Politicians and experts from the Baltic States continue to insist that Russia presents an imminent threat to their security, but the full commitment of the U.S. to NATO suggests otherwise.

Lithuania's Honor Guards perform during a celebration of the 26th anniversary of its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. Photo: AP 

The West had been warning against the risks of Russia’s threat for the Baltic states throughout March. The Estonian Ministry of Defense issued another report a month ago, stating that Russia was the only external force presenting a threat to the constitutional order of the country. 

After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, similar warnings have appeared on a regular basis. Most recently, the UK think tank Chatham House released a report warning of the potential for Russian aggression in the Baltic States, especially given Russia’s recent push to modernize its military.

But do these warnings have any basis in reality?

Since 2004 Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been members of the most powerful political and military bloc in the world – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). According to Article 5 of NATO’s Charter, “Attack against one… shall be considered an attack against… all.” This implies that an attack by any “external force” against a Baltic State would automatically trigger a response by all NATO member states.

It is fair to say that since the times of Hugo Grotius, the seventeenth century Dutch jurist, international law and international treaties have often been violated in critical situations by so-called “sword law.” The Baltic States have also the moral right to doubt the reliability of their Western European partners – not so distant history has seen examples of their failure to follow through on commitments. But the fact is that they have no reason to doubt the credibility of their main security guarantor – the United States of America. 

Security commitment of the United States  

It can be quite fairly stated that under the current disposition in the international arena, a situation in which the U.S. does not come to the assistance of its NATO allies in the event of an external aggression is close to impossible.

The important point is that NATO is the core element of the existing system of alliances and security guarantees of the U.S. This is why Washington cannot give it up in any circumstances without running the risk of undermining its status as global superpower.

It is worth stating that NATO was one of the first military alliances with the participation of the U.S., which had previously refrained from binding commitments in the field of defense. The conclusion of the Washington Treaty in 1949 started a new phase in the American grand strategy, as the U.S. finally completely abandoned the "Monroe Doctrine" of isolationism and turned to the projection of its accumulated power in the global arena.

The U.S. did not adjust to the world order anymore, but it became one of its creators. Military alliances and security guarantees, along with the credibility of the guarantor linked to them, have become the core of this strategy.

The grand strategy of “shaping” the world order based on the alliance system has found its continuity in the post-Cold War era in a number of U.S. National Security Strategies from then-U.S. President Bill Clinton to current American leader Barack Obama. The logic is simple: U.S. national security depends on its ability to manage the external environment and influence the course of events. This is mostly done by influencing American partners and allies who follow the lead of the superpower in exchange for security guarantees.

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Thus, the logic implies, if there are no guarantees, there is no influence on the world’s affairs. The level of credibility of the U.S. security pledge determines the level of its leverage in the world. This means that the credibility of the U.S. as a security guarantor for its allies, especially NATO allies, remains a priority.

In the foreseeable future, the U.S. strategy in this regard is quite unlikely to change under any president, since this would mean a loss of Washington’s status and the role of world leader, which clearly contradicts the major goals of American foreign and security policies.

Moreover, American politicians and scholars mostly debate about whether it is necessary to keep American engagement in world affairs at the same level or to increase it by conducting a more active foreign policy. Virtually none of the existing serious politicians or scholars expresses the thought of giving up the security guarantees to allies and retrenching to the Western Hemisphere.

Implications for the Baltic States 

All this leads naturally to the conclusion that the security guarantees that have been granted to the Baltic countries by the U.S. are more than just reliable, they are nearly ironclad. A refusal or evasion of Washington to meet its obligations under Article 5 of the NATO Charter would entail an actual disintegration of the Alliance, and, as a consequence, the credibility of the U.S. as a "provider" of security guarantees.

This would be an immediate threat to the whole U.S. alliance system and would call into question its status as world leader and superpower. At this moment, the U.S. is not ready to accept the loss of its hegemonic status in the international arena. Thus, the very unlikely situation in which Russia would attack the Baltic States using military force would inevitably end up with the military interference of NATO allies, or at least the U.S.

At this point, some might recall the famous “Johnson’s letter” written in 1964 by American President Lyndon Johnson to Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu during the crisis in Cyprus. In the letter, Johnson implicitly warned Inonu that, in the event Turkish involvement in the Cyprus crisis leads to a direct invasion of Turkey by the Soviet Union, NATO might not come to Turkey’s assistance. 

This was regarded by some as evidence of the non-binding nature of NATO security guarantees and a precedent leading to the erosion of the Alliance.

However, it must be noted that NATO was by default created as a defensive alliance and has only been obliged to come to the assistance of its members if they fall victims of an unprovoked external aggression. Should a NATO member take the first initiative of military involvement, as it might have happened in the case of Turkey in 1964, it cannot count on NATO anymore

Apparently, the principle contained in “Johnson’s letter” cannot be applied to the Baltic countries, which would never take the first initiative of military involvement against Russia. Thus, their security guarantees are as credible as that of the American leadership. It appears that currently Moscow understands this very well and has no plans to restore Russian influence over the Baltic countries even in a long-term perspective.

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However, the Baltic States’ leaders seem to ignore this truth and along with Poland continue to lobby for reinforcement of NATO’s presence in the region. This has led to certain results. For example, the U.S. is going to significantly increase their European military budget in 2017 while high-ranking NATO officials reiterate their intentions of strengthening NATO troops in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. All this adds a significant amount to the tension on the European continent. 

It is difficult to say that one side is fully responsible for the current crisis in the European security sphere, but if the Baltic countries took NATO’s security guarantees more seriously and reduced their political pressure on Russia, this could help to eliminate another obstacle to reconciliation in Europe.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.