If reports emerging out of Russia and Estonia are correct, the Russian Federation has now violated EU borders and those of a NATO partner, Estonia. On Friday, an Estonian police officer – and citizen of the European Union- was allegedly kidnapped from Estonian territory near the Russian border after smoke grenades were detonated and Estonian communications were jammed from the Russian side of the frontier.
Just as Putin continues his implausible denial of his invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin now claims that its secret police, the FSB, arrested the Estonian officer on Russian territory. The Kremlin’s latest provocation emerges as the Wales NATO summit wraps up and comes just 48 hours after US President Barack Obama declared to Estonians in Tallinn that: “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you’ll never lose it again.”
Russia’s action is a clear and undeniable violation of the borders of an EU country and a NATO member state which will test the immediate mettle of NATO and it’s resolve to act in Article 5 situations. Without an immediate condemnation of Russia’s incursion and without a symmetric response, NATO will be inviting Putin to continue his violent neo-Soviet expansionism into the Baltic States.
Despite Baltic and Polish appeals for a permanent NATO presence in the Baltic States, Germany and a few lesser allies have strongly opposed it, favouring rotating missions, such as the Air Policing Mission that Canada is currently involved with. Vladimir Putin’s actions today clearly indicate that he and his Kremlin mendacrats are actively planning to take advantage of Germany’s soft position, by prodding for vulnerabilities that will disrupt and discredit the entire concept of NATO collective defence. This is Putin’s primary objective. As Lithuanian Defence Minister, Linas Linkevčius stated on Friday: “I believe there is a reason why this occurred on the day of the NATO summit. It is an arrogant provocation.”
NATO must demonstrate that it will not be intimidated and will not allow its fundamental principals of collective defence to be warped by Putin’s mad ambition to recreate a new Soviet imperium.
If NATO does not respond with a permanent presence in the Baltic States to deter future Kremlin aggression, Putin’s next test will require a full and expensive Article 5 military response from NATO.
How might a manufactured Kremlin crisis in the Baltic States look and how might NATO respond? It would certainly be similar to the ones created by the Kremlin in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and may even borrow elements of the Kremlin sponsored 2007 Bronze Soldier riots in Estonia’s captial, Tallinn.
Russian government proxies in the Baltic States would request military assistance in response to a fabricated “ethnic crisis” to protect them from “anti-Putin hooligans” or some other monstrous creation of the Kremlin propaganda masters.
In such a scenario, the Kremlin would not be so bold as to immediately march Russian armies into the capitals Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius. But they may send their forces a few kilometers over the border to test NATO’s Article 5 response – just as they did on Friday in Estonia. Would NATO respond as they have to that incursion, or would the new NATO Rapid Response Team swing into action, guns ablaze to fulfill the protection that the Baltic allies are entitled to?
By announcing and creating a permanent NATO presence in The Baltics, NATO would avoid any potential military conflict with Putin’s armies through deterrence. Russia’s generals know that its lightly modernized yet completely demoralized forces would be no match for NATO. Deterring a conflict would save the lives of young Russian troops forced to serve in Putin’s military and would cost NATO members much less than a hot conflict.
NATO must not allow its member nations to feel threatened. Border incursions like the one on Friday raise national stress levels and can cause other intangible damage. Unlike Russia, the people of the Baltic States have through hard work and suffering, successfully rehabilitated themselves from the unspeakable trauma caused by 50 years of Soviet terror and repression. NATO rewarded The Baltic States for building strong and open democracies and economies that respect the rule-of-law by making them equal partners and contributors in NATO. Today, they face an actively belligerent neighbor and former oppressor. They deserve NATO’s full support and protection to preserve their own freedom and to preserve the NATO’s founding principles.