Within forty-eight hours of the terrorist assault on the United States, and a day after NATO had invoked its Article Five, the Baltic states announced their willingness to act as de facto members of the alliance, with all the obligations and risks involved. The ensuing events seem to have recast the prospects of NATO as an alliance, and thus the problem of Baltic accession, in three favorable ways. These involve mission scope, enlargement rationale and political dialogue with Russia.
First, the alliance will have to focus on planning for what has long been deemed “out-of-area” missions. If Article Five becomes applicable to challenges arising from a country like Afghanistan, or some classical rogue-country sponsor of terrorist forces, then NATO becomes a truly global alliance of the Western countries. Its missions will have expanded not only geographically but also functionally, so as to encompass the full spectrum of challenges to the security of member states, the most powerful of which has been attacked on its home territory. Once the crisis had erupted on September 11, Russia declared itself unable and unwilling to contribute troops to American and/or NATO military operations against terrorism. The fact remains that Moscow will now no longer be able, plausibly, to object to the enlargement of NATO as an alliance that deals with clear and present threats to international security. These are, after all, the very threats that Moscow had stressed, even hyped, when it, as it asserted, was the prime target.
Second, U.S. and/or NATO operations that include, and are assisted by, former Soviet-ruled countries, undermine the taboo declared by Russia against NATO’s enlargement on former Soviet-ruled territory. Once countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have authorized the transit, landing and possibly the stationing of American forces, and once Moscow’s initial veto was simply if elegantly overridden, Moscow will find it even more difficult politically to resist NATO’s Baltic enlargement.
NATO, however, is far more than the antiterrorist “coalition of the willing” for which Russia is eligible. NATO is the alliance of the effective, as well as being the alliance of the democratic. Its members and candidate countries are required to meet a set of demanding political and military criteria. While the Baltic states are meeting or very close to meeting those criteria, Russia is nowhere near on any measurement. The Kremlin itself has admitted to part of the problem when it declined to join antiterrorist military operations because its military has its hands full with Chechnya, and because–again in Moscow’s own words–it faces a wide set of vulnerabilities on diverse fronts, requiring NATO security guarantees on those fronts before Russia could or would commit itself to U.S./NATO actions.
With the value of Russia’s possible contribution thus cast in its true light by Moscow itself, very few could argue that having Russia “on board” requires keeping the Balts a while longer outside NATO’s otherwise open door. The new global situation, if anything, adds to the urgency of enlarging the alliance and thus the zone of guaranteed stability, filling in the gray or no-man’s areas.
Third, with the onset of the current crisis, Russia seems to have durably shifted gears in its political approach to NATO. Stopping the alliance’s Baltic enlargement is no longer the primary goal it was before Putin took over and perhaps even at the outset his presidency. Even then it seemed clear that the Kremlin’s main problem was not with the Baltic accession to NATO, but with NATO as such. By now, the Kremlin’s position on the Baltic issue is clearly subsumed to the larger goal of changing NATO itself, hoping against hope to erode it politically from outside and to gain a voice in its internal deliberations.
In this respect, September 11 is not a watershed date for Russian policy. On his visit to Finland shortly before that date, Putin seemed to firm up previous signals that Russia could after all live with Baltic membership in NATO. He could not have been blind to the growing political consensus within the alliance in favor of inviting the three Baltic states next year to join. With a half-bow to the inevitable, Moscow retains some faint hope to affect the time-table and actual military terms of Baltic accession to NATO.
September 11 has thrust the problem to the back burner of policy, but this is only a temporary effect. Meanwhile, active work on NATO’s Baltic enlargement continues at the staff level. This week, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania reported to the allied headquarters in Brussels on their progress with the annual Membership Action Plans, of which the current one is the final in the three-year period. The period will culminate with the review of the three states’ membership qualifications by NATO’s Prague summit.
The three states evidence an awareness that the global crisis must not distract them–any more than it should distract the alliance–from the targets of the Baltic MAP programs. In the process of addressing their own societies, parliaments and bureaucracies, Baltic officials currently warn against the risk of “disqualification,” in case MAP efforts slacken in any of the three states. Such “disqualification” is only a theoretical possibility; the very use of this term reflects a sense that the outcome is ultimately in Baltic hands. The three candidacies had built a strong and, probably, unstoppable momentum before September 11. The ensuing events have altered the terms of debate to the potential advantage of the Baltic candidacies. Inevitably, the issue will move again to the front burner of allied policy. The main prerequisite for that is not what Moscow may say, but how well the Balts themselves will meet the membership action plan targets in the critical months ahead (Roundup based on recent Baltic and Western reporting; see also the Monitor, August 27, 31, September 6, 17).
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