The recent leak of General Sir Richard Barron’s memo about UK forces being ill prepared to meet a conventional attack from Russia has focused attention on a strategic problem that our Baltic allies are only too well aware of. In 2014 President Obama told an Estonian audience:
‘Article 5 is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all……. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.’
But in reality what can the UK and NATO actually do to protect the Baltic states? Many argue that the Alliance simply doesn’t have the military forces in place that are needed to stop a Russian invasion. All it can do is act as a trip wire that triggers reinforcements. The recent NATO Warsaw Summit agreed to strengthen forces in the region but only enough to turn the trip wire into a speed bump.
During the Cold War NATO assumed that large areas of Germany could be temporarily occupied by the Russians before NATO could mobilise enough forces to drive them out. Now the Baltic states are in a similar position. Does this mean they should prepare and plan for the worst case – how to survive and fight back under Russian military occupation.
In time NATO nations could organise a counter attack to try and free the Baltic states. Support from currently neutral Sweden and Finland would significantly help. However if China decides to provide Russia with anti-air and anti-ship technology then the counter attack becomes harder. Of course the key question is whether NATO would have the political will to authorise this type of massive and costly military action?
This used to be an easy question to answer but the impact of Donald Trump, Brexit and the rise of populism in Europe have generated significant uncertainty. Trump has indicated that he might not authorise the use of US military forces to protect the Baltic states. The new British Foreign Secretary has previously called for the West to support Russian actions in Syria. Across NATO various political leaders have been suggesting that the West should accept the illegal Russian occupation of the Crimea. In this political environment it is hardly surprising that the Kremlin is continuing to use deception and propaganda to try and break the political cohesion of the Alliance.
If a lie is believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after.
The politics of the Baltic region are complex with a range of internal debates about citizenship, identity, culture and history creating tension within and between communities. The Russian Government has put substantial effort into trying to distort perceptions about these issues in order to try and delay decision making by NATO governments. Western Governments need to educate themselves and their electorates about the Baltic regions to counter this well-funded disinformation campaign. As Jonathan Swift has pointed out, ‘If a lie is believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after.’
Ultimately the use of military capabilities to deter Russian attacks on NATO is the continuation of politics by other means. Defending the Baltic states is not simply about funding and deploying military forces. The key issue is political – what priority do NATO political leaders give to defeating an attack on NATO territory? That is, and will always be, the key political decision.