Baltic States’ Opportunity to Shine in Regional Politics

The Baltic States’ troubled history with their giant neighbour to the East and nearest nuclear power is well known. Since their admission to NATO, their relations with Russia have been colder than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. Some of the reasons for this is not of their making. Rather, it is the persistent mistrust of NATO and the West, stemming from decades of Cold War, which converges, in their case, with what they call fifty years of foreign occupation and Soviet/Russian domination.

It must be said, in fairness, that Russia also has a right to her own security, and it views with concern and hostility the enlargement of NATO to its borders and the deepening of Allied defence initiatives aimed at making its newer members more militarily capable. As a result, Russia has attempted to neutralise the border areas and establish some political and perhaps strategic breathing space between it and “continental” NATO. In this brief, I will not dwell on the psychological injury that the loss of the Baltic States represents for the Russian political class. Neither will I dwell on the Baltic States’ inherent right to self-determination and independence and its significance for the population of those States.

The analysis below shows that the Baltic States are being presented with a golden opportunity to shine in their own region, thereby affirming their independence, but at the same time contributing to NATO-Russia security and their own as well. This opportunity is presented by the new START treaty, signed in Prague on April 8, 2010. In this paper, I will argue that the reductions aimed at by this agreement brings into sharper focus the need for small states such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to ensure that the force structure on their border is as low and as transparent as possible. In this particular case, force structure is defined in conventional and nuclear terms. Therefore, this paper addresses the need to re-start CFE negotiations with a view for general ratification of this Treaty, and also the necessity to consider short and medium range nuclear disarmament in that region as a connected issue. The hypothesis is that small NATO members have a stake in linking conventional arms control and tactical nuclear disarmament not only for hard security guarantees, but as a manifestation of their value as security contributors.

Review of Recent Developments

The current era can certainly be defined by the strategic terrorist attacks perpetrated by Al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. Beyond that, however, the conjugation of interests this has created between Russia, NATO and the United States (because Chechen and Al-Qaeda terrorism were one and the same), has trickled down to greater understanding in matters of nuclear disarmament.

On the face of it, the fear of a rogue or Islamic fundamentalist State acquiring missile technology initially opened the door for the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems by the United States, but the fear of lateral proliferation also spurred disarmament progress.

On 24 May 2002, the United States and Russia signed the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) which proposed deep cuts in their respective nuclear arsenals, to be made by 2012.[1] When the United States announced it was withdrawing from the ABM Treaty in December 2002, it gravely alarmed Russia, because the withdrawal was directly linked to the intention of deploying ABM systems in Europe while the United States retained significant nuclear capability. This decision followed the decision to invite, in November 2002, the Baltic States (along with Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania) to join NATO. The combination of decisions predictably angered Russia.


Logically, Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) deployment coupled with strategic offensive weapons reduction should not be seen with alarm, but often, politics and decision-making find their sources in powerful emotions. I have argued in 2005[2] that any shift away from the offensive, which the ABM Treaty indirectly called for, to a defensive posture, which is what missile defence is all about, had to be accompanied with dramatic reductions in the number of warheads. Previous disarmament and arms limitation negotiations had focused on the number of launchers, rather than warheads. The 2010 START Treaty, an initiative aimed at lifting the nuclear Damocles’ sword from above peoples’ heads gives the SORT initiative of 2002 the verification mechanisms that it lacked.[3] After the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF: USA-USSR, 1987) has gotten rid of systems within the 500-5000 km range, only short range weapons remain outside arms control regimes.[4] The result is that conventional forces and tactical nuclear systems become the default deterrence tools for all sides. For small states, both large conventional forces and tacticalnuclear weapons acquire a “strategic” significance.  The Baltic States are most at risk from these weapons from both sides, due to their diminutive sizes, geographic location, and the heavy concentration of population in a few large cities.

