Baltics brace for the possible loss of United States as an ally

While Canada’s upcoming mission in Latvia won’t fully replace the support of the U.S., such signs of allegiance come as a relief to the region.

By: /
January 20, 2017
A U.S. paratrooper of the 173rd Airborne Brigade takes part in sky jump "Bayonet Strike" excercise in Adazi, Latvia, Sept. 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

For a long time Baltic countries have enjoyed a strong partnership with the United States, and in times of crises looked upon its leadership with high confidence that it would stand by its transatlantic security commitments.

As Donald Trump’s presidency begins, such assurances are clouded in uncertainty. His odd fascination with authoritarian figure Vladimir Putin, characterization of NATO as a ‘pay as you go’ organization, and his threats to walk away from traditional allies have unnerved the Baltic republics who have always counted on continuity in U.S. behaviour and its presence in the region. Given that America’s willingness to run global risks for others might be in question, Canada’s decision to send soldiers to the region is a welcoming sign.

The Baltics used to have the luxury of not paying close attention to the many twists and turns of presidential contests across the Atlantic. The predicament of the region, that these nations must be protected at all costs against possible Russian misbehaviour, was a consensus issue on Capitol Hill. Whoever got the keys to the White House promised unconditional support. This now might be changing.

While trying to parse every word from Trump’s Twitter account for better grasp of his strategic vision can be a misleading exercise, one cannot fail to notice his continuous treatment of the Russian Federation as possible ally and entity that can be negotiated with. Trump has offered unusually high praise for Putin, calling him “decisive” and “smart,” while displaying indifference to his habit of invading neighbours.

Trump’s inauguration coincides with the largest military buildup in Eastern Europe in decades with American tanks and armoured vehicles rolling in Poland and the Baltics. It is unclear how this reinforcement, put in place by the Obama presidency, fits the incoming administration’s brand of nationalism, and to what extent the new commander-in-chief will be willing to redefine the terms of U.S. engagement with NATO.

Given Trump’s total lack of policy experience, much will likely rest on the shoulders of his advisors. Here the situation, as it pertains to the Baltics, is not one sided. During recent congressional hearings, Eastern Europe had a collective sigh of relief when nominee for secretary of defense, James Mattis, unequivocally backed the 67-year-old alliance. “If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it,” he told lawmakers.

What is more, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia still enjoy deep support in the halls of Congress. Recently touring the region, senior U.S. politicians John McCain and Lindsey Graham attempted to calm local populations that change of guard in the White House would not jeopardize American security guarantees. While continuity in congressional support is needed, it is questionable how much it could serve as institutional breaks should President Trump truly desire to shake things up. Until now, he has demonstrated no issue with digging in and going against his own party.

It is a challenge to summarize Trump’s worldview in one doctrine, especially because his views are often contradictory and can change daily. Generally though, he seems to favour a transactional foreign policy approach. That is, if you want something from the U.S., you must give something in return. Within the framework of NATO, out of three Baltic countries, only Estonia meets the alliance’s two percent GDP spending requirement on defence. As it is with many European countries, the American taxpayer has often ended up subsidizing defence capabilities of these nations. In this regard, Trump is correct to highlight that allies “aren’t paying what they are supposed to pay.”

American frustration regarding unequal burden sharing is not new. Even Barack Obama at one point was forced to admit “free riders aggravate me.” The question is how you deliver that message. Maybe from the viewpoint of Trump Tower, calling NATO “obsolete” serves a purpose — an attention-grabbing opening line that pushes others to reconsider defence budgets. Perhaps the brash millionaire is simply playing hard-ball with Europeans. But if you are a nation bordering Russia, such statements come across as serious blows to the foundation of Atlantic security architecture. Even if Trump does not follow through, his unfiltered tweets already have corrosive effects on the credibility of the organization. 

Good timing for a Canadian mission

At a time when America is talking about walling itself off from the rest, Canada’s re-engagement with NATO couldn’t come at a better time. As agreed during the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit, Canada will be establishing its largest military footprint in Europe in more than a decade with 450 troops, combat vehicles and equipment stationed in Latvia, beginning sometime later this year. Ottawa will lead a battle group working in concert with other allies such as Spain, Albania, Italy, Poland and Slovenia with a clear aim to deter Russia. To that end, Justin Trudeau's government has put aside close to $350 million over the next three years. 

It did not take long for Russia to protest this by portraying the formation of the battle group as a “distraction of resources and diversion from the real threats such as terrorism.” Over the years, Russia has systematically advanced the argument that NATO’s creeping closer to its doorstep only creates unnecessary tension. Moscow’s objections are misplaced. Those familiar with the history and dynamics of the region know well that the proportion of what allies have placed along the border pales in comparison to what the Russian side has with an estimated 300,000 servicemen based in its Western military district alone. It claims to be antagonized while carrying out exercises without notification along the border and provokingly circling around the Baltic airspace. In addition, it has regularly engaged in the dark art of spreading disinformation. Preposition of modest NATO forces serves as a sign of commitment between allies while absence of such force would be an open invitation to test the alliance's previously set red lines.

When it comes to Baltic security, America has been an indispensable nation. Canada is not a substitute for the heavy lifting that the U.S. has provided for NATO. A Canadian multi-national battlegroup will be badly outnumbered by the Russian troops across the border. Still, its presence in frontline countries does inject clarity and predictability in the organization at a critical time when there seems to be disruption of commitment from the alliance’s leading nation.

As pointed out by the Latvian ambassador to Ottawa, “everybody understands that 1,000 or 2,000 foreign troops do not make a difference if it’s a battlefield situation, but it makes sense in European psychology: in understanding we are not alone.

Former Estonian President Lennart Meri used to say that instead of Russia, he would rather have Canada for a neighbour. While that is not possible, at least for the next three years Canadian Armed Forces will be present in the region. For the Baltics, that is very encouraging.