BRUSSELS (RFE/RL) - A recent request by the highest military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for the authority to draw up full defense plans for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, could lead to a serious rift in the alliance as it wars over how to deal with Russia.
The move comes just two months after Russia's invasion of Georgia, and at a time when Russia constitutes the only conceivable military threat for the three Baltic members.
When Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the alliance in 2004, Afghanistan and terrorism were NATO's top concerns, whereas Russia was seen as an aspiring strategic partner.
The alliance therefore did not draw up "contingency plans" or full defense strategies for the three Baltic states, a shortcoming which now looks like an anachronism after the events in Georgia exposed NATO's soft underbelly.
Recognizing this, NATO's top commander, General James Craddock, has written to the allies seeking approval to draw up the necessary plans. But getting the go-ahead may prove less than straightforward, as NATO sources say Germany and France have informally opposed Craddock's request.
The issue of contingency planning is extremely sensitive within NATO, not least because the plans are classified. NATO spokesman James Appathurai told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on October 7 that he is not allowed to publicly discuss contingency, and reiterated the alliance's standard pledge to defend all of its members from all threats.
"What I can say is that NATO has had an extremely robust, flexible system in place for 59 years, with hundreds of planners at [NATO headquarters] and elsewhere to develop the necessary plans for the defense of this alliance in any type of situation," Appathurai said.
Most exposed allies
Since their accession to NATO, the Baltic countries have made no secret of their disappointment at the absence of concrete plans to defend them against the Russian threat.
NATO officials privately concede that the three Baltic nations are the most exposed among all 26 allies. Although none of the eastern European allies have full contingency plans drawn up for their defense, some amount of planning has been done for all - except Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Ronald D Asmus, a former senior US diplomat closely involved in NATO's post-Cold War expansion, noted in the Wall Street Journal Europe on August 18 that the alliance "unilaterally refrained from such steps partly as a confidence-building step toward Russia." Asmus now says NATO should reconsider.
All formal defense planning - "for a specific area against a specific threat," as one NATO official put it - requires the unanimous backing of all allies. In the parlance of the alliance, it is a political decision.
The United States and Britain has strongly back contingency plans for the Baltic countries. A senior US official said in Brussels on October 7 that NATO must carry on with its "day-to-day" activities - including contingency planning.
London's Daily Telegraph, which first broke the story, said Craddock recommends Estonia, with its large Russian-speaking minority and increasingly fraught relationship with Moscow, be the first Baltic beneficiary of a NATO military risk-assessment study.
But many continental European allies, led by France and Germany, feel any such move would threaten open confrontation with Russia.
This divergence of views threatens the alliance with a serious rift. After the conflict in Georgia, many analysts see US and European interests parting ways when it comes to Russia, and Germany in particular seems to conclude it cannot afford to alienate Moscow.
Berlin's reasons are complex, stretching from Germany's dependence on Russian energy to strategic balance of power calculations. Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 3 publicly ruled out quick NATO Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for Georgia and Ukraine, saying at a joint press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in St Petersburg that the two countries' immediate integration with NATO is not in German interests. NATO foreign ministers are scheduled to debate the issue in December.
Baltic countries meanwhile fear that the trend towards accommodating Russia could materially affect their security, and that political considerations could begin to erode NATO's commitment to mutual defense.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty October 8, 2008
NATO split over Baltic defense (2)