The Historic Importance of NATO Enlargement

On 3rd April Lithuania hosted a conference in Vilnius to mark the 10th Anniversary of the biggest wave of NATO enlargement in its history. This is an edited version of my intervention.

Lithuania played an important role over ten years ago in initiating what was at the time called “the Vilnius process”. It was a process in which all the aspirant countries, encouraged and supported by our US friends on the Committee to expand NATO (Bruce Jackson and the late Ron Asmuss) worked together towards the “big bang” enlargement. The success of this endeavour speaks for itself.

In addressing the historical importance of the “Big Bang”, I would like firstly to remind ourselves about some of the challenges we faced at the time, give some comments on the current security situation in the Euroatlantic region and then conclude with a look ahead.


Challenges at the time

It is interesting to note that many of the challenges are still relevant today. Firstly, we had to defeat the proponents of the theory that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were “indefensible”. I was reminded of this issue when hearing references during the last few weeks that Ukraine could also not expect ever to join NATO because it could not be defended militarily.

We should remember what the Washington Treaty says about enlargement, namely, that membership is open to any “European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area”.

The sensitivities surrounding our being invited of course centered primarily on Russia. The catch phrase was that Russia “has a voice, but not a veto”. Given the recent events surrounding Russia’s occupation of part of Ukraine, the whole question of the “voice” that we hear from Russia has taken on an entirely new dimension. To quote what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote recently in the Washington Post: “Russia’s rhetoric can be described as a fantasy inside a delusion wrapped in a tissue of lies”.

The other challenge we faced was concerning the role of the US. After the accession of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, what would the new administration do?  It did not take long for the scepticism about US leadership on NATO enlargement to start to diminish. A positive message of encouragement was given during President Bush’s Warsaw speech in 2001 when he referred to “Europe whole and free from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea”.

But receiving the hoped for invitation was certainly not all “plain sailing”. Latvia had particular concerns, also about the US position. I recall a conversation with Victoria Nuland in the splendid surroundings of US Mission to NATO asking for my views about just one Baltic country being invited to join NATO. This was at one stage the policy being advocated by Lithuania. Estonia had at that time been invited to start negotiating for EU accession. This policy would have sent entirely wrong signal about Latvia and left us isolated in Euroatlantic integration process.

In spite of these different nuances in our approach, the NATO integration process successfully forced the three Baltic countries to develop closer defence and security cooperation.  Helps us today to “punch above our weight”, was a precursor to what in meantime come to be called “smart defence”.  Our cooperation in defence and security is the most successful and refined element of Baltic cooperation and is regarded as such also outside the region. Today of course it forms the strong foundation for both moving from cooperation towards integration, and for expanding the cooperation to embrace the Nordic countries and even the Visegrad 4.

We have both together and individually successfully discovered the niches that give value to the Alliance. This is particularly so when we look at the NATO Centres of Excellence. Estonia captured the market for Cybersecurity with its centre, Lithuania did so on Energy security. By the September Summit in Cardiff Latvia hopes very much to have accredited our Centre of Excellence on Strategic Communication. Cybersecurity, energy security, strategic communications – if we look at the events of the last few weeks, it is clear that these are issues at the very forefront of challenges faced by the Alliance as a whole.


Current security situation

When Latvia  became part of the strongest military Alliance in the world 10 years ago, it was clear that we began to experience a greater sense of security than we had ever had in our history. In contrast, today, NATO faces the most serious threat to its Euroatlantic territory since the end of the Cold War.

Putin’s Russia has taken a course similar to Malaysia Airline flight MH370. A largely unpredictable and sudden change of direction that caused confusion and plunged us into an unknown situation, causing shock waves as profound as those that followed 9/11. The post Cold War order has been sunk. The fact that the current edition of the Economist mention the Baltic States in 3 separate articles about Russia’s actions illustrates how serious this situation is being treated.

Nevertheless, the events of the last month have also shown that NATO stands united in upholding its core values, in particular the collective defence of its members. It should continue to take speedy, firm, decisive and united action.

Just as in September 2001, we have witnessed this last month the ability of NATO to react in a speedy and flexible manner to Russia’s unprovoked unilateral aggression against its neighbour. Those pre- enlargement sceptics – and I recall that there were quite a few- who doubted that an enlarged Alliance could take speedy and necessary decisions with so many countries sitting around the table, have been proved wrong.

