Amidst continuing tensions with Russia, the Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—attached tremendous importance to achieving success at this year’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit, held in Brussels, Belgium, on June 14. Significantly for the Baltics, United States President Joseph Biden scheduled a meeting with the three Baltic leaders on the sidelines of the summit as a gesture of Washington’s enduring support to its allies. The quadrilateral discussion focused on three main topics of concern: 1) the Russian threat, underscored by Russia’s massive military buildup on the Ukrainian border starting in March–April; 2) the threats to transatlantic security posed by China; as well as 3) the May 23 episode of “air piracy” by the Belarusian authorities, who forced the landing of an Athens–Vilnius passenger plane in order to detain opposition activist Roman Protasevich (TVNET, June 14).
The three Baltic States approached the Brussels Summit with expectations that it would convincingly confirm the unity of the Alliance and strengthen transatlantic ties. As emphasized in a joint statement adopted ahead of the summit by their heads of government—Arturs Kariņš of Latvia, Ingrida Šimonytė of Lithuania and Kaja Kallas Estonia—the Baltics wanted NATO to provide a clear and firm assessment of the threats posed by Russia as well as a corresponding response from the Alliance. “Russia is seeking to destabilize NATO and undermine the security of Allies and Partner countries. The deployment of Russia’s military forces [as well as] its conventional and nuclear capabilities threaten Euro-Atlantic security,” the statement reads. Furthermore, the three prime ministers noted, the continued presence of Alliance forces in the Baltic States is a crucial and essential element of NATO’s overall deterrence and defense posture (Sargs.lv, June 7).
At the same time, the heads of the Baltic countries highlighted the importance of completing their “homework” inside the Alliance—further Baltic defense cooperation and the development of joint regional projects to strengthen the security of NATO’s eastern flank. And they reaffirmed each of their government’s commitments to increase defense spending to at least 2 percent of GDP. In turn, the Baltic States expect all NATO members to commit themselves to bolstering and modernizing NATO’s force structure in line with collective defense requirements in order to respond to any crisis or conflict (Sargs.lv, June 7).
Before the summit in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia and Belarus not to threaten NATO allies, following the forced landing in Minsk of the Ryanair jet carrying Protasevich. “We have seen in the past that Russia has massively violated the territorial integrity of countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova,” the Alliance’s civilian head noted, adding that NATO has a bilateral approach to relations with Russia consisting of deterrence and dialogue (Sargs.lv, June 6).
After the conclusion of the NATO summit, Latvian President Egils Levits suggested that the Brussels meeting of the Alliance turned out to be historic for two reasons. First, NATO members adopted a new strategic concept—“NATO 2030”—which sets out the basic principles for the transatlantic alliance’s work over the next decade to defend the interests of its member states and the values on which they are based. Second, Levits argued, it was a historic summit because the US took the opportunity to clearly and unequivocally reiterate its commitment to the other NATO allies; as such, the Alliance came away from Brussels united and able to defend its members’ interests and values. According to the Latvian president, NATO is, and will continue to be, the most successful defense organization in history thanks to the decisions made at this summit and because all members agreed that, in light of the present geopolitical situation, democracies must compete with authoritarian powers such as Russia and China (Lvportals.lv, June 14).
President Biden’s sideline meeting with the leaders of the Baltic States in Brussels additionally confirmed the US’s support and readiness to participate in strengthening NATO’s effective deterrence and defense potential in the face of growing geopolitical tensions along the Alliance’s eastern flank. “This meeting was really important for the Baltic States. The United States understands the threats facing the Baltic States and is well aware that Russia’s position is becoming more aggressive and that it is trying to integrate Belarus into its military structures,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda noted following the summit. “We have been assured that the United States considers our region strategically important,” he added. During the meeting with Biden, he emphasized that US participation in strengthening security and defense in the region is “the most important factor in controlling Russia.” According to the president of Lithuania, a larger US military presence in the Baltic States is highly desirable as “the best” and “most important” expression of Washington’s attention to the security of the region (Lrt.lt, June 14).
This year’s NATO summit conspicuously took place against the background of Biden’s much-ballyhooed one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. That June 16 Biden-Putin summit marked a key step in the White House’s goal of making the turbulent US-Russian relationship more stable and predictable. So far, one of the practical effects of the “reset”-like reopening of strategic-level dialogue with Moscow has been a commitment by Russia on the one hand and the United States and its NATO allies on the other to observe one another’s “red lines.” For the transatlantic community, this means holding Russia to account for any further attempts to destabilize NATO or compromise peace and security throughout Europe. But Moscow is already testing or crossing those Western red lines while almost haphazardly declaring its own, which routinely undermine the security of the countries along NATO’s eastern flank (see EDM, April 27, June 21, July 1). It is, thus, instructive to recall former US President Barack Obama’s so-called “reset” with Russia in 2010 (embraced two years after Russia’s aggression in Georgia), which was followed soon thereafter by Moscow’s forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014. Taking that recent history into account, it will be important to complement any kind of cooperative policies that might be put on the table right now with concrete capabilities to contain Russia whenever the latter crosses a NATO red line (Xtv.lv, June 18).
So while the Baltic countries received crucial renewed security assurances during the last NATO summit, much more remains to be done—both in terms of political messaging and concrete military posturing—to demonstrate the full credibility of the Alliance’s deterrence measures along its eastern flank.