Interview: Dr. Andrew A. Michta on NATO's defense of the Baltics

Dr. Andrew A. Michta is Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Fluent in Polish and Russian, Dr. Michta has focused his professional life on international security, NATO and Central Europe and the Baltic States.

It could be said that, after the end of the Cold War, NATO focused its threat perceptions on non-state actors as opposed to state to state threats. Do you think this has shifted since the Crimea annexation in 2014?

I am not sure that NATO shifted its focus after the Cold War; it shifted predominantly after 9/11, at least from the United States perspective. After the end of the Cold War, NATO was looking for a mission. The security environment dramatically improved in Europe with the decomposition of the Soviet Empire and the unification of Germany. You had the “peace dividend” but you also had the enlargement process, which became a formula for stabilizing the post-communist space.

Today, it seems like a foregone conclusion that NATO would enlarge, but I remember the discussions initially and there was tremendous concern about a gray zone developing in Europe. All of a sudden, the former eastern European countries started bordering NATO, so the security and stability of those countries became a very important national interest for Germany and the larger transatlantic Alliance.

NATO for me, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire to 9/11 was performing largely an enlargement mission - a political mission more than strictly a defense mission. The key event was bringing your region into NATO. Because two things happened, even though we never recognized the Soviet incorporation of the Baltics into the USSR, from the Russian perspective and the European perspective, the Baltics were part of the Soviet inner-empire.

The US approach, this was mainly Madeleine Albright who supported it, but also a lot of other people who were involved in the initial NATO enlargement debate, went for a batch approach. Meaning that we would go with a tranche of countries, rather than one country as it was during the Cold War. The criteria also changed, because we introduced the four criteria: you had to be a democracy, market economy, net contributor to the alliance and you could not have any border issues. There was a certain relative ease with which, at first, Poland’s membership was given, but the Baltics were the tough ones. The Brits, from my assessment at the time, wanted the individual states to continue to reform, and race for membership. The second approach was what we called the “Slo-Slo”, Slovenia and Slovakia, move South because the political cost would be lower. But the third one was the Baltic one and the argument of the people who supported Baltic enlargement, and I was one of them, was that we cannot allow the Russians to redline the Baltics because if we let it happen in the Baltic area, we would in effect be recreating the spheres of influence principle in Europe.

 

Would you say the threat perceptions have changed after the Crimean annexation?

2014 was a wake-up call. This was the shock to the system in Europe, because it essentially overthrew the presumed normative order of European security. For the Germans in particular but also across the region the idea has always been that borders cannot be changed by force. 2014 changed NATO back into, at least in terms of what was discussed, a traditional defense alliance. Which unfortunately for the Europeans means only here and now, and that is the missing piece. When President Trump was elected, he spoke about counterterrorism and traditional defense, that there had to be a way to combine the American expectations and requirements with what the Europeans were willing to do.

I sometimes tell my students, nations live in neighborhoods, depending on your size that’s how your neighborhood is shaped. So, as your neighborhood is the Baltic-Scandinavian-Central European neighborhood, all you see is Russia. But we (the US) are a global power, our neighborhood is global. The Europeans don’t even think in those terms, it’s all unidirectional and very local. Even a country as important as Germany, economically developed and powerful, has a regional security optic. This is only now cracking up because Africa came to Europe and the Middle East came to Europe. But in 2014, the sanctions were imposed, Putin basically kicked over the table of the diplomatic game that was being played with Russia and he redefined the terms. The American response has been to reassure, by establishing our Enhanced Forward Presence, the two NATO Summits in Wales and Warsaw, and now the third one in Brussels. We put trip wires in place and it’s very important that you have multinational battalions in your country, that we do the exercises.

 

Do you think there are benefits to the rotating NATO presence as opposed to permanent troops?

This is not the right question now because the real question is the scope and the size of what you have. General Hodges, when he was commander of US Army in Europe, said, I have 30,000 army troops I need to make them look like 300,000. And my response was always – Ben, the Russians can count. I remind you that the Russian army is not the Soviet army, this is not the Warsaw Pact-era threat. The reality is, politically permanent stationing will always send a stronger message than rotational. Having said that, politics is the art of the possible. We have within the alliance come up with a solution that everybody can live with, for now. The most important thing in this is, what happens if the wire gets tripped? Because right now the assumption is that the Russians would not dare to move into the Baltics, because that would get them into a conflict with the United States and the NATO alliance.

 

This also goes back to the NATO-Russian Founding Act, in what kind of a security environment do you think it could be circumvented? If it could?

I think the Act has pretty much been nullified considering that Russia invaded a sovereign country. Even people who oppose permanent bases in Poland or further in the Baltics recognize that. The question is then, what do you do with this problem? The biggest challenge facing NATO in my view is the fragmented regionalized security optics of the different member states. In the Cold War whether you were in France, Germany or wherever, the overarching threat of Soviet power was such that there was a broadly held consensus that in the event the proverbial balloon had gone up, we would have been all in it together. Right now, if you travel across the region, if you go to the Baltics, when I talk to diplomats or military people, they tell me Russia, Russia, Russia. Same in Poland.

