by Ambassador Timothy A. Chorba and Ambassador G. Philip Hughes
American Ambassadors Review, Spring 2019
Northeastern Europe is nervous—and for good reason. NATO’s northern flank—facing Russia and its normally compliant confederate Belarus across its eastern borders—faces a variety of challenges:
the menace of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly assertive, aggressive, possibly revanchist Russia;
anxieties about the reliability of NATO’s Article 5 collective security guarantee in the face of initial equivocation by President Donald Trump during his presidential campaign and early months in office, as well as Germany’s military weakness, conspicuous foot-dragging on achieving its NATO defense spending commitments and doubts, born both of history and current German policies, about its trustworthiness and intentions toward the region;
frictions with the European Union (EU)—centered on efforts to sanction Poland’s eclectic, right-of-center government for its refusal to accept a quota of Middle Eastern immigrants flooding Europe, in part thanks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s invitation, and its supposed deviations from EU democratic norms—all of which raise questions about the status of the EU’s newer members to the east relative to its original members in western Europe;
the vulnerability of its—and its NATO allies’—energy supplies, the more so thanks to the Nordsteam II pipeline project to funnel Russian natural gas directly to Germany via an under-the-Baltic pipeline promoted by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom, lucratively chaired by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and embraced by his successor, Chancellor Merkel—which has prompted efforts among NATO’s northeastern flank allies (particularly Poland) to develop alternative, diversified energy resources for central and eastern Europe;
Russia’s continued occupation—and, now, incorporation into Russian territory, of Ukraine’s former Crimean peninsula, illegally seized in 2014, and its occupation and on-again, off-again military activities in eastern Ukraine—which, from Tallinn, Vilnius or Warsaw, look ominous, if not portentous.
A Council of American Ambassadors delegation visited Estonia, Lithuania and Poland in late-September 2018. (This was the Council’s third visit to Poland—after earlier visits in 1990 and 2004—but its first delegation to Estonia and Lithuania.)
Though our visit was brief in each capital—slightly longer in Poland, given its much greater size and sensitive geographic position—we enjoyed high-level access and candid conversations with each nation’s senior leadership. We hope that our visit provided, in a small way, one more demonstration of U.S. interest in and concern for the region, especially in the face of its current anxieties. For our part, our mission visit left us with some very strong impressions.
Having come through the “growing pains” of their initial post-Communist decades, these societies of northeastern Europe are thriving. Notwithstanding media and EU criticism of the domestic politics and policies of Poland, they are authentic, competitive democracies that present a vivid contrast with both their dismal pasts under Russian Communism and the societal realities to their east.
Each of the nations we visited strongly exhibited the same preoccupations and priorities.
Russian Threats and NATO
All three are extremely anxious about Russian threats to their security and independence, particularly in light of Russian President Putin’s often-belligerent posturing.
All three rely profoundly on NATO for their physical security—the bedrock of their freedom and economic security—and are solicitous to fulfill—or even over-fulfill—their obligations to meet NATO’s targets for defense spending as a proportion of GDP.
That said, it’s apparent that, for these NATO allies, “NATO” means the United States. If the United States and its security guarantee is “there” for them, then, as far as they’re concerned, NATO will be “there” to defend them. However, if the U.S. security commitment is weak, lacking or absent, these allies do not believe that the rest of NATO combined would be adequate to ensure their security.
For this reason, it is vital that the U.S. security commitment remain resolute; that U.S. leaders avoid, deliberately or inadvertently, sending signals that place our commitment to NATO members’ indivisible security in doubt and that the United States does as much as possible to strengthen NATO’s security posture in this region—perhaps NATO’s most geographically exposed flank. In the eyes of these nations’ leaders, anything less is an invitation to Russian probing and testing and, ultimately, to aggression.
U.S. Troop Presence
In consequence, all three nations’ leaders evinced to us strong interest in U.S. troop presence in this region—the nearer, the better. Our interlocutors in Estonia and Lithuania would have liked—and apparently would welcome—permanent U.S. troop presence in their territories, though they appreciated that this was not “in the cards.”
For the present, therefore, NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence for the Baltic region—with Britain assuming leadership for the NATO troop contingents rotated through Estonia; Canada leading the NATO members’ contingents rotating through Latvia; Germany leading the NATO contingents rotating through Lithuania and the United States leading those rotated through Poland—is considered enough by these Baltic partners. They seem to realize that it is better than the alternative, is the most that’s practically achievable at present and concretely engages four NATO partners—the United States, the United Kingdom, German and Canada—in their security.
Those with whom we spoke obviously recognized the sensitivities surrounding a permanent U.S./NATO troop presence in this region: that is, Russia’s likely strong reaction against any permanent U.S. troop presence, particularly in the Baltics, on principle; as well as the strategic and logistical complications of supporting any such presence such that, in actual operations, it wouldn’t become a cut-off “hostage.” Obviously, the size of any such presence would also be a sensitive point.
For our Baltic interlocutors, a permanent U.S. troop presence in Poland—which Poland’s current Law and Justice-led government has offered to host and support by providing basing infrastructure—would be “close enough” for their reassurance.
