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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » July 13, 2016
Politics & Society
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Baltic States: Hopes and Fears Ahead of NATO Summit
July 13, 2016   
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While traveling to Lithuania and Latvia lately, I was able to talk to local politicians and regular citizens. I could clearly see that security, in the military sense of the word, was seen as increasingly important by ordinary people and policymakers alike, the obvious reason being the Russian Federation and its ways. Russia’s policies are seen as aggressive, especially toward neighboring countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

When I came to Vilnius, I spoke to former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who met me in the stylish reception room of the Narutis hotel. I asked him how well, in his opinion, Western European countries understood the threat that the Kremlin under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership posed to other countries. Adamkus, who in his day did a lot to strengthen Lithuania’s position in NATO, said that the united Europe did not fully realize how potentially dangerous Russia was. The threat absolutely needs to be recognized, Adamkus said, and once it is, NATO should take a firm stance on it. Adamkus also told me that all nations had the right to self-determine and refuse to accept the kind of threat that was being created by the Russian government.

I was then received by Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius. We met in the rather gloomy-looking building of the Foreign Ministry, not very far from a square where a statue of Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, was still standing 25 years ago. Linkevicius told me that many countries were too slow in noticing the Russian threat, but some recent events had become a wake-up call for Lithuania’s partners in the West. One was the shooting down of Malaysian flight MH17, a tragedy that led to a much better understanding of what was really going on in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Before the airliner came crashing down, many observers had underestimated the gravity of the developments in Ukraine, seeing them more as a war game, a science-fiction story of sorts. But then the science fiction turned into a brutal reality that all of a sudden hit Western citizens. Until that point, anything like that seemed unthinkable. The MH17 disaster showed to people that there was no time for wishful thinking and that things had to be taken at their face value before it was too late. Asked whether he thought Europe was fully aware of how serious the situation was, Linkevicius replied in the negative, but said that things were better now than before.

When I came to Riga, the capital of Latvia, I met with Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis in the historic House of the Blackheads, a lavishly ornamented building from the days when Riga was a prosperous member of the Hanseatic League. Vejonis and I had met before while he was Latvia’s defense minister. To him, the geopolitical situation in the Baltic region has evidently changed as a result of Russia’s aggressive operations in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Vejonis told me that because of that, security, military threats and national defense had to be top priorities for the Latvian government. To this end, the Latvian authorities have decided to earmark 2 percent of the country’s GDP for defense.

Vejonis said he was fully aware that NATO would have to find answers to how the new challenges should be addressed. For example, it will need to decide how it wants to develop its deterrence policy in the region to cover both the Baltic states and Poland. According to Vejonis, NATO is prepared to make further decisions regarding the policy at its summit in Warsaw this July. The Latvian president added that Latvia saw it important to maintain its policy of defending itself against Russia, as it needed to be prepared for any eventuality. When I asked him about specifics, he said it was crucial to thoroughly analyze measures that had been taken after the previous NATO summit in Wales. Vejonis says that while many right decisions were made in Wales, NATO member states are still waiting for many of them to come into effect. In Warsaw, according to Vejonis, NATO will finally have to choose the way to ensure a conspicuous presence of NATO forces in the Baltic region. In addition to U.S. units, which are well visible in Latvia, he would like this to be multinational forces composed of troops from European countries such as Germany, Norway, France, Britain and Hungary. It is also important who makes decisions and is in charge, Vejonis says, so that response can be rapid and rules and procedures are clear when it comes to NATO members’ joining in military operations in the event of aggression. But the most important thing today, according to Vejonis, is that at least one multinational NATO brigade is noticeably present in the Baltic region.

Lithuania’s Linkevicius also highlighted the importance of NATO’s upcoming Warsaw summit. He believes that after a highly successful summit in Wales, now is the time to fully implement the summit’s resolutions and the Warsaw summit is a logical follow-up to what was decided in Wales. Linkevicius hopes that several basic tasks that were outlined in Wales will be now completed in Warsaw. In this context, he listed the full operational capacity of some elements of the rapid response forces that were established in several Eastern European countries, and the full interoperability of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which was established as a complement to the NATO Response Force (NRF).

No less important, according to Linkevicius, is NATO’s decision to strengthen its military presence in its eastern flank. After the alliance was enlarged to include Central and Eastern Europe, the infrastructure in these countries was never sufficiently upgraded and expanded, Linkevicius says. While the mobile forces in the eastern-flank countries were increased and troops from these countries took part in various NATO operations, the infrastructure largely remained the same. Such was the politics at the time, he says, but today it is clear that new steps have to be taken for improved security.

Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius is also convinced that, confronted with Russia’s policies, all NATO members should strengthen their joint defense system. I know from Butkevicius that Lithuania is allocating funds to enhance its defense potential and has increased its defense spending by 300 million euros. The country is doing all this because it believes that each NATO member should work to enhance its defense potential individually as well, Butkevicius says. He adds that the dialogue with Russia is not going too well, which was to be expected seeing how Russia is not keeping some of its earlier commitments. As for the immediate results of the NATO summit in Warsaw, Butkevicius says he hopes NATO will adopt a defense readiness plan. Lithuania will motion for one NATO battalion to be deployed to each Baltic state, Butkevicius says, adding that the region should also have one brigade of technical NATO forces.

Politicians in the Baltic states are putting a lot of hope in the NATO summit in Warsaw, expecting its participants to enlarge deterrent forces in the region and develop swift and efficient procedures for launching in the event of aggression on any NATO member state. A decision to increase funds for defense in all NATO members is also much anticipated. Politicians in Lithuania and Latvia seem to be optimistic about all that. But when I talked to Adamkus, the Lithuanian ex-president told me with a sad look on his face that the Warsaw summit would not make that much of a difference. The international situation is so tense at the moment, he said, that any action plans would have to be universal and flexible. The latest migration crisis is a major challenge also when it comes to security, according to Adamkus, and so it is sure to be a major focus at the summit. Consequently, Adamkus says he does not expect Poland and Lithuania to achieve much when NATO leaders meet in Warsaw this July.

Krzysztof Renik
from Vilnius and Riga
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