territories would have been a wiser option. That very idea had been put on the table in Wales [sic], but it met opposition by Germany that wanted to stick to the Founding Act, a smoke screen to cover up its reluctance to downgrade economic relations with Russia even further. Maybe the moment had come to conclude a new, bilateral security treaty with NATO (or the United States)? The question, raised by Lithuanian news magazine Veidas, as to whether the Baltic Republics had become real, fully-fledged parts of the Western community or still served as bricks of a cordon sanitaire of Eastern European states that should shield the West from Russian aggression, kept gnawing at the trio.[6]

A pointless spearhed?
            Other questions need to be answered as well. How long will it take, before the spearhead force is fully deployable? Will 4,000 to 5,000 troops be enough, in case several countries, from Estonia to Romania, feel threatened? Will U.S.-/NATO-lead military operations elsewhere in the world go at the expense of VJTF? The snakepit called the Middle East would attract more and more international attention, due to the barbaric acts of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, a clear sign that most ‘old’ NATO members consider this to pose a greater threat to their national security than Vladimir Putin stirring the fire in Eastern Ukraine. When, less than three weeks after the NATO Summit, a Western coalition launched air attacks against ISIL, President Ilves and other Baltic politicians expressed their obvious support for this enterprise, but they alluded that it should not go at the expense of the attention for Ukraine and their defence. To a certain extent, it is reminiscent of concerns that Ilves, then head of the Estonia Desk of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, voiced in 1990-1991: the rising tensions in the Persian Gulf could distract Western attention from the crisis between the Baltic (Soviet) Republics and Moscow.[7]

            The pivotal question, however, is whether the presence of the VJTF will make any sense, if Russia will elaborate on the concept of hydrid warfare, this unfathomable symbiosis of units of anonimous (‘little green’) men crossing the border, cyber attacks, economic intimidation, energy tools and propaganda offensives. Russia has reminded NATO, especially the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians (and even the Swedes) of this by violating airspace, abducting a prominent officer in the Estonian Secret Service in the border zone, on Estonian soil, and imposing border restrictions on Lithuanian vehicles, for instance. 

Counterspinning Sputnik
A greater challenge might be countering one of Russia’s old specialties: the dissemination of half-truths, distorted facts, conspiracy theories and other Soviet myths. The Kremlin has restructrured its international information channels and recently launched Sputnik News aimed at providing the Western audiences with ‘alternative views.’ The timing is no coincidence. With the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazism in sight, Western minds should to be imbued with an awareness of what Russia has labeled the sacrifices made by the heroic Red Army and the perfidious attempts to rewrite history by the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. The result should be, of course, growing American and Western European doubts about the propriety of defening three nations that ‘are worshipping Fascism.’ Sputnik has even applied for broadcasting permits in … Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Although all three republics have newsportals in English nowadays, it will be difficult for them (also financially) to emulate Russia’s professionalized information bombardments.

Maybe Angela Merkel was right after all, be it in a different way than she thought: a long-term military presence is not the entire remedy. Putin-Russia has created an alternative sense of reality, as Toomas Hendrik Ilves recently called it, which comprises rollback strategies against liberal democracy and ‘blasphemous perceptions of 20th century history.’ Moscow has noticed that, 25 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Western audiences are still remarkably unfamiliar with the Central and Eastern European politics and history and is eager to fill this loophole. Aspearhead force, no matter how justified its creation is, won’t be enough to repulse Russia’s hybrid warfare raids and defuse its propaganda tactics. Therefore, NATO (and the EU) should work out a broader strategy, which focuses on the psychological element as well. Psychologist and former journalist and teacher Ilves could offer a helping hand.


Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian, specialized in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He has published numerous articles on their relationship with Russia, their mutual relations, and their policy vis-à-vis the European Union.

[1] See: Jeroen Bult, ‘NATO Promises to Russia? Which Promises?’, Delfi/The Lithuania Tribune, 16 September 2014 (

[2] Aktuaalne kaamera, ETV, 19 August 2014; ‘Sakslaste pärispatt’, in: Postimees, 25 August 2014, p. 2.

[3] For Obama’s speech, see: The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Remarks by President Obama to the People of Estonia, Nordea Concert, Hall
Tallinn, Estonia’, 3 September 2014 (

[4] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ‘Wales Summit Declaration. Issued by the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales’ (Press Release (2014) 120), 5 September 2014 (

[5] Sven Sakkov, ‘Rock’n’roll ja heavy metal. Walesi tippkohtumine ning Eesti’, in: Diplomaatia, Nr. 9 (133), September 2014, p. 5; ‘Eesti saab NATO-lt oodatud kohaloleku’, in: Eesti Päevaleht, 6 September 2014, p. 5.

[6] ‘NATO reaguos greitai’, in: Lietuvos žinios, 6 September 2014, pp. 1 & 6; Ahto Lobjakas, ‘Uus Eesti-NATO pakt’, in: Postimees, 8 September 2014, p. 13; ‘Kodėl labiau mylime Ukrainą nei lietuvišką verslą’, in: Veidas, Nr. 12 (1108), 25 March 2014, p. 12.

[7] ‘Mobil von Stettin aus? Viele Fragen zur neuen Eingreiftruppe der Nato sind noch offen’, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 6 September 2014, p. 2.




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