Vladimir Putin and the Baltic States
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has only implemented Article Four of the North Atlantic Treaty six times over the past 70 years. The most recent occasion was on the day the military forces of the Russian Federation invaded the sovereign territory of Ukraine. That day was 24 February 2022. Whether provoked or not, this action prompted eight members of NATO — Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia —to invoke Article Four.
NATO Article Four states: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of the Parties is threatened.”
Whenever invoked, Article Four requires an immediate meeting of the Atlantic Council. The Council, in turn, must prioritize the stated concerns of these states and address them. Member states, however, have no obligation beyond consultations, but they do generally agree on taking a joint decision. Note that the critical article of the Atlantic Treaty is Article Five — the collective defense of member states. Not being a member of NATO, Ukraine has no relevance to the North Atlantic Treaty. The eight nervous members stated above have every right to be anxious — after all, the entire purpose of NATO was to defend Europe from a Soviet invasion.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Article Five has been invoked one time: 11 September 2001. While Article Four has been invoked more times, the current situation is unique in several ways. Previously, Turkey triggered Article Four on five separate occasions between 2003 and 2020 … in relation to Iraq and Syrian wars. Poland triggered it in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. We have not seen eight member states invoking the article simultaneously.
Secondly, previous invocations were unexpected. Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish fighter in 2012, Russia occupied Crimea in 2014. The United Kingdom and the United States have warned NATO about the high probability of a Russian invasion over several previous months. Therefore, while the Russian invasion of Ukraine may be shocking to some, it has not been unexpected to anyone paying close attention.
In response to Article Four invocations, Patriot Missiles were deployed to Turkey to protect against Syrian attacks in 2012. In 2003, early warning systems were sent to Turkey during the U.S.-led Iraq War. In this instance, however, NATO has not made any decisions linked directly to triggering Article Four respecting the Russian incursion — which is not to say that NATO has failed to respond. In fact, on 25 February 2022, NATO activated a force of 40,000 troops from member countries (the first time since 2003). Most NATO member countries have increased their military readiness.
In any case, all of the preceding would have occurred without an Article Four invocation; what the invocation did, however, is push the issue to the very top of the Atlantic Council’s agenda — with immediate effect. That nearly a third of the NATO membership have invoked Article Four illustrates the seriousness of their perception that the situation in Ukraine offers them a real and present danger to their own security.
Viewed from London, Paris, and Washington, Russia’s invasion may appear as if a new cold war is taking shape. But from the point of view of the Baltic states, the situation with Russia looks much worse. See map insert, left. Russia’s invasion prompted Lithuania’s president to declare a state of emergency; Latvia suspended the broadcast licenses of several Russian television stations, whom the government accused of spreading disinformation and propaganda. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were seized and annexed by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union during the Second World War … where they remained until 1991. In 2004, all three countries joined NATO — placing them under the protection of the United States and its Western Allies. Ukraine has no such protection.
Along with Poland, the Baltic states have become the loudest advocates for powerful sanctions against Moscow and NATO reinforcements on the alliance’s easternmost flank. Baltic officials have made the rounds to European capitals demanding the West’s action. Putin must pay, they argue. They demand. Lithuania’s foreign minister has said, “The battle for Ukraine is a battle for Europe. If Putin is not stopped there, he will go further.”
President Biden’s decision to move 800 ground troops, a few fighter aircraft, and some Apache helicopters into the Baltic states was met with enthusiasm. Of course, it was no more than a farcical exhibition; 800 men is no deterrent to a Russian army. And yet the Baltic states celebrated NATO’s resolve — and Putin shrugged his shoulders. Latvia’s secretary of state recently observed, “Russia always measures the military might but also the will of countries to fight. Once they see weakness, they will exploit that weakness.” This is no doubt true, which causes one to ask, “Why, with a mere NATO reinforcement of 800 men, are the Baltic States celebrating?”
During the week of 20 February 2022, Vladimir Putin said Ukraine is “not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.” The Baltic States don’t have the same cultural connection to Russian history and identity, but Moscow ruled them for most of the past 200 years; all three countries have ethnic Russian minorities. In Latvia and Estonia, Russian minorities make up about one-quarter of the population — a significant number.
Does Vladimir Putin want all the Baltic States, in addition to Ukraine? Putin has not said as much — but he knows that even in his silence, everyone is afraid of that very thing. But should Russia make that move, will NATO rigorously defend the Baltic States? NATO does have that obligation, but still questionable is whether NATO retains its resolve. There is no doubt that NATO officials have their war plan, and of course, it must remain a closely held secret. The relevant question: is Vladimir Putin willing to risk a major war with the NATO alliance to reclaim the Baltic States?
It is highly unlikely that NATO will “sanction” Vladimir Putin into compliance with western standards for international behavior. One of our favorite bloggers has an interesting take on why that is so. Click on over to The Lone Cactus and see what this blogger has to say.