Baltic vulnerability dramatically overstated

Except for Kuwait, all post-Cold War invasions have occurred during conditions of advanced internal division and crisis. That doesn’t describe the Baltic States.

(Reprinted from Embassy Magazine, September 16, 2015 – page 7)

The Pentagon’s first ever deployment of F-22 fighter aircraft to Europe is intended to make the Baltic states on Russia’s border feel less vulnerable, but the belief, however fervent, that demonstrations of intimidating military capacity enhance security is an article of faith unsupported by evidence.

What the evidence shows is that vulnerability to military attack or interference is much more a product of political weakness than military weakness or the lack formidable friends. Preserving national sovereignty and defending against foreign predators—in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, for example—depend much more on the quality of governance there than on military preparedness and defence.

When Russian parliamentarians, demonstrating that the art of provocation in Russia extends well beyond its president, recently questioned the constitutionality of the process by which Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania gained their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Baltics became even more nervous than they already were. Russian-speaking minorities make up about one-quarter of the populations in Estonia and Latvia, and about six percent in Lithuania, and what’s nerve-wracking about that is the Russian president’s insistence that they are deserving of his protection.

So the Baltics are looking to NATO for security assurances, and NATO’s default response is to flex its military muscle. War games are once again elevated to a primary means of NATO/ Russia communication (the Pentagon having explained that the F-22 mission in Europe is “designed to send a message to Russia”) as both sides lock into mutually provocative patrols and training exercises, some involving tens of thousands of personnel.

And while military exercises do not reflect an intention to go to war, it is hardly surprising that Russian operations make Nordic and Baltic states nervous, or that Russia regards NATO’s heightened activity (including Canadian air, sea, and land forces) on its doorstep as less than benign and more like a continuation of two decades of adversarial expansion.

Besides it risking escalation to full-blown war, this high tempo of military activity is demonstrably beside the point. Twenty-five years of post-Cold War experience shows that military interventions occur almost exclusively in contexts of chronic political instability, almost always in and around the world’s most intractable trouble spots, against states that are internally divided, and against (or in efforts to prop up) governments with little or no internal legitimacy.

The context for military interventions is invariably political, not military, vulnerability. Look at these post-Cold War invasions: multilateral interventions in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq, Serbia (re: Kosovo), and Libya; unilateral interventions by the US in Panama and Somalia, by Russia in Georgia and Ukraine, by Ethiopia in Somalia, by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and by Iraq in Kuwait. Common to all of the invaded states (with the exception of Kuwait), were conditions of advanced internal division and crisis.

The point obviously is not that internal crises justify the invasions. It’s not a matter of blaming the victims and justifying the military adventures of major powers. Politically chaotic states are still sovereign, and their weaknesses are typically the product of a myriad of forces—some internal but many well beyond their control—and invading any state outside of self-defence or without explicit United Nations Security Council approval is still a flagrant violation of international law. And, by the way, as the record also shows, is much more likely to exacerbate discord than end it.

But what that list of invasions illustrates is that states are vulnerable by virtue of internal political instability, not a lack of military defence. And the primary lesson to be drawn applies especially to politically stable states— that is, states with national institutions that enjoy the legitimacy that comes from broad public trust and support, are largely immune to military attacks and intervention, regardless of their military strength or the lack of it.

In other words, the vulnerability of Baltic States is being dramatically over-stated, and NATO’s militarized response is particularly inapt. The Baltics are basically well-governed spaces that enjoy political stability. Each sustains a strong national consensus in support of independence and the prevailing political order. They score high in global peace and prosperity indexes, and it is the legitimacy of their governments and public institutions that radically reduce their vulnerability to Russian “help” for their Russian-speaking populations.

The great folly in the prevailing European/ Russian security discourse is the assumption that without demonstrations and threats of NATO military action, the Baltics would be defenceless. The opposite is true.

The Baltic States have access to the most effective and proven defence against military invasion: namely, strong and respected governance and a buoyant national consensus in support of the prevailing order. All three Baltic States actively debate and struggle with questions of how best to accommodate their Russian minorities, but those minorities remain largely comfortable in and supportive of their Baltic homes.

There are Russian-speaking communities with legitimate grievances, but to date the Baltics have been reasonably effective in retaining their basic loyalties, and maintaining and improving on that record is key to Baltic security. If Russia were in fact interested in destabilizing them, it could do so only if it could tap into a much deeper current of internal dissent and resentment.

That means the front line of Baltic security is maintaining constructive governance that keeps on winning the support of all segments of their populations. It is the legitimacy of inclusive internal political processes in the Baltics, not military threats against Russia that no sane NATO leadership would ever carry out, that will ultimately protect them from the Russian help they don’t want.

Ernie Regehr is senior fellow in Arctic security for the Simons Foundation of Vancouver, and author of Disarming Conflict: Why peace cannot be won on the battlefield, published this month by Between the Lines.

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