Piret Pernik, ICDS, 21 January 2014
NATO and American presence in the Baltic Sea region strengthens our deterrence, increases defence capability and has a stabilising effect.
In recent days, Estonian media outlets have addressed the issue of American military presence in Estonia. The issue came into the spotlight after Defence Minister Urmas Reinsalu, speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called for American tanks to be brought back to Europe and a greater American presence in Estonia. Many politicians and experts later reacted to the defence minister’s statements by saying that establishing US military bases and equipment in Estonia is not realistic in the current international security situation, especially considering the growing violence in the Middle East and North Africa. From the US perspective, the marginalisation of security politics in the stable and peaceful Baltic Sea region compared with the hotbeds of acute crises is understandable, but we must nevertheless stand for our interests in this region, especially since we ought to know our eastern neighbour better than do our more geographically distant allies.
The defence minister’s “longing for tanks” has prompted national defence experts to weigh in on Estonian military security. As a NATO member, we have come to largely take our security for granted; we are protected by NATO’s collective defence clause i.e. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. But an agreement as such is not worth anything by itself; what’s important is that the allies trust the agreement will be honoured (security guarantee) and that outside parties believe it will be honoured (deterrence). Conditions making possible the implementation of the agreement must also be fulfilled (capabilities, tested defence plans, quick decision-making processes, etc.) and – last but not least – there must be political will to carry out the agreement.
The desire for a greater NATO presence in Europe, the Baltic Sea region and Estonia is nothing new in our political security discourse. It is well known that the European allies’ defence capacity has been in decline. Meanwhile, the US has the greatest military capabilities and quickest deployment capacity of the allies. It is therefore logical that a US presence in our region is beneficial and necessary for our security. For one, US presence in Estonia would support deterrence. Whereas NATO fighter jets reside in Lithuania, there are no permanent alliance capabilities in Estonia. Second, in addition to defence plans, implementing NATO’s collective defence also requires military units and resources. In the event of a military crisis, it is easier to fulfil plans if the necessary resources are available at the location and the only thing that must be transported is manpower. Thus, in a crisis situation, military armaments become part of the defence capacity and the presence of resources alone indirectly bolsters our security. Moreover, if the allies’ resources that are located here are very valuable, there is more motivation to protect them, further enhancing our security. This standpoint seems to be shared by retired Gen. Ants Laaneots, who believes the US should establish pre-positioning storage units in the Baltic countries (also stressing the fulfilment of defence plans through military units and regular training).
Third, US military presence in Estonia would have a stabilising influence on the somewhat strained relations, which have been provoked in the Baltic countries and to a lesser extent in Finland and Sweden by Russia’s threatening rhetoric, military manoeuvres and political-economic pressure tactics (more recently against Ukraine).
There are plenty of examples of Russia’s imperialistic rhetoric and forceful methods: threats to set up Iskander missiles, with a range of 400-500 kilometres, in Kaliningrad and the existing Iskanders even closer to us in Luga, Leningrad Oblast; warning Finland of the negative consequences of joining NATO; vowing to resort to force in protecting its compatriots’ interests abroad. It has not helped that there have been provocations in the form of major military exercises simulating offensives against the West (Zapad and Ladoga in 2009 and Zapad in 2013), long-range bomber aircraft training flights and an increased military presence in Russia’s western military districts. It is also not helpful that Russia has refused to invite NATO observers to its military exercises, or to fulfil the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, and so on.
Indeed, we must agree with the conventional wisdom that it doesn’t pay to wave a red flag in front of a bull. Despite difficulties in attempts to modernise, the Russian military is capable of responding to mid-sized local and regional conflicts. We saw this in Georgia in 2008. As recently as in 2009, a NATO intelligence document found that “Russia will continue to test the credibility and cohesion of the Alliance, including the joint defence clause”, according to a Norwegian newspaper.
Russian rhetoric shows that the Cold War mentality and the desire to deter a geographical approach by NATO (which the West is said to have pledged after the collapse of the Soviet Union), continues to be Russia’s leitmotif. But the reality is different – this year we mark 10 years of NATO membership. It would not suffice for Russia if Estonia refrained from elementary national defence planning in the name of friendly relations. Russia’s political security decisions are made based on its national interest to preserve strategic superiority in its region (which the Russian leadership does not tire of reiterating), and Russia is hypersensitive to losses for both domestic and foreign policy reasons. Finland has a milder foreign policy line with Russia, but that has not stopped Russia’s political and military leadership from dictating political security choices to Finland. It would be naive to hope that by following in the footsteps of Finland the eastern neighbour would make concessions to us in other areas, such as the import bans on EU livestock, the signing of the Estonian-Russian border treaty, etc.
Increasing the presence of America – NATO’s politically and militarily most powerful ally – in Estonia would benefit us both symbolically and with regard to strengthening national defence. Foreign Minister Urmas Paet has said that NATO aircraft, including America’s, should permanently reside in Ämari Air Base in the capacity of the Baltic countries’ air security mission. The Chairman of the Riigikogu Defence Committee, MP Mati Raidma, says the aircraft should rotate between the three Baltic countries. NATO and US military exercises that bring military forces and equipment to Estonian soil are another possibility of increasing this presence. There is nothing peculiar about the fact that one of the most important factors of Estonia’s long-term security goals – increasing NATO visibility in the Baltic Sea region – is the desire to increase US presence in Estonia.
Longing for tanks