The defense ministers of Estonia and Sweden concluded an agreement on defense cooperation Tuesday. The agreement outlines the key priorities for defense-related cooperation between the two countries, including procurement, education and training of defense forces, and information sharing. The agreement was signed in Estonia's second largest city, Tartu, with little fanfare or media coverage, generating limited reporting by a handful of Estonian news agencies.
The Baltic Burden
Despite the low-key coverage, the event is of more than just regional significance. The Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — are NATO's most geographically exposed member states. With no natural borders, and histories that are long on foreign domination and short on actual independence, the three are watching nervously as Russia resurges in its former sphere of influence. While the world media and great powers focus on the apparent revolutionary wave in the Arab world, Iran's intransigence and the U.S. wars in the Middle East and South Asia, the Baltic states' concern is right in the neighborhood. That is all the more why the world's attention elsewhere concerns the three Baltic countries, as nobody seems to be dealing with Russia's renewed power and clout on its borders.
The November NATO summit in Lisbon produced a strategic concept that — on paper — reaffirms NATO's commitments to the territorial defense of its members. In fact, the very alliance that guarantees the Baltic states' protection concluded a mission statement that welcomed Russia as a "strategic partner." The Baltic states want to see concrete actions that prove commitment to their safety by fellow NATO member states, but instead they see NATO founding member France selling advanced helicopter carriers of the Mistral class to neighboring Russia, with Moscow offering guarantees that the vessel would not be deployed in the Baltic Sea (but it's a ship; it can cruise to wherever the Kremlin wishes). Meanwhile, Poland, a fellow Central European state and a potential security partner in countering the Russian resurgence, is being courted by France and Germany to join the EU ruling elite.
Monday's meeting of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French and Polish presidents looks to revive the "Weimar Triangle" with regular meetings of the leaders of the three countries. At the press conference following the meeting, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said Russian President Dmitri Medvedev should join the Weimar Triangle discussions, to the nodding approval of French and German leaders. The underlying message was clear: Warsaw may be accepted as an equal to France and Germany — or close to it — if it acquiesced or at least closed its eyes to the emerging Franco-German entente with Russia.
Seeking Help Elsewhere
With Poland being wooed by Paris and Berlin, the U.S. consumed by the Islamic world and NATO quickly becoming aloof to their security woes, the Baltic states are turning to the one alternative in the region: Nordic states. The Estonian agreement with Sweden is one example of recent moves by the Baltic states to increase cooperation with the Nordic countries — Sweden, Finland and Norway — of which only Norway is a formal NATO member. Sweden has a history of being a power in the region, with Latvia and Estonia being part of the Swedish Empire until the early 18th century. It also has the most powerful military in the region, a strong armaments industry and a knack for standing up to Moscow in its own sphere of influence, albeit thus far only via the nascent diplomatic initiative, the Eastern Partnership.
With Poland being wooed by Paris and Berlin, the U.S. consumed by the Islamic world and NATO quickly becoming aloof to their security woes, the Baltic states are turning to the one alternative in the region: Nordic states.
There is talk of further integration. Estonia is already part of the European Union's Nordic Battlegroup — one of more than a dozen combat multinational units under tenuous EU command of which literally the only significance thus far, in terms of activity, has been the Nordic group. Lithuania has indicated interest to join the group by 2014. There is a possibility of signing a comprehensive Nordic-Baltic agreement on security policy this April to cover everything from peacetime natural catastrophes to actual common responses to military threats. There are even indications from London that it would be interested in becoming involved with such a military alliance. British involvement — considering London's military capacity compared to that of its fellow Europeans — would raise the profile of any potential Nordic-Baltic alliance.
But before one dubs the Nordic-Baltic alliance a potential mini-NATO in Northern Europe, one should realistically survey the cooperation thus far. The Nordic Battlegroup has less than 3,000 soldiers. The Baltic states' militaries are tiny and the willingness of the Nordic states to directly challenge Russia is highly questionable. Finland is working tirelessly to improve relations with Russia, as is Latvia, one of the supposedly threatened countries.
In fact, the Nordic-Baltic grouping may come as somewhat of a relief to the Franco-German core in Europe and even to Russia. For France and Germany, it could offer a welcome respite from the Baltic states demanding more concrete security guarantees. Paris and Berlin may, therefore, welcome Sweden's willingness to apparently shoulder the burden of reassuring the Baltic states.
For Russia, it will be a welcome reminder that NATO's own members are highly skeptical of the Cold War alliance's guarantees and are swiftly cracking into a number of far less threatening sub-alliances. Certainly, enthusiastic involvement by Sweden — or the United Kingdom — in the Baltic region militarily would be a problem for Russia. However, the image of NATO as a thawing ice float in the Arctic, falling apart into a number of regional subgroupings, is not necessarily threatening to Moscow.