Opinion: Three reasons why Lithuania needs NATO bases on its soil

Back in 1998, when the Baltics were still knocking to be admitted into the alliance, German and French politicians, commenting on their prospects, would say that the Baltic States‘ membership in NATO was out of the question and that these nations were simply impossible to defend.

In May this year, however, US President Barack Obama elaborated on his global security doctrine thus: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it – when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger. When crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us… we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”

The quote is a fair reflection of what we might call the paradox of Lithuanian security: on the one hand, tragic events caused by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine – whose capital city is less than 600km from Vilnius – have destabilized security of the post-Soviet region and Eastern Europe and brought the phantom of war in Europe closer than ever. In the context of the “New Cold War“, almost all NATO countries have stated willingness to beef up defence spending and prominent observers like Anna Applebaum even wrote about a threat of nuclear confrontation in Europe.

On the other hand, the current situation has given a fresh impetus and a reminder of its raison d’etre for NATO which has been lately seen – in the West if not Lithuania – as less of a security guarantee than a rudimentary relic of the Cold War which was allegedly “long over”. Today, such doubts about the purposefulness of NATO are far less convincing. Moreover, the Kremlin’s aggression has made US President Obama to scrap the failed policy of a “reset” with Russia and instead take steps to reassure allies in Eastern Europe – to essentially repeat the words uttered by George W. Bush in Vilnius. The crowning statement from the White House was: “Russia, don’t even think about messing around in Estonia or in any of the Baltic areas in the same way that you have been messing around in Ukraine.”

In other words, a clear line has been drawn of what NATO will defend – this line includes member states but excludes other partners. This means that Lithuania and Ukraine play in different leagues when it comes to defence. Such is the deterrence formula chosen by the US (NATO) today. More internal integration and less reassurance for outsiders.

Despite this security paradox that seems to be in Lithuania’s favour, the Baltic security cannot rest on lofty political pledges or NATO membership alone. Practical measures are required and chief among them is setting up permanent NATO military bases. There will be no better opportunity in a long time to make that happen than the Wales summit on 4-5 September.

It is a necessary and realistic condition for several reasons:

1. Military bases are needed for effective defence of Lithuania. Even though Russia is traditionally associated with the east, Lithuania’s common border with the country – or, more precisely, its militarized exclave of Kaliningrad – is to the west. This makes national defence rather tricky. There’s a chance that, in case of a military conflict, Russian forces could move from Kaliningrad and encircle the country, cutting off strategic land and sea routes to the West. It would also prevent allies from sending troops and weaponry to Lithuania in time.

It is said that Minsk’s neutrality in case of a Russia-NATO stand-off would boost Lithuania’s defensibility. However, defence integration of Belarus and Russia is almost on a par with a military alliance (there are mechanisms for joint military planning), which makes Minsk’s neutrality highly unlikely.

Therefore, when facing actual threat, Lithuania would have to rely on domestic resources to defend itself initially, resources that are limited. Nor is it likely that current NATO defence plans would do the trick, in need as they are of revision in the face of current geopolitical developments and advances in war strategy. Therefore, instead of posing additional threat of militarization, international NATO bases would provide tangible deterrence from exploiting Lithuania’s weakness. Meanwhile in the case of a military intervention, in addition to fulfilling Article Five obligations, NATO military presence in Lithuania would provide a direct link to the rest of NATO’s defence system. And that would be a substantial security guarantee for Lithuania.

2. Military bases would enhance security of the entire alliance. One of the main arguments used by some Western European and American leaders against military bases in Eastern Europe is that rearming the new member states and antagonizing countries like Russia would, in fact, endanger rather than enhance regional security, since it would provoke retaliation and the likelihood of confrontation. In other words, it is claimed that stepping up NATO presence in the Baltics would only trigger arms race and create an even bigger security dilemma.

Ukraine’s example, however, shows that moderation and caution exhibited by the West, its reliance on diplomatic means and limited economic sanctions – while ruling out any possibility of military assistance to Ukraine – did little else besides watering Moscow’s appetites. Since the beginning of the conflict, “little green men” from Russia, that were behind the annexation of Crimea, have grown into pro-Russian separatist fighters armed with anti-aircraft systems and heavy weaponry that keeps crossing uninterruptedly the Ukrainian-Russian border. We are now at the point where Western countries are ready to accept the terms of the aggressor just to reach a ceasefire. Even though it is dangerous to draw historic parallels here, everything seems very similar to the 1930s when Europe agreed to give Sudetenland to Hitler in exchange for an illusion of peace.

It is quite obvious that today’s Russia respects only those opponents that can respond in the language it understands: force. Therefore policy of deterrence, backed by tangible military decisions in Eastern Europe, increases our chances of preventing Ukrainian scenarios from being played out here – and the West having to deal with politically and financially painful dilemmas about helping out NATO allies under attack.

One can recall the words ascribed to Winston Churchill: Europe is at its safest when there is at least one American soldier, preferably killed by an enemy bullet, because that guarantees US involvement. If Americans were reluctant to defend their partners, this would essentially mean the end of US global leadership.

3. NATO forces would not breach prior agreements with Russia. The Kremlin readily insists that deploying allied forces in Eastern Europe would breach the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security. This argument, however, which is also used by some German politicians, is not entirely accurate. The obligation to refrain from deploying permanent bases was made in the light of “current and foreseeable security environment”.

Russia’s open aggression in Ukraine has effected essential complications in the security environment. Moreover, Russia’s actions are in breach of that same agreement that demands respect for territorial integrity and political independence of not only its parties, but other sovereign states as well. Meanwhile NATO’s response has so far been restrained and defensive, e.g., stepping up air policing mission in the Baltics.

Equally baseless is another argument, stating that US and German leaders promised, back in 1990, not to expand NATO into Eastern and Central Europe, not to build military infrastructure near Russia’s borders or deploy troops there. These statements can be easily dispelled using official documents and other sources as well as live memories of people who were decision makers at the time. Interestingly, Russia appeals – misleadingly – to international agreements while exhibiting blatant disregard of international law.

According to German press, NATO will continue to observe these agreements and will set up five new bases in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These bases, staffed with 300-600 experts from different countries, will primarily work with intelligence, mission planning and logistics. Only a small fraction of the staff will be military personnel. There will also be new rapid response units, able to provide assistance to a member under attack within 2-7 days – much faster than current NATO resources allow.

These steps are essential if Lithuania and other Baltic nations are to become full-fledged NATO members. Granted, there is a national dimension, too: adequate funding for defence and realization that the days of free-riding in NATO are over.

Dr. Laurynas Kasčiūnas and Linas Kojala are analysts at the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre

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