Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the western world has developed at a rapid pace. For the Baltic states, which came from the chains of Soviet communism to becoming prosperous free-market societies, the development during this time is close to unprecedented. But in a complex world and in a region exposed to global tensions, what is the state of security? How can the region ensure its security in a time of aggression from the east and a western leadership in question?
In the early 90’s a liberal wave swept throughout the western world in general and Europe in particular. In the years following the fall of the Berlin wall a strong belief in a more prosperous and free future was widely spread over the continent. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the possibility of creating something new became a reality for many eastern European countries. In those years, three countries on the eastern shore of the Baltic sea declared independence and became internationally recognised.
These countries were deeply embedded in the communist system of the Soviet Union and were now free from the chains of oppression and ready to shape a future of their own. But how can one build a stable democratic state from the ground up with a population that during their lifetime had never lived in a democracy?
The answer to this question was in no way a simple one, nor alike for any new democracy in comparison to another. For the Baltic region, placed in the northeast corner of Europe and in a narrow piece of land between the Baltic sea and Russian territory, one of the first concerns was security and the protection from unwanted foreign interference. Latvia was particularly concerned, as its capital Riga was historically a key harbour and trading city for the Soviet Union. With a large percentage of the population being ethnically Russian and with a history closely aligned with the east, immense efforts had to be done in order to move into western society. Luckily the West was there to support.
With the presence of other Nordic countries in the region, working closely together with the pro-democratic movements in the Baltics before the independence and then with the newly founded states, close multilateral relationships were established which helped the new democracies in their transitions. But the questions of security and integration with the rest of the European continent remained a work in progress. In 1994 the three countries signed agreements with the EU and NATO for a path towards a future of stable democracy built on the principles of free-trade and membership in both organisations. As the will of western Europe was to integrate these economies into the new economically liberal Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall, mechanisms were put in place to guarantee assistance and smooth the integration process.
During these years, a softer Russian strategic posture in the region contributed in making the process of integration smoother and in 2004 the Baltics became part of both the EU and NATO.
After 15 years of membership, what is the state of security of these three countries today?
The strategic posture of Russia has dramatically changed especially since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. With its growing ambitions of interference with the rest of Europe, and the world, starting with the war with Georgia in 2008, Russia has come back to constitute a serious and constantly rising threat for EU eastern member states.
The Baltic states are today highly integrated members in both NATO, with a high military presence and international troops stationed in the region, and the EU, with all three countries being part of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Nonetheless, the risks related to security are still very present in both the political agenda and everyday life of the Baltic republics. For instance, the latest reason of concern has been the recent construction of a new nuclear powerplant in Kaliningrad, situated less than 90km from Vilnius city centre. This project was completed without authorities in Moscow giving the possibility to Lithuanian or the EU to have a say on it. Considering the proximity of the new plant to the EU territory it is clear what is at stake.
High military commands in the area have a clear stance of which matters are supposed to be handled in which forum. Security cooperation is best to be handled within NATO. After all the Alliance was created for keeping the member states of the treaty organisation safe from foreign threats. The EU also has a key role to play here, as common economic and foreign policies are key factors in contributing to the security of union – in general – and of the countries on the eastern flank – in particular. However, when it comes to physical security, NATO is the favourite option for Baltic decision-makers in the both the government and the military.
Their argument is founded on the different nature of the two organisations. NATO was founded as a defensive alliance with paths of communication and integration between member states and their militaries. The EU is on the other hand built upon a much broader cooperation that has only recently been expanding into foreign policy and defence. This, together with NATO’s more agile decision-making processes, pushes Baltics actors to believe that their security is better guaranteed by the military capabilities of the Alliance than by the soft-power approach of the Union.
Even though the states on the eastern coast of the Baltic sea are still under pressure today, it is the strong military presence provided by their NATO allies and their highly globalised liberal economies being within the EU, which guarantees a certain level of security. However, this security together with the safety of the Baltic people is dependent on the support of the West.
In a world were strategic and geopolitical scenarios are changing rapidly, the questions of security and defence represent a priority in the political agenda of both the EU and the US. However, it can be argued that the EU is today too weak on defence. A position that the current US administration – and many before this one – express with adamant clarity and that is proven right by a look at the military spending of the United States versus the one of the EU28.
The lack of capabilities and military might of the EU coupled with the new isolationism of the US, beg for the question of who will need to take the lead in defending liberal democratic values in the EU neighbourhood and across the globe. European member states will need to provide an answer to this question balancing continental and transatlantic interests while avoiding duplications and inefficient military expenditures.
In conclusion, while a European answer to security appears to be very much needed, the transatlantic link needs to be maintained. Not only for the sake of Baltic security in the short and mid-term but also in consideration of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, keeping NATO at the core of European security in coming years will be vital. The Baltics’ experience after 15 years of membership in both organisations demonstrates exactly this.