The Next Threat to NATO

The Baltics are knocking at NATO's door. Don't let them in

Pledging to erase the "false lines that have divided Europe for too long," President George W. Bush, in a speech given in Warsaw last June, urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to extend invitations for a new round of expansion during its forthcoming Prague summit, in November of 2002. If that happens, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are likely to be among the next invitees, and may in fact be the only ones. The notion of creating an undivided Europe is an inspiring one, dating from the beginning of the Cold War; but by bringing into NATO countries that were once Soviet republics, the alliance would cross a line and create unprecedented long-term threats to its security.

To gather material for this article I recently began a trip to the Baltic states in Narva, a placid northeastern Estonian town bathed in sea breezes. Though small (its population is just over 72,000), Narva occupies a large place in Russian history. It was here, in 1700, that Russia launched its final campaign in a centuries-long quest to become a European power—attacking the Swedes, who were then in control of much of the Baltic coast. The battle ended in defeat for the Russians, but the war did not: by 1721 Russia had conquered the Baltic territories as far southwest as Riga (the capital of present-day Latvia) and had built a new capital, Saint Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland. Later in that century Russia, through a partition agreement with Austria and Prussia, gained control of the rest of the Baltics, and would retain it (except for the period between the two world wars) until the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991.

The Baltic countries have been clamoring at NATO's door since they achieved independence, also in 1991. They have found receptive ears for their demands on both sides of the Atlantic, and this is natural: ever since the Knights of the Sword and the Teutonic Order converted most of the Balts to Catholicism, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Baltics have culturally belonged to the West. The Baltic peoples purport to share the West's values, cited as "democracy, human rights and the rule of law" on the NATO Web site. "Values"—or at least those to which NATO refers—are no longer merely fodder for the rumination of philosophers or embassy cultural attachés; they have become casus belli, as NATO operations in Bosnia and Yugoslavia have shown, and the protection of them warrants sustained aerial bombardment, military occupation, and the establishment of de facto protectorates over non-Western peoples.

Since September 11 the proposed expansion of NATO has attracted new publicity, even urgency. NATO itself has returned to prominence, by invoking for the first time Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which states that "an armed attack against one or more [NATO members] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all." The alliance has welcomed offers of extensive cooperation from Russia in the fight against terrorism, but the possibility that NATO might encroach on former Soviet soil has provoked the Kremlin to warn of renewed tensions with the West and has disturbed the Russian public. Since its war against Yugoslavia, NATO has come for Russians to stand more than ever for Western aggression and interference in what Russia still regards as its spheres of influence (as evidenced by violent demonstrations in 1999 at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, protesting NATO's war over Kosovo).

While making unprecedented moves to help the United States and its allies do battle in Afghanistan, Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, has continued to resist the expansion of NATO into the territories of the former Soviet Union, which Russia calls its Near Abroad—a designation reflecting geographic proximity, shared history, and Moscow's presumed right to hegemony. During a visit to Brussels early last October, Putin stressed that although he favored a "widening and deepening" of relations between NATO and Moscow, he would not cease opposing the alliance's eastward expansion unless NATO evolved from a military to a "political" organization. This is improbable, given that for the first time in NATO's history a member state has come under attack.

Nevertheless, Putin's remarks bespeak how seriously Russia views NATO's encroachment on its Near Abroad. Moreover, his words may presage developments about which NATO planners would rather not think. If NATO expands to include the Baltic states, it risks acquiring a flash point for tension with Russia that could compromise, if not destroy, the alliance, just as the alliance is beginning to exercise its role as the bulwark of the West—a role that, this time at least, it has needed Russian assistance to perform. Although NATO's mission has been broadened since the end of the Cold War to encompass peacekeeping, the resolution of ethnic disputes, and even the promotion of economic progress, its primary goal is still, as the North Atlantic Treaty states, the defense of "the freedom, common heritage and civilization" of NATO members, and the promotion of "stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area." Put simply, any country that joins NATO must enhance the security of other member countries. If NATO confuses primary with secondary goals (as it did in Yugoslavia, where "values" motivated a military action that led to the deaths and displacement of thousands of Kosovar Albanians, an open-ended deployment of troops, and, eventually, the spread of Kosovo's ethnic conflict to Macedonia), it risks at best disunity, and at worst unwanted war.

NATO was founded in 1949 to defend against a Soviet attack on Western Europe. Although the Soviet Union exists no more, Russia retains 5,800 nuclear weapons; a chemical and biological arsenal; a military with at least 1.2 million soldiers that it has shown no hesitation about using, even against its own citizens (as the war in Chechnya illustrates); and a leadership that has made the restoration of great-power status a priority. The Kremlin continues to exert hegemony in the Near Abroad. It supports the pro-Russian Belorusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko and stations troops in Belarus; manipulates gas and oil supplies to Ukraine, Georgia, and other former republics, to ensure pro-Russian policies; and promotes common security and economic zones among members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which it dominates. As regards the Baltics, Russia has taken a subtle and clever approach: Russian borders with Estonia and Latvia have been demarcated, but the Kremlin, on "technical grounds," has refused to sign agreements that would enshrine them in law. (Recognized borders are a prerequisite for membership in NATO.) And in marked contrast to his predecessor, Putin has affirmed Russia's ties with sootechestvenniki (compatriots) in the Near Abroad, stressing that although ethnic Russians may be scattered among fifteen formerly Soviet republics, they make up a "unified people." These factors have prompted the Baltics to pursue NATO membership with understandable urgency.

What would membership of the Baltics mean for NATO? With a combined population of less than eight million and a location in a remote corner of Europe, the Baltics would offer minimal gains if they were to join the alliance, while posing unsettling strategic risks for Russia. Narva is only eighty-five miles from downtown Saint Petersburg—a distance that a tactical nuclear missile could traverse in mere minutes. The southernmost Baltic state, Lithuania, borders both on the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad (where the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet is located and where nuclear weapons may be stationed) and on Poland, a NATO member since 1999, when the alliance had its first round of expansion after the end of the Cold War. Were the Baltics' borders with Russia to become NATO's frontier with Russia, NATO would abut all of Kaliningrad's land borders and could therefore cut the area off at will. This and the potential proximity of NATO nuclear weapons to Russia's second largest city could, in a crisis, necessitate a hair-trigger state of alert on the Russian side.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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