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Bigger, but better ?

by Kilian Strauss

A critical reflection on the planned second wave of NATO Enlargement

Prague, September 2002. The first NATO summit ever to be held on the territory of a former Warsaw pact member draws to its conclusion, with the gathered nineteen heads of state set to approve a second wave of enlargement of the Alliance to Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic states…

Although we are still more than a year away from this, as some would say, historical event and its eventual outcome, more and more analysts and observers expect that another wave of enlargement seems inevitable. To others this is nothing but wishful thinking. But both surely cannot be right ?

With the initial euphoria over the first – and largely symbolic – wave of enlargement of the organisation from 16 to 19 members in 1999 gradually wearing off, the erstwhile desire of some (western European) NATO members to enlarge the alliance further east has cooled down somewhat. This comes against the background of the three recent newcomers still not being sufficiently integrated after several years of military reform ; the questions that planned extension to the Baltic will raise with regard to Russia ; and that many simply don’t see the need of expanding NATO further at present.

On the other hand, some members, especially the three newcomers, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, are quite vociferously calling for a second wave of enlargement on grounds that free states should be able to freely choose their alliances. They all hope that a new round of enlargement will be decided and adopted next year in Prague. This hope was further underpinned at the recent NATO summit meeting in Brussels, where the “zero option” (no invitations next year) was officially discarded. So enlargement there will be, but how far will it go ?

The most outspoken view on this to date came from the Czech President, Vaclav Havel, in Bratislava on 11 May 2001, where he presented strong arguments in favour of further enlargement, especially to the Baltic states. But also Poland’s President, Alexander Kwasniewski, during a recent visit to Latvia, supported the case of including the three Baltic states into the alliance.

In the context of the ongoing debate over the future of NATO, the case of the Baltic states is not surprisingly the main topic of discussion at present. Whereas enlargement to Slovakia, Romania or Bulgaria is expected to be largely uncontroversial (although still some time away for the two latter), enlargement of the Alliance to the Baltic trio, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, has given rise to an intense debate.

Although NATO’s proverbial ’door’ is still open (with the present enlargement debate using largely the same arguments as during the run-up to the first wave admissions), the current situation calls for a more thorough consideration of the consequences enlargement to the Baltics would have on NATO-Russia relations.

NATO’s mission – old and new

NATO’s original mission was about defending its members against outside aggression, a principle laid down in the Alliance’s famous Article 5, which sees aggression against one of its members as an aggression against all.

This approach dates back to the time of the Alliance’s creation in 1949, in the face of an expansion of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence under Joseph Stalin. Although not outdated, this guarantee should be looked at in a different light today.

In post-cold war Europe, the role of NATO, with its mission of containing the Soviet Union achieved, can no longer be about defence only, but increasingly about cooperation, in the field of both hard and soft security as well as other regional issues, including with countries which are not members of the alliance, i.e. above all Russia and Ukraine.

This has already found its expression in the creation of a number of organs of political cooperation within NATO, e.g. the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), the 1997 Joint Permanent Council, and the famous Partnership for Peace, all of which include Russia. At the same time, some informal concessions were made to Russia, e.g. by not stationing nuclear arms on the territory of the new member states.

Yet despite these worthy initiatives and structures, the Alliance now has to look ahead and ask itself what kind of organisation it wants to be in the 21st century.

Many increasingly see the traditional defence-only alliance as having outlived itself while others see new tasks ahead for it after the not uncontroversial Kosovo mission in 1999, which gave rise to a ’new strategic concept’ adopted in April 1999. A discussion on the future of NATO seems therefore expedient, especially one the issue of out-of-area missions and above all its relationship with Russia, its key partner in Europe – and simultaneously one of its key concerns, especially with regard to future enlargements.

This is due to the fact that a second wave of enlargement is not just an issue of touching Russia’s border (Russia’s border was already touched by Poland in 1999 in the region of Kaliningrad) or of entering Russia’s ’sphere of influence’, but of admitting three particular states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The Baltic case

The three Baltic states are former Soviet republics, freshly and proudly independent again for the last ten years. And this explains much of the current debate : as former Soviet republics (from 1939, when they were illegally annexed, to 1991), their most ardent wish is to prevent a repetition of history. They therefore see their only security guarantee in the west, and this means in their eyes – in NATO. Part of this desire has to do with underlining the fact that they belong to the Western hemisphere (they see themselves as Nordics), something that should in principle be taken care of by EU accession. With the Union poised to take on a more serious defence capacity over the coming years, the security issue will certainly be addressed. Yet the EU’s defence credentials are not yet solid enough to guarantee the future safety of the Baltic trio. Hence their wish to adhere to NATO as well in order to benefit from its more credible security guarantees.