That said, geography in this region poses significant strategic perils for NATO: specifically, the Russian enclave in Kaliningrad (with its capacity for anti-access/area denial for NATO reinforcement of the Baltics and Poland) and the Suwalki gap between Kaliningrad and the Belarusian border that is the Polish-Lithuanian border (which, if cut, would isolate the Baltic states from land re-supply/reinforcement from continental Europe).
Energy Security against Russia
Each government with which we met evinced grave concern about Russian mischief with European energy supplies and grave misgivings about the implications of the Nordstream II project. This under-the-Baltic pipeline will deepen western Europe’s dependence on Russian national gas while increasing Russia’s potential for more complete energy blackmail of the Ukraine, as it will cut Ukraine’s pipeline transit revenues and substantially free Russia from concerns about satisfying gas customers to the west as it manipulates gas supplies to Ukraine. The Baltic governments we visited and Poland want this project stopped—but have lacked the clout, with Germany or within NATO and the EU, to bring this about.
In the course of our discussions, we were briefed on several examples of Russian “meddling” with the development of energy projects in adjacent countries and even in one NATO member state (Hungary) that strongly indicate that geostrategic—not merely commercial—interests motivate and dominate Russia’s energy initiatives in this region.
The European Union
All these governments are strongly committed to their membership in the European Union—seeing in this both the economic lifeline that parallels NATO’s security lifeline and a definitive statement of their commitment to, and integration in, the system of Western political and social values that distinguishes them from the East and positions them to play their constructive part in a wider international community.
That said, in Poland—and to a lesser degree, with the more “get along, go along” governments in the Baltic states—there is real concern about the development of a two-tiered membership structure in the European Union, and, potentially, in NATO—one in which Germany and France, backed up by Italy, the Benelux states and a few others, “call the shots” and everyone else is expected to “fall in line.” For small Baltic nations with populations ranging from 1.4 to less than 2 million inhabitants, relatively tiny economies and vulnerable geography, this may not seem to be such a bad deal. But for the largest nation in central Europe—Poland—whose 38 million inhabitants occupy strategically vital geography, enjoy a vibrant, relentlessly growing economy and exhibit a famously stubborn, fiercely independent streak—this doesn’t go down so well. A part of the upshot is the (until recently) escalating tensions between Poland and Brussels over Poland’s Law and Justice government’s domestic judicial reforms and policies.
It is apparent to these three governments that even the threat of the UK’s “Brexit” from the EU has really left unfazed Brussels’ and the bloc’s basic decision-making pre-dispositions. So they find themselves, in a way, “willingly trapped” in a community that they cannot do without and in which they very much want to be in but that they are almost powerless to reform and that they fear may, at any moment, make one or another—or all—of them scapegoats for the latest “politically correct” Brussels fad or campaign against those who fail to “toe the line.”
In sharp contrast to the furor then raging in U.S. and western European media over Poland’s Law and Justice government’s reforms of its judiciary and a law (subsequently amended) to criminalize references that impute responsibility to Nazi-occupied Poland for the Nazis holocaust crimes, we encountered a surprising degree of understanding and forbearance among our Baltic interlocutors for Poland’s situation and its government’s reform efforts.
Only the Deputy Chair of the Estonian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and a pair of scholars at Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security think tank repeated the by-then-canonical mainstream media and EU critiques of Poland’s reforms.
In contrast, senior officials of Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry, meeting with us as a group, acknowledged that Poland’s judiciary needed to be reformed and sympathized with Poland’s efforts to reduce the influence of former Communists in its post-liberation government, but they also acknowledged that Poland had done a poor job of explaining and communicating about its reform efforts.
Our mission concluded that:
This region merits heightened U.S. and NATO security attention, commitment and vigilance.
Extreme care needs to be taken, especially in word and deed, to reinforce, and not weaken, the U.S./NATO/Western commitment to these allies.
The dependence of NATO defense of the Baltics on reinforcement—particularly of critical air defense assets—on receipt of “strategic warning” needs to be reassessed in light of Russia’s growing anti-access/area denial capabilities and its possible deployment of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty-prohibited 9M729 or SSC-8 land-based cruise missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave.
It is in both U.S. security and economic interests—as we are now the world’s foremost, single energy producer—to take Russia’s geostrategic energy threat to NATO Europe seriously and, as a priority, to work with these governments—and other NATO allies, Germany chief among them—to reduce, not enhance Russia’s energy leverage over the Alliance’s security.
U.S. policy toward the European Union—reflexively supportive throughout the Cold War and afterward as part of the European bulwark against Russian Communist expansion—needs a “tune up” in light of the new realities of the EU’s greatly expanded membership and our own economic self-interest.
A measure of patience and independent judgment—as well as a calculation of our own interests—is in order in assessing and reacting to the domestic national decisions/policies adopted by some newer members of NATO/the EU, such as Poland. Following, lemming-like, the mainstream media ‘narrative’ and the nostrums of Brussels’ unelected EU bureaucrats may not provide a true, clear and balanced picture of these developments, their rationale and their consequences.
