The Baltic Dilemma of Power vs. Order

NATO is searching for a way to bring together proponents of power and supporters of order.

Last week, A. Wess Mitchell took to these pages to argue that a deterrence-by-denial approach for NATO’s most exposed frontline states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland) would make it militarily much costlier for Russia to attack our allies. In essence, Mitchell pleads for beefing up those states’ conventional defensive capabilities through training and equipping standing irregular forces, through supply of modern defensive equipment and milking favorable parts of geography, i.e., through flooding of transit routes in times of an attack. According to Mitchell, this localized miniature-type of deterrence by denial would “make it harder for an opponent to keep whatever territory he takes.”

While Mitchell deserves credit for highlighting the concerns of NATO’s frontline states, he misses two important aspects. First, he forgets to analyze which deterrence means are really needed from the perspective of those four states. A recent study found out that all frontline states would favor additional U.S. and multilateral (NATO) force deployments to their region—maybe even beyond the agreed measures of the 2014 Wales Summit. Disputes occurred, according to the authors of the study, mainly over the question of having permanent bases or persistent deployments instead. Interestingly though, Mitchell spends very little time on these important facts and suggests instead that the states in question should just prepare for a lonely struggle. This sends a very questionable signal and basically lets all other NATO countries off the hook on their support for frontline states.

Second, Mitchell’s proposal misses the need to create room for diplomacy, both within the alliance and vis-à-vis Russia. Particularly the latter point is surprising given that the custodian of modern deterrence theory, Thomas Schelling, always viewed the diplomacy tool of arms control as an inherent part of the deterrence logic. It is also surprising because NATO’s most successful defense strategies, such as the 1967 Harmel Doctrine, were combinations of elements of power and engagement.


The Dilemma of Power vs. Order

Mitchell’s sole concentration on deterrence by denial puts him in the corner of those who prefer a pure power response to the Russian aggressions. On the other side there are those who plead for more limited reassurance measures along the lines of the Wales Summit decisions, a resumption of high-level NATO-Russia dialogue, and a staunch commitment to the last remaining pillars of institutionalized order in Europe. Germany, but also Italy, Spain, Belgium and The Netherlands are amongst those allies that support a cooperative security order vis-à-vis Russia which relies on institutionalized arms control and confidence- and security-building measures as much as on strengthened defense. These states basically fear an unchecked build-up of arms in Europe.

At the surface, the question is whether allies should still feel bound by the commitments NATO undertook when signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. Back then, allies confirmed that they had no plans, “in the current or foreseeable security environment,” for the “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” on the territories of new member states. Russia committed to “similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe” in return. Some analysts, mainly in the United States, argue that Russia has already violated the spirit of the Founding Act with its illegal actions in Ukraine and that therefore allies are no longer bound to it. Particularly Germany vividly opposes this stance.

Below the surface, NATO’s Baltic dilemma is a dilemma of either giving preference to power or giving preference to order. Especially the understanding of what constitutes order and how allies define order differs amongst NATO allies. NATO’s Western European allies such as Germany remember the Cold War as an extreme period of constant threat and its demise as the result of the successful combination of American military commitments (power) and arms control policies (order). The former helped to deter a Soviet attack; the latter helped to avoid the worst unintended consequences of the military standoff. This collective memory has led those states to startle in pain every time another arms control treaty collapsed during the last years. It makes them cling to the last remains of institutionalized order and to define security not solely in terms of power.

In contrast, NATO’s Central and Eastern European members do not share this experience. Theirs’ is a memory of Soviet aggression and repression. For them, order is predominantly dependent on the actions of the most powerful. That is why these states do not look to Berlin but to Washington every time Russia issues a new threat.