On Tuesday, the White House will feature a meeting between the president of the United States and the presidents of the three Baltic States [Meeting has now been held on April 3, 2018].
Washington has assigned a high diplomatic status to the meeting, describing it as a Baltic State summit meeting, not a regular working visit.
The meeting is proceeding under especially favourable conditions for the Baltics. This year, the three countries will be fulfilling their commitment to dedicate 2% of GDP to national defence. They are winning President Donald Trump‘s favour this way, especially when most NATO countries view their commitments with disdain and are increasing their military expenditure only sluggishly.
The conditions are also favourable because a universal outrage at the Kremlin is prominent in Washington over the poisoning of the Skripals. The White House fairly unexpectedly decided to expel an entire 60 Russian diplomats from the country and close down the consulate in San Francisco.
The possibility is not dismissed that Trump finally realised that it is currently futile to seek better relations with Russia.
His team has also changed. The expected Secretary of State M. Pompeo and new National Security Advisor J. Bolton are both especially combative “hawks”, who urged to overthrow the Iranian and North Korean regimes a number of times before. A few months ago, Bolton commented that the USA has the right to attack North Korea, enact preventative war.
Both view Russia as an unfriendly, hostile country, which poses a threat to US national security. The concept of a “reboot” is alien to them.
While Trump has taken stricter measures against Russia, it is unclear whether his position has changed and whether he was finally convinced that Russia is an enemy or if he declared sanctions in the name of domestic policy.
His views of the Baltic States are also unclear, albeit there can be no doubt that he think and knows little about them. It will be interesting, how well prepared he will be for the talks with the Baltic presidents, how much time he will dedicate for the meeting and how he will comment on it to the press.
On the other hand, we should not overvalue Trump’s comments because what he states in the morning, he denies in the evening without realising he is contradicting himself.
The threat posed by Russia will be the main focus of the meeting. The Baltic States have requested Washington to deploy troops in their territories for a number of times, they will likely now urge to bring troops and Patriot missile systems more frequently and strengthen the air defence of the Baltics.
In recent times, a number of experts have urged the USA to send coastal combat ships to the Baltic and Black Seas, perhaps even create a forward base at one of the Baltic ports.
This would unambiguously display that the USA has constant diplomatic, military and trade interests in the region.
The deployment of sailors and their families would show the Baltics that the USA is a reliable partner prepared to come to their defence. The Washington meeting may also feature agreements on military ships in the Baltic Sea.
Lithuania’s desire for its allies, especially the USA, to demonstrate their commitment to defend Lithuania and take steps to ensure it and deter Russia, is understandable.
But every new measure provokes a response from Moscow.
Russia will also not stand down because it believes that NATO is responsible for the increase in tensions, gathering increasing numbers of troops at the Russian Western border. Poland and Romania agreed to deploy the anti-rocket defence shield in their territories, which is intended to protect from a possible attack by Iran or North Korea. Moscow believes that the shield is intended against it and deployed Iskander rockets in Kaliningrad, which are no doubt in NATO’s crosshairs.
If Lithuania obtains Patriot anti-missile systems, Russia would direct its rockets at them. If NATO establishes a naval base by the Baltic Sea or would send more armed ships, Moscow would present a response.
Lithuania increases its security by one measure and Russia partially neutralises it with its actions. A classical security dilemma has developed. One side’s efforts to ensure its security are urging the other to seek countermeasures. A cycle, which does not increase security and only increases the possibility of conflict, begins.
Arms races are a dangerous matter. There are no guarantees they will end without conflict as they did during the cold war. The Cuban missile crisis and certain other incidents remind us that a good ending is not preordained.
In certain respects, the situation was more stable back then. The dividing line between the East and West blocs was established, especially after the 1956 Hungarian revolution and the construction of the Berlin wall.
The chances for a land war were minimal, the Soviet Union was more self-contained, thus there were fewer points of non-peripheral tensions and conflict. Back then there were no doubts regarding what is and what is not an act of war, what is permissible and what will lead to a harsh response.
A fog has descended in the internet age. Potential cyber-attacks erase the boundary between military and non-military action, something once very clear, every day. The bombing of a power plant is an obvious act of war and the perpetrator is immediately and unambiguously identified. But how do you react when hackers obstruct the operations of an important plant, especially when it is difficult to attribute responsibility.
Even if it is known that it was done from computers in Russia, you must ascertain whether it was not controlled from a different country. The more uncertainty, the greater the likelihood that an inadequate decisions will be made.
Furthermore, the US and Russian political classes are far more hostile to one another than during the Cold War. You cannot utter a single favourable word about Russia in Washington, while Moscow enthusiastically accepts every provocation and challenge to the USA.
There is less exchange of information. Last week Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile without informing the US. It is hard to have dialogue and settle ambiguities when you don’t talk.
Even two years ago I held the firm belief that there will be no military confrontation, mostly because real experts were sure of it.
Recently their views are changing. Long gone are the day when Russia was weak, demoralised and partially intimidated by the West’s advantages. Today’s Russia has technologically advanced, modern armed forces. The Kremlin seeks to cement its status as one fo the world powers and will not back down during a potential confrontation. Trump and Bolton aren’t the only cowboys in Washington.
There is another change, which is important to us. During the cold war, the expected front line was the border between East and West Germany almost a thousand kilometres away. Lithuania and the other Baltic States along with Ukraine are now countries on the front line.
The likelihood to avoid a spiral into war are now lesser. I do not know if an agreement to establish a naval base in Klaipėda and Riga or the deployment of Patriot rockets would significantly contribute to Lithuanian security, likely it would a little, but I have no doubt that Moscow would spare no cost to neutralise it, to return to the status quo ante.