In late September 2018, a delegation of the Council of American Ambassadors visited Tallinn, Estonia (September 23–25), Vilnius, Lithuania (September 25–26) and Warsaw and Krakow, Poland (September 27–29). In each capital, we were briefed by the U.S. Embassy country team and were received by senior officials of the government and, in one case, a Member of the European Parliament.
Estonia: Juri Luik, Minister of Defense; Rainer Sak, Secretary General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Vaino Reinart, Deputy Secretary General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, Deputy Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Estonian Parliament; as well as the Director and staff of the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) and the Estonian Center for Eastern Partnership.
Lithuania: Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of Defense; Darius Skusevicius, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, and his team; and scholar Dalia Bankauskaite.
Poland: Dr. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Chairman, Law and Justice Party; Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki; Minister Antoni Macierewicz, the Deputy Leader of the Law and Justice Party and former Defense Minister; Piotr Naimski, Secretary for Strategic Energy Infrastructure in the Chancery of the Prime Minister; Deputy Minister of Defense Tomasz Szatkowski; Under Secretary Bartosz Cichocki of the Foreign Ministry; and Professor Ryszard Legutko, Member of the European Parliament.
As the victim of a paralyzing Russian cyber-attack in 2007 (over the removal, from a prominent to a remote spot, of a Soviet war memorial), our Estonian interlocutors impressed upon us:
Their security anxieties in the face of rising Russian assertiveness under Putin[U4] ;
Their dependence on NATO for their security and the priority they place on meeting their defense spending commitments in line with NATO’s agreed-upon guidelines;
Their appreciation for the post-Crimea-invasion NATO initiative for rotational Enhanced Forward Presence under UK command;
Their wish for a permanent U.S. troop presence “in the neighborhood”—if not in Estonia itself (which logistically would be too taxing and too provocative toward Russia), then as nearby as possible;
Criticism of the Trump Administration’s dislike for multilateral trade agreements and its propensity to raise tariffs or impose economic sanctions on short notice, as well as its general skepticism of the World Trade Organization (WTO);
Pride in the vibrant economy Estonia has developed since its liberation from the Soviet Union, with a digital technology focus that has spawned many successful companies developing and exploiting distinct technological niches;
Estonia’s consequent ability to host NATO’s “center of excellence” in cyber security and cyber warfare—since Estonia has been the only NATO member thus far victimized by an identifiable major Russian cyber-attack.
Our discussion with the Tallinn-based ICDS underscored how critical air defense is to Estonia’s and NATO’s ability to mount any kind of viable defense of its (and the other Baltic states’) territory. Yet Estonia’s (and the Baltics’) air defense infrastructure is very thin—almost completely lacking—and defense plans are based on reinforcement from western Europe in advance of the outbreak of any conflict. However Russia’s growing anti-access/area denial capabilities make this a doubtful presumption. This seemed to us a conspicuous vulnerability crying out for attention.
Estonia is obviously proud to host the EU’s Center for Eastern Partnerships, the mechanism through which the EU works to both strengthen the civil societies of the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and to deepen relations with each of them. Results to date have been mixed; the closer the “Eastern Partners” governments are to Russia, the more difficult is the work, and the more limited and confined the progress.
Our Vilnius meetings began with Defense Minister Karoblis presenting Lithuania’s defense challenges and priorities, contributions and obligations to NATO, participation in NATO out-of-area operations, etc. The Minister became highly animated at a question about Russia’s challenge to NATO’s energy security—in the process sharing with us one of the most startling revelations of the trip. (Minister Karolbis had previously served as Minister of Energy.)
We learned that Russia is building a nuclear power reactor in western Belarus, approximately 20 km from the Lithuanian border and, consequently, quite close to the capital of Vilnius, with the agreement of the government of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The Russians were boasting that it would be both the quickest and cheapest construction of a nuclear power reactor to date—but neither Russia nor Belarus would share any technical data or permit any outside inspections of the construction by Lithuania or the EU, despite repeated requests. Lithuania acknowledges, of course, that the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus is a sovereign matter, and Belarus is free to accept the Russian construction if it wishes. However, against the backdrop of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in what is now Ukraine, Lithuania—and, evidently, the EU—consider it reasonable to at least ascertain that the plant is being built and will be operated to the latest and safest engineering standards.
Curiously, there is at present, we were told, no evident need or demand in Belarus—particularly in western Belarus, in the plant’s vicinity—for the volume of electricity the plant would produce. Rather, the siting and construction of the plant was intended to position Russia (and its Belarus client) to pre-empt Lithuanian/Baltic efforts at greater energy independence—e.g., in cooperation with Poland—by offering electricity supplies at below-market, implicitly subsidized prices as a lower-cost alternative to any other energy import scheme. This represents further evidence of Russia’s mischief with eastern/central European energy supplies and markets.
Our meetings served as a reminder of another crucial vulnerability in NATO’s northeastern flank: the narrow stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border between Belarus and Kaliningrad known as the Suwalki gap. In the event of conflict, keeping this stretch of border open will be a major challenge—for the overland supply-reinforcement of the Baltic states, while closing it off is assuredly a major, early Russian obje