Let me mention just a couple of reactions by NATO. Firstly, following a request from Poland, the North Atlantic Council held consultations under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty on March 4th and agreed, amongst other measures, to intensify its on-going assessment of the implication of the crisis for NATO.

Then one week later, on  March 10, the NAC approved establishing AWACS orbits over Poland and Romania to enhance NATO’s situational awareness of activities in the region and to reassure allies. These aircraft only fly over NATO territory and come from the NATO fleet and allied contributions. They have been linked in to the NATO air exercises over NATO airspace in the Baltics during the last couple of days. The reinforcement of air assets to both Poland and the Baltics has also been important.

These measures were of course in addition to other bilateral actions taken by various member states and other international organisations. Clearly, the jury is still out on the question of how an increasingly unpredictable Russia will react further.

But we should not forget that these types of actions by a united Alliance are not so out of the ordinary. Alliance solidarity and resolve has also been expressed by the deployment for the past year of six Patriot missile batteries to Turkey so as to augment the air defence capabilities of Turkey to defend its populations and territory in view of the events in neighbouring Syria. This support also followed article 4 consultations and subsequent decisions by Allied Ministers of Foreign Affairs.


Looking ahead

In dealing with the current crisis over Ukraine, I want to mention three general aims for the foreseeable future.

First and foremost, the security and territorial defence of all NATO allies need to be guaranteed in accordance with the Washington Treaty commitments, signed 65 years ago and still of great relevance today. A mix of political and military actions have to continue.

Secondly, the credibility of NATO’s deterrence posture needs reiterating, perhaps even revisiting, in view of inevitable changes to threat perceptions by the Alliance as a result of recent events. This could mean a reinforcement of “boots on the ground” by NATO allies in areas where Alliance territory is perceived as being under increasing threat. Poland has called for two brigades to be sent. It should mean additional infrastructure. The recent NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting on 1st and 2nd April was encouraging in this regard.

Thirdly, we need to continue to support Ukraine both through NATO, but also other institutions such as the EU and the IMF. The economic situation is critical

But other matters also need to be addressed. Whilst mentioning the economy, I want to touch on defence budgets. The land grab of Crimea was a wake up call to increase defence spending that must be followed through by Governments that have lacked the political wisdom to devote sufficient resources to defence. Former NATO Secretary General George Robertson used to remind us that the biggest enemy of defence was the Finance Ministry. I had the dubious distinction of having to agree to a slashing of Latvia’s defence budget by some 50% at the height of our financial crisis in 2009. Given that 5 years later we are witnessing strong growth in Latvia, we need urgently to adjust our plans so that the 2% criteria is on course to be met in the next few years. We need to have parity with our Estonian neighbours as soon as possible. Additional money needs to be spent wisely and with integrity. Encouraging noises by Latvia’s  Prime Minister and Finance  Minister need to be acted upon. Upholding our freedom comes at a price. We cannot be free riders and rely just on our Allies. 

I would also like to stress how crucial it is to reject loud and clear the notion that aggression can be justified on so called grounds of “protecting compatriots”. This was the fiction that was used for Crimea, with haunting parallels to Hitler’s words and deeds in the Sudetenland in 1938.  Russia has now used this pretext to invade Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

There is therefore a need to concentrate on countering the aggressive propaganda campaign of disinformation. This has emanated from Russia not only in connection with Ukraine, but has also been consistently used as a soft power instrument by Putin’s regime during the last decade and more. Nothing indicates that it will abate. These actions all lend urgency to the need to grant accreditation to NATO’s  Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga by the time of the Cardiff Summit in September.

There can be no doubt that the events of the last month have helped to focus minds on NATO’s agenda for the Cardiff Summit.  Cardiff clearly will need to emphasise Allies’ unity in upholding the core values of collective territorial defence. And at the same time, the successful policy of enlargement – our raison d’etre here in Vilnius these days – surely needs also to be brought onto the agenda in a positive way. 

In closing, NATO’s new Secretary General Stoltenberg should remember the words of his predecessor Lord Ismay about NATO being there “to keep the Americans in and the Russians out”. But rather than keeping the Germans “down”, it is time to keep them “up”, together with all other members of the Alliance.

Published 07 April 2014

Author Imants Lieģis