In December 2007, Russia announced its withdrawal from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty, 1990) after a moratorium established in July, citing NATO Allies’ reluctance to ratify the 1999 version of the Treaty. However, the Allies’ reluctance is connected with Russia’s persistence in maintaining troops in Georgia and Moldova.[5] Even if the Allies were to ratify and implement their limits (which they have, implicitly, through non-deployment and limitations in budgets) Russia would likely point to the danger posed by the installation of ballistic missile defences as a cause for non-reintegrating the Treaty. The Baltic States have committed to join the Treaty after they joined NATO, but have said they cannot do so unless the other Allies ratify it. Similarly to nuclear weapons of any range and nearly any yield, the Baltic States are at risk from large scale conventional attack (which does not mean that any is imminent). The CFE Treaty, if reanimated, has the potential of shielding the Baltic States from this danger.


The Promises of Linkages

Usually the bête noire of international negotiators and diplomats, the linkages between unrelated issues can be reversed for the benefit of both Russian security and Baltic regional security. The history of the end of the Cold War has been at best a history of missed opportunities, and at worst one of broken Western promises, and ill-considered muscle-flexing.[6] Here, however, this legacy can be overcome.

One of the critical objectives for the Baltic States should be of gaining physical assurances that they are not threatened by any conventional forces. There is in fact nothing that prevents them from signing and ratifying the CFE Treaty. In doing so, they would be seizing a historical chance to lead by example in an autonomous way, and open the way to the achievement of two singular goals, one domestic, and the other regional. The domestic goal is not really a goal, but a statement of common sense. The Baltic States’ economic and financial structures cannot readily afford the sort of armed forces that can match current Russian capabilities the way say, the Georgians have attempted to do in the Caucasus between 2007 and 2008.[7] Doing so is ruinous and potentially counter-productive in the current context of Russian relations, especially in Estonia and Latvia, where sizable Russian minorities remain. On the whole however, joining the CFE Treaty makes sense because the Baltic States cannot muster forces that would be larger than the size authorised in the statutes of the CFE text anyway.

Joining the CFE Treaty would also put Russia in front of its own rhetoric on both NATO-Russia relations and Russian-Baltic relations. For years, Russia has criticised the Baltic States (Estonia and Latvia) for their treatment of Russian-speaking minorities. While the curtailment of political freedoms is regrettable, it has never been detrimental to the enjoyment of life and liberty. Furthermore, in the years when Russia felt betrayed by the U.S. administration over “promises” not to enlarge NATO (as it was purported in the Russian press at the time), the Baltic States were cautious in their granting of equal rights, lest a fifth column emerge. Similarly, the “promise” of no NATO bases in new members seems to have been broken when NATO established air policing services in Siauliai, Lithuania. Four airplanes from a third party hardly make an air force, however. Still, there are fears that a tactical nuclear capability could exist “in-being” if that situation continues.[8]

Under circumstances of large force agglomeration, the reflex of leaning too heavily on high-yield weaponry such as tactical nuclear weapons becomes predominant. As was seen above, if the Baltic States lead the way in joining the CFE Treaty, they could signify to the other Allies that it is safe to do so, and by doing so and abiding by agreed limitations, could steer the region away from the need for tactical nuclear devices, as Russia would find a guarantee that the NATO force structure on its flanks would be predictable and transparent, as the CFE Treaty rules would give her rights of inspection that could assure her of the conventionality of the forces on her borders.

The Baltic States have an even greater stake in limiting the nuclear weaponry that could affect them in case of an accident or a misunderstanding. The CFE Treaty opens the way for a qualitative evolution in regional relations which the Baltic States can take ownership for. Allowing for the passage of enough time, Russia could be convinced to undertake a decisive push towards tactical nuclear armaments limitations. To cement the new quality of that relationship, the creation of a new regional disarmament regime could be linked to Russia’s integration into the World Trade Organization, which would mean that Georgia, which is already a member, would have to lift its instinctive objections. In this particular event, the Baltic States, acting interchangeably or in concert over a common policy of regional disarmament, could simultaneously pilot the negotiations between Russia and Georgia, and take the role of mediator between the United States and Russia, both of whom have nuclear weapons of less than 500 km range (which fall outside NPT definitions).[9] Doing this would obviate the impression that every initiative of the kind is guided from Washington, and that any pronouncement from Brussels or any of the NATO capitals is really the writ from the US President.

