Edward Lucas
AUTHOR:Edward Lucas
08 February 2016

NATO's Baltic Dilemma

Ill-informed scaremongering is infuriating. But ignoring a serious problem is even worse. It is not a military secret that NATO has a serious problem in the Baltic states. The alliance’s credibility hangs on the sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Yet it does not have the local military muscle to defend them.

Two developments have highlighted this. The BBC has broadcast a lively docudrama, “Inside the War Room,” exploring how British decision-makers might react to a Kremlin-sponsored insurrection in eastern Latvia, culminating in a Russian nuclear attack on British and American warships (answer: America will use nuclear weapons; Britain won’t).

And the RAND Corporation, an American think-tank, has reported on a lengthy series of war-games it has conducted on how NATO would respond to a surprise Russian attack in the Baltics (answer: whatever you do, Russia wins within 60 hours). The study suggests that only placing three armoured brigade combat teams in the Baltics, at an annual cost of $2.7 billion, plus other big changes elsewhere, can deter a Russian attack.

Critics say the BBC and RAND are serving the Kremlin’s purpose. Russia wants the Baltic states to feel that they are “NATO-Lite.” And it wants the rest of NATO to think that defending these three frontline states is a hopeless endeavour. Those are preconditions for “realistic” talks about European security, in which Russia would regain some of the domains it lost when the Soviet empire collapsed.

The BBC program caused particular uproar in Latvia. I can see why: it exaggerated the threat of separatism in the grungy east. It is upsetting to see anyone (even actors) burning your flag and smashing your national coat of arms. The decisions about Latvia’s future were being made by former British officials, pretending to be real ones. Some of them came across as startlingly ill-informed and unsympathetic.

But television programs are meant to be eye-catching (I know: I used to make them). And hypothetical scenarios necessarily involve a bit of make-believe: the clue is in the name. The real lesson of the program was not that the Baltics are doomed, but that appeasing Russia is a mistake. Those who argued at the beginning against “overreacting” to mysterious goings-on in eastern Latvia were looking pretty silly by the end. True, Britain flunked the test. More importantly—in the scriptwriters’ version of events—America didn’t.

Of course “Inside the War Room” and the RAND study are troubling. They raise unanswered questions. But they are not unanswerable ones.We can defend the Baltic states, and ourselves. We just need to think harder about how to do it.

For a start, we need to put the gloom-mongers under scrutiny. RAND has already come under fire from Sam Gardiner, one of America’s most long-standing analysts of Baltic defence. He thinks that the study was a waste of money, because it focuses too much on the land battle, and ignores the naval dimension.

My criticisms are different. For a start, the study mentions Sweden in a footnote, and Finland not at all. Discussing Baltic security without these two countries is perverse. It ignores intelligence—we can and should know if Russia is massing forces on the border. As the element of surprise diminishes, Russia’s local superiority dissipates. Most importantly, the West’s response does not need to be confined to the Baltic theatre, and it need not be solely military. One potent message we could send to Vladimir Putin once trouble starts brewing would be “we’ve got your money—and if you want to see it again, back off.” A fine subject for a television program.