When Estonia and its two Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, joined NATO five years ago, it marked the fulfilment of one of the greatest strategic ambitions of these small countries and opened a new era for us by way of firmly embedding our security in the Western collective security and defence framework. Today, when we are about to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty and the 5th anniversary of our membership in the Alliance, the time is right to pay tribute to the so-called BALT projects, which greatly assisted our integration efforts. This is also a good time for considering where we currently stand with regard to these projects, as our membership in NATO has become a demanding reality, instead of a distant dream.
The past: Go West, together
The history of Baltic military cooperation dates back to the mid-1990s, when the Baltic Battalion – BALTBAT – was formed in 1994, with its headquarters in Ādaži, Latvia, in order to develop our capability to contribute to international peacekeeping operations. This was followed by the deployment of BALTRON – a trilateral naval squadron – in 1998, by the establishment of BALTDEFCOL – a joint staff college – in Tartu in 1999 and by the creation of BALTNET – a common air surveillance network – with its coordination centre in Karmėlava, Lithuania.
These projects were only made possible by the strong involvement of the Western nations – the Scandinavians, the Germans, the British, the French and the Americans – to whom this was an exercise in defence diplomacy to strengthen new democracies. At that time, very few people must have realised how big a role these projects would play in transforming Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into serious candidates for NATO membership, particularly with respect to developing our ability to work together.
The newly-formed armed forces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania benefited from the projects in three ways. First, they were provided access to the know-how – standards, procedures, concepts and daily routines – on how to build and operate Western-style military units and institutions. This mattered more than money or hardware, donated by our Western sponsors. Knowledge and competence are the key to success in military organisations. The Baltic states had a unique opportunity to develop them through the BALT projects, while receiving intensive coaching from our mentors and counterparts in NATO and the EU.
Second, the projects were the catalysts for developing tangible military capabilities. The fact that each one of the three countries was required to contribute equally meant that you either brought something real to the table or that your Western mentors reproached you for not doing so. As a result, the Baltics adopted the mentality that you cannot be a free rider, only taking advantage of the security benefits created by the Allies. Instead, you have to contribute to the best of your abilities.
Lastly, military personnel from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, working together and with their colleagues from ‘old’ NATO and EU nations, had a splendid chance to develop what is often termed as the ‘interoperability of minds’ – the ability to understand each other quickly, to make effective common decisions and to trust each other. Interoperability is a staple of all coalition operations; it was greatly advanced by the creation and development of the Baltic Defence College in particular. Let me emphasise again that in military operations ‘software’ matters more than ‘hardware’. This which is perhaps the most underestimated lesson we learned from the BALT projects.
What Estonia and its project counterparts did not realise was that these projects were quite advanced in terms of military integration in the context of NATO transformation. Instead, having received the invitations to join NATO, we set out to explore the broader perspectives of military cooperation, thus beginning a gradual drift apart.
The present: National ambitions strike back
Now, five years after our accession to NATO, Baltic military cooperation is stagnating and even suffering some symptoms of regression. BALTBAT was culled first, only to be resurrected later as a common contribution to the NATO Response Force (NRF). No major new cooperation initiatives have been launched, except for the development of a common doctrine for land forces and, as a result of a pressing need to do so, the cooperation in the provision of Host Nation Support to the NATO Air Policing Operation that is conducted from an air base in Šiauliai, Lithuania.
It would seem – at least to outsiders – that there has been much pointless bickering over unimportant issues. Arguments about whether the so-called Control and Reporting Centres (CRC) for the air policing operation should be developed separately in each country or together on the basis of BALTNET led to a major crisis in tri-lateral military cooperation. An agreement was reached only when NATO threatened to run the operation from Poland. Even such valuable ideas as cooperation in the area of defence procurement have not really caught on, although the Estonian-Latvian joint procurement of Lockheed Martin long-range radars was very successful.
Why is it that instead of raising Baltic military cooperation to a new level, our accession to NATO has had the opposite effect? The reason lies in the critical combination of three factors: foreign disengagement, divergent national responses to NATO’s global strategy and the competitive instincts of the three defence organisations.
First, there is no more Western mentorship and coaching, which had a disciplining effect on the behaviour of the Baltic defence establishments. Now, we can define our visions and ambitions as we please. There is nobody “to name and shame”; nobody is going to knock our heads together. To a certain degree, the Baltic states share the view that it is more profitable to team up with the big and powerful than to stick together.
Alarm bells about Baltic cooperation should have started ringing, when Lithuania failed to secure the participation of Estonia and Latvia in the Lithuanian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. The fact that the Baltic states parted ways over what was a crucial mission for NATO means that we have very different sets of practical priorities, concerns and interests. The Baltic states do not participate jointly in NATO’s attempts at global power projection and transformation, which is tantamount to turning Baltic military cooperation into an empty shell. It is all very well that BALTBAT was resurrected for the sake of maximising our contribution to a key transformation project of the Alliance. However, the NRF project is in trouble itself.
Lastly, the three states compete for visibility, recognition and praise within NATO. When competitive pressure is combined with the lack of patience in managing intricate trilateral projects, it leads to greater individualism and nationalisation of initiatives. The setting up of the Centre of Excellence on Cooperative Cyber Defence was an Estonian initiative, not an idea nurtured in a pan-Baltic framework. Estonia got all the credit – and deservedly so – but the other two Baltic states were left scrambling to find their own pet projects, instead of pursuing ever closer Baltic integration.
The future: After all, geography is our destiny
So, are we all doomed? Probably not. And we have to thank our neighbouring country – Russia – for injecting, after a brief war with Georgia, some realism into NATO’s strategic assessments. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of NATO, when the provision of collective defence has once again become the core function of NATO, we – the Baltic states – have every reason, strategically speaking, to pull our act together and, using the words of U.S. Vice President Biden, to ‘push the reset button’ on Baltic military cooperation. The current economic crisis adds urgency to the need to pool together, wherever possible, the scarce resources allocated for defence.
We should start with reconsidering the way we manage our cooperation and with defining our objectives – we aim for meaningful, deep, broad and effective military integration in the framework of the collective defence system of the Alliance. From sub-regional contingency planning to the integration of command, control, communication and information systems; from joint procurements to the organisation of common defence R&D activities – the Baltics can do a lot together to increase the credibility of NATO’s collective defence system in the Baltic region, while saving resources and remaining at the forefront of progressive defence thinking within the Alliance.
Those from outside the Baltic region still treat the Baltic states as one geostrategic unit, regardless of our national differences and ambitions. From a strategic point of view, it makes no sense to further our military interests in isolation from each other or to slow down integration due to minor grievances and clashes of personalities. We do not want to end up like those isolated authoritarian countries of the inter-war period that failed to cooperate in the field of defence because of some petty disagreements, as a result of which they suffered a terrible fate. We need robust and mature leadership to prevent history from repeating itself. After five years in NATO, it would be ironic if we still needed the United States to provide it and to act as a big brother who understands regional imperatives better than we do.
ICDS, appeared in Postimees, 18.03.2009
http://www.icds.ee/index.php id=73&L=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=343&tx_ttnews[backPid]=71&cHash=734054421d )
Baltic Military Cooperation: Past, Present and Future