Yet extending these guarantees to the three Baltic states is precisely what seems utopian to some, when considering the physical, almost menacing, closeness of Russia on their eastern borders (southern in case of Lithuania), and on the other hand the distance to the closest NATO members, Poland and Denmark, the latter across the Baltic Sea, the former with a tiny land border with Lithuania. Yet the desire for security is nonetheless understandable. Russia, despite its democratic transition and improved relations with the West, still behaves like a bully on many occasions.

On the other side of the fence, most circles within Russia, even moderate ones, are staunchly opposed to further NATO enlargement, much as Russia opposed the first wave of enlargement, with much the same arguments, i.e. NATO enlargement would constitute a violation of Russia’s sphere of influence and thus threaten its security. This is mainly due to the widely held view in Russia of NATO being an offensive alliance, as portrayed for decades by Soviet propaganda. Yet Russia eventually resigned itself to the first wave of enlargement to three of its former satellites. Many in the west hope that a similar thing will happen again after the next wave.

Why the Baltics are different

Yet in the case of the Baltics, the situation looks different. All three Baltic states are looking unequivocally and uncompromisingly west, towards their Western neighbours, the European Union and NATO. This is happening quite visibly to the detriment of relations with Russia and, more importantly with their – sizeable – Russian minorities, many of whom are still ’non-citizens’. Although the situation of the Russian minorities in the three republics varies, relations with Russia are generally tense and risk to turn even more so if NATO were enlarged.

This goes especially for Lithuania, which currently enjoys the best relations with Russia among the three. The increase in security Lithuania is seeking by adhering to NATO may prove illusory at best, and counterproductive at worst, if Russia, as is widely expected, will flex its muscles upon enlargement. Arms (including nuclear) could be deployed to the Western parts of Belarus and possibly even to the Russian region of Kaliningrad on the Lithuanian border, in violation of existing arms control agreements. This would put both NATO and Lithuania into a highly uncomfortable position.

Although, under current circumstances, direct Russian aggression against any of the Baltic states seems unlikely, it is not entirely certain whether NATO could, in an aggression scenario, live up fully to its guarantee of territorial defence, due to the possible escalation this might provoke.

Yet at the same time, Russia will be wary to raise the temperature too far over NATO enlargement, since Russia, while being loath to admit it outright, has too close and too important ties to the west to jettison carelessly. Russia’s genuine problems clearly lie elsewhere, especially in the field of internal reform, which should keep it from insisting too much on its wounded pride of losing yet another slice of its ’near abroad’. At the same time, however, many within Russia would see a shouting match over NATO enlargement as a welcome distraction from their current internal problems. Caution and reason is therefore called for on all sides.

Bigger or Better ?

NATO’s current transformation from a military alliance into a more geo-political organisation has only just begun. After more than forty years of cold war and ten years of euphoria mixed with uncertainty, NATO still has to find a new role on the fast evolving European scene. The debate on NATO’s future role has only just started, but there is a clear need for more consultation with partners such as Russia rather than adopting one-sided solutions.

Although Russia should not be given a veto over NATO decisions, its interests and fears should be taken into consideration and discussed. NATO should therefore avoid antagonising Russia, especially against the background of the not yet fully formed US foreign policy towards Russia, including divisive issues such as Missile Defence and the suggested abolition of the 1972 ABM treaty. Within NATO, both Germany and Britain are said to be particularly wary about hasty enlargement to the Baltics, fearing that this would only unduly alienate Russia, with whom both enjoy stable relations at present. Their points should definitely also be heard.

Given upcoming EU enlargement to the three Baltic states, there is also far too little discussion about the link between NATO and EU enlargement, especially the latter’s security ambitions, part of which could absorb the some of the growing desire of security of the Baltics.

Finally it must also be made clear again to the entry candidates that the military and political effort demanded on them will be huge. This is especially important in light of the sluggish integration of the three current newcomers which has not always been satisfactory.

There is no doubt that the three Baltic states are fully entitled to join NATO, yet the time is not yet ripe for them to enter the Alliance now. Before this can happen, they have to clear up their internal matters, especially with regard to their Russian minorities, and in this context also stabilise their relations with Russia. There is therefore a lot of homework to be done.

The message to be sent next year in Prague should make it clear that the three Baltic states will eventually join NATO and that they are no longer in Russia’s zone of influence, which would otherwise amount to a revival of the ideas of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. After all, is Russia afraid of three small states on its western fringe ? The message should be that NATO accession is about politics, cooperation and values rather than about pure military considerations.

The ultimate aim should therefore be to have, besides a bigger Europe, not only a bigger NATO, but also a better one.

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