As for ballistic defence, so dear to Central Europeans, it would become moribund for having little or no threat to defend against, but would nevertheless confirm the achievement of a viable defensive transition between NATO and Russia. The new Patriot missile defence batteries delivered in Poland on 28 May 2010 seek to alleviate the concern that there are no NATO troops on Polish territory ten years after accession.[10] It is expected that this air defence capability would be operated within a set timeline by Polish authorities, and that the systems would be integrated into the wider NATO network.[11] In short, this means that the political command of this capability would become multilateral, and not associated with the offensive capability of a strategic or tactical nature of any particular State.

Evidently, at some point, the clout of a powerful country will have to push things through, but the gentle suasion of smaller actors can also be helpful. World Trade Organization acceptance of Russia depends in large part on Georgia, and its ascent has to be rewarded also. In her case, CFE Treaty limits would also sooth conventional security guarantees, but her territorial integrity remains in doubt after her short conflict with Russia in August 2008. If WTO accession is exchanged for guarantees on her territorial integrity, then the frontier between NATO and Russia could become fully non-nuclear, and what’s more, WTO membership would open the way to a relationship based on trade and trust, rather than on chronic apprehension and suspicion.

Mostly, however, this achievement would be the work of small actors, who have a legitimate voice in their own affairs and in the affairs of their region. This would be a testament to their sovereignty and independence; because they would take this constructive approach not on necessity – in many quarters there are actors quite pleased with the status quo – but because they can. The difficult part is not sounding triumphal.



[1]  Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT),, accessed 3 June 2010.

[2]  Frederic Labarre, “Is Missile Defence Moral?”,International Journal, 60:2, Summer 2005.

[3]  Steven Pifer, “New START: Good News for U.S. Security”, Arms Control Association, May 2010,, accessed 3 June 2010.

[4]  Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 1-27.

[5]  “Moscow Moratorium of CFE Treaty to Spur Ratification – Official”, RIA Novosti, July 2, 2007, online,, accessed 3 June 2010. See also “Russia Suspends Participation in CFE Treaty”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 12 December 2007, online,, accessed 3 June 2010. It must be noted that none of the NATO Allies have ratified the 1999 version of the CFE Treaty, while Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine have.

[6]   John Feffer, Beyond Détente: Soviet Foreign Policy and U.S. Options, (New York: Noonday Press, 1990), 55-59, demonstrates Soviet overtures to disarmament as part of then President Gorbachev’s “reasonable sufficiency” policy.  Later, during the Yeltsin years, even President Clinton’s personal assurances that there would be no rush, no surprises and no exclusions in NATO enlargement (meaning the even Russia might someday qualify as member) before 1996 were interpreted as deceiving when a NATO communiqué announced that 1995 would be a year when the Alliance would study the issue of enlargement. See Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy, (New York: Random House, 2003), 136-146.

[7]  “Oboronnye raskhody Grusii v 2008 godu uvelitchatsa do $1 mlrd”, RIA Novosti, 5 July 2008, (Defence spending of Georgia for the year 2008 increases to 1 billion USD, author’s trans.), accessed in April 2009.

[8]  Alexander Pikayev, Tactical Nuclear Weapons, International Commission on Nuclear and Non-proliferation and Disarmament, 2009, 5. “These weapons can be delivered to their targets not only by American bombers but by aircraft of other NATO member countries, in particular by the F16 fighter planes from Belgium and Netherlands, and also by German and Italian Tornado bombers.”

[9]  Ibid. 4.

[10] “Patriot Missile Battery Arrives in Poland”, Reuters, 28 May 2010,, accessed 3 June 2010.

[11] “NATO Expands Theatre Missile Defence Test Facility”, NATO website, 1 June 2010,, accessed 3 June 2010. See also George Friedman, “The BMD Decision and the Global System”, StratFor, 21Sep.2009,, accessed 3 June 2010.