Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 207

On November 7, the U.S. House of Representatives took the unprecedented step of approving security assistance funds for countries that aspire to join NATO. The three Baltic states were earmarked as recipients, along with four other applicant countries (Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria) from the Vilnius Ten group. The House authorized US$55 million. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate as well.

This legislation’s international political significance is fourfold. First, it passed by the overwhelming margin of 372 to 46, indicating a substantially broader American support for NATO’s enlargement than had recently been assumed. Second, while the measure concerns seven countries, the floor debate focused, because of the Russian factor, on the Baltic candidacies. The debate and the overwhelming vote laid conclusively to rest the thesis that NATO ought not to admit countries bordering Russia. Third, the Baltic states’ shares in the overall funding are proportionately higher than the shares of the other four countries, in what constitutes a reflection on the Balts’ homework for NATO and political backing for their candidacies. And, fourth, the vote’s timing, on the eve of the U.S.-Russia summit, should dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from trying to place NATO’s Baltic enlargement on the bargaining table. Some of Putin’s prominent advisers are recommending that he try that, apparently underestimating the Bush administration’s commitment to enlarging the alliance.

The term “enlargement” might itself be inadequate, as NATO’s Secretary-General George Robertson recently suggested in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (October 23). The applicant countries themselves, Robertson pointed out, are initiators of the process as a matter of sovereign policy choice. In that vein, the House International Relations Committee chairman Henry Hyde argued that “it would be shameful as well as stupid of us to ignore their pleas to become members of the Atlantic Alliance” (AP, Reuters, November 7).

This level of political support increases U.S. traction power to lead the European allies toward admitting the Baltic states into the alliance next year. It suggests, moreover, perhaps for the first time that a more comprehensive round of admissions is a politically realistic goal for next year’s summit.

On the military track, the Baltic states and NATO began–on November 4–a massive naval exercise in de-mining operations, MCOPEST-2001 (mine clearing operation Estonia), scheduled to last until November 19 in the Bay of Tallinn. NATO’s minesweeping squadron (MCMFORNORTH), the Estonian-Latvian-Lithuanian naval squadron Baltron, and a Norwegian divers’ unit participate in the operation, which involves twenty-two ships from seven NATO and Nordic countries. In terms of both participation and duration, this exercise is the most ample of its kind since the restoration of the Baltic states’ independence. For the first time, a NATO-aspirant Baltic state–Estonia in this case–is commanding a major allied exercise (BNS, ETA, LETA, October 31, November 5-6; see the Monitor, September 6, 17, 28, October 10).