I go to Germany, it is Russia still but not as a threat directly to Germany, but to the European rules-based order. I go to France it is the south. So that means that in an event of a crisis, maintaining that consensus is the biggest challenge that we have.

A friend of mine used to say, what if the Russians moved the border post in Estonia by 500 yards, or into Latvia? I bet your government would invoke Article 5, that you are being invaded, and ask for help. I’m sure that people along the flank from the Poles to the Swedes, even though the Swedes are not in NATO, would support you. What would be the reaction if you start traveling West? So, would the response be automatic in Germany? What about the French? Maintaining solidarity in the alliance is critical. That is why I am always skeptical of building sub-regional arrangements. They are useful when it comes to economic cooperation, but they also create a sense of fragmented space. Europe is divided as it is: on immigration issues, national identity, policy. If you are in a Baltic state, you are basically on the frontier, these are very serious considerations. The alliance also has a serious problem with its logistics and infrastructure.

 

How would you evaluate the infrastructure. Do you think it is sufficient for combat readiness?

There is sufficient combat readiness because the United States and some of the European allies have the assets they can bring to bear. The question is, do we have the infrastructure to bring those assets. The United States is looking at our presence in Europe right now, but the problem remains just as during the Cold War. In an event of a military conflict there needs to be a massive movement of US assets into Europe and also movement of allied assets across the continent to the point where they are needed.

During the peace dividend years most of the infrastructure that was in place has been dismantled or has not been upgraded sufficiently. I’m talking about harbor capacity to offload US military equipment, I’m talking about bridges. Tanks got heavier, platforms, trailers carrying tanks are heavier. There needs to be a significant upgrading of roads, bridges, fueling capacity, access to rail... If you don’t have an infrastructure to allow you to exercise this capacity, your deterrence suffers.

I want to be on a deterrent posture to deter an attack on a NATO ally like your country rather than be in the defensive position when things have already happened. I was recently in Tallinn; the Baltic states realize this, and they know that in the event the worst happens, they need to make the Russians pay the price until NATO responds. But for NATO to respond it has to be able to get there, so you have deficiencies in air and missile defense all along the flank, a very serious one also across Europe. NATO has a host of problems. A large segment of the European member cohort has disarmed and continues to refuse to arm. It tells us something about the overall threat perception in Europe and how the elites and public are looking at these issues.

 

Looking at the defense budget increase calls and what you just said about disarmament, wouldn’t you say that there is also an increased need for a defense reform to be able to absorb any kind of budget increases?

Yes, there is, but first show me the money. There is nothing magical about 2%. The importance of the 2% of GDP on defense is that, this is a commitment that member states undertook at multiple summits and only a small cohort is meeting that criterion. So, there is a reason why in our new National Security Strategy that was issued last year, we not only talk about the 2% GDP, but also that money should be spent on usable capabilities. What I’m trying to communicate to my European friends, is that our President is very clear on what is expected. The issues of equitable burden sharing are very serious in my opinion, and unfortunately, in the debates in Europe it is being reduced to talks about “crass transactionalism.” Allies need to provide their fair share of what needs to be done. And I emphasize fair share. Denmark could spend their entire national income on defense and it would not be any more unsafe than if it spends nothing as long as it remains within the alliance. Somewhere in-between these extremes there is equitable commitment.

 

What would you say are the biggest challenges of the Eastern flank’s militaries in terms of budget or the capabilities?

Right now, I think air and missile defense is absolutely critical. As I say, for any reinforcement, any prepositioning, that has to be there... Having modern military forces that are interoperable with the US forces, being able to exercise and to provide a level of sophistication that is necessary to interact with us, is extremely important. If you look at the experience of the Balkan wars, we provided pretty much all of the top layer capacity in the alliance, when it came to the high-end capability. This was not just talking about the post-communist states and their militaries but NATO forces across Europe. Their capabilities have to be deployable if NATO is to deter any attack on the flank. Air Force that is only able to operate on the territory of its own country is not going to provide the necessary value to the alliance in a crisis.

I think Europe is going through a difficult transition, but I am optimistic actually that it the end it will get its bearings. I think the glass is half-full. In the final analysis, our political leaders in the United States as well as in Europe understand how essential we are to each other. We all need allies. Allies allow the United States to lower our costs and increase stability. I would argue that our overarching strategic goal in Europe has not changed: we want to suppress security competition in Eurasia, we want to make sure that there is no war on the continent. It is in our interests because every single time this region imploded it drew us in inevitably.

*The views presented are those of Dr. Andrew Michta and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Department of Defense or its Components.

 

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