Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 238

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are placing trilateral defense cooperation at the core of their preparations to earn admission to NATO. Successive meetings–held by the three countries’ presidents in Riga on December 15, by the defense forces commanders also in Riga afterward, and by the three defense ministers in Klaipeda on December 18-19–illustrate this agenda.

The three meetings took stock of the promising development of the joint battalion BALTBAT, joint naval squadron BALTRON, joint airspace control system BALTNET, and joint military college BALTDEFCOL. The Latvian-based peacekeeping battalion and its national elements are being turned into a full-fledged defensive fighting force. The Estonian-based naval squadron is successfully assimilating the demining methods taught by NATO and Nordic countries’ navies in a series of joint exercises. The Lithuanian-based, regionwide airspace control system is becoming operational step by step with Norwegian and American assistance. And the Estonian-based military college graduated its first class of staff officers this year. Development of these joint projects is due to accelerate in 2001.

The meetings in Riga and Klaipeda placed four new projects on the agenda for 2001-2002: creating with NATO assistance an air force transport squadron, BALTWING; establishing with Danish assistance a joint Artillery College in Lithuania; joint training of officers at the Military Engineering School in Kaunas, Lithuania; and producing NATO-standard, digital military maps in Lithuania with German technology, for common use by the three Baltic states’ forces.

The defense forces commanders observed that the trilateral projects should “preclude the recurrence of an 1940-type situation.” That had found Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lacking a concept for common defense and unprepared for a serious resistance. Each of the three countries succumbed separately to the Soviet ultimatums and the occupation, without attempting to coordinate their response politically or militarily.

While the threat of invasion must rank as purely hypothetical for the foreseeable future, the trilateral defense projects represent the most effective link between the Baltic states and NATO in the absence of–and pending–formal membership. All those projects are sponsored by NATO countries, presuppose an incremental NATO presence on the ground in the Baltic states and represent a key to achieving interoperability of the Baltic and NATO forces.

Interoperability is one of NATO’s main criteria for assessing the Baltic states’ qualifications to join the alliance. Should only one of the three be invited to join in 2002, the trilateral defense projects will then serve to link the other two directly with the alliance and to channel continued assistance to them, pending the next round of enlargement. In that sense, the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians agreed during these latest meetings that an invitation to one of these countries to join NATO would also amount to a success for the other two, on their respective ways to their admissions.

With NATO in the process of making up its collective mind about the scope and pace of enlargement, the three Baltic states decided at these latest meetings that they would not ask NATO to name specific countries and set specific dates for their admission. The Balts would not tell NATO whom to admit and when to admit them, but would focus on implementing the interoperability and other tasks under the respective, national Membership Action Plans and the trilateral defense projects (BNS, LETA, ELTA, ETA, December 15-20).