Peace and stability in the Baltic Sea region

February 19, 2017

The security of countries in the Baltic Sea region has become a point of friction between Russia, the United States, and NATO. The issue has become especially precarious given Russia’s increasingly militarization in the region and President Trump’s comments against organizations, such as NATO, which play an important role in deterring Russian aggression. With the current U.S. administration’s policy towards NATO and the European Union unclear, the European Studies Council (CES) at the Macmillan Center held a roundtable addressing peace and stability in the Baltic Sea region. The panel was hosted by David Cameron, Professor of Political Science and Director of European Union Studies Program; moderated by Yuriy Sergeyev, Rice Faculty Fellow at the MacMillan Center; and included Ambassador Janis Mazeiks, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Latvia to the UN; Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaitė, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Lithuania to the UN; and Bradley Woodworth, Coordinator of Baltic Studies Program, CES, and a professor at the University of New Haven.

Ambassador Mazeiks began by placing the issue within a historical context. After many Baltic states gained their independence in the last decade of the 20th century, Europe tried to build a new relationship with Russia. Though it was a “rather challenging task,” the endeavor soon became even more difficult. “The turning point of relations,” he said, “was the Russian annexation of Crimean because that was such a blatant violation of international law.” During that time, “security issues starting prevailing” over other aspects of diplomatic relations.

Though Ambassador Mazeiks would not consider the current situation a second Cold War, “there are elements that eerily remind us of those times.” He listed many examples of increased Russian aggression, including the increasing size of military exercises, the enlargement of existing military units, and the creation of new military units in Russia. When Latvia realized that Russian units were expanded, it began to increase its own defense spending. By next year, Latvia is expected to meet the NATO alliance goal of spending at least 2% of GDP on defense.

Despite its proportionately large increases in defense spending, Latvia recognizes that it cannot face Russia alone. Ambassador Mazeiks noted that NATO’s Article 5, the collective defense article, clearly states that an attack on one ally will be seen as an attack on all. Though most NATO members “have shown they have a stake in the security of their allies” by committing in different ways to Latvia’s defense, “NATO has taken great care to not be seen as provoking Russia unnecessarily.” He said, “Having these very clear signals of resolve of allies… is not only important for the security of Baltic States, but for Europe and the transatlantic space.”

Ambassador Murmokaite, representing Lithuania, echoed Ambassador Mazeiks’s concerns, saying “NATO membership… is at the core of security.” She observed that increasing Russian influence in the Baltic Sea region has raised questions about “the degree to which the anchoring our security in the EU and NATO can be taken for granted.” Russia’s annexations of Crimea and parts of Georgia have raised concerns for many states neighboring Russia. “The inevitable question on the minds of many is what next?” 

Ambassador Murmokaite noted that Russia’s involvement in other parts of the world is also concerning. Syria, for example, “has served as a testing ground of new technology and materials” for the Russian military. She said, “Russia’s military is not what it used to be a couple of years ago.” In addition to increased military aggression, “there’s another kind of warfare… propaganda.” Russian aggression has come with an onslaught of “fake news” to justify it, mainly focusing on the right of Russia to protect ethnic Russians in other countries like Ukraine. These “dark technologies” may have played a role in Brexit, which “has been an issue.” Ambassador Murmokaite noted that any weakening solidarity in Europe will be seen by Russia as a green light to “do whatever you want in our region.”

Ambassador Murmokaite then clearly defined her view of Lithuania’s role in NATO as not just a benefactor but a contributor. She said, “we understand that solidarity is not a one-way street.” Acting on this view, Lithuania has contributed military aid to many NATO operations, including ones in Iraq and Libya.

Professor Woodworth, a historian focusing on Estonia, found it “frightening” that anyone could view Estonia as an expected part of a Russian sphere of influence in the future. He noted the strong assurance of European leaders to protect the security and stability of central and eastern Europe, with many leaders voicing strong support for permanent NATO presence in the area. These strong public signals, however, must be reconciled with the fact that the U.S. “is the primary deterrent against Russia.”

A question was posed regarding the trustworthiness of Russian ethnic minorities in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. All three panelists unequivocally answered that the loyalty of ethnic Russians in their countries was not an issue. Citing examples of ethnic Russians fighting for Ukraine against Russia, Ambassador Mazeiks stated, “the fact that you speak Russian doesn’t mean you don’t love Ukraine.” Professor Woodworth additionally noted that many ethnic Russians in Estonia recognize that their life is better than the one they would have had in Russia.

Another question addressed the possible effects of a diminished U.S. leadership role in checking Russian aggression. Ambassador Murmokaite noted that “we’ve [Lithuania] relaxed a little too much” since joining NATO. She also noted that though President Trump has made concerning comments regarding U.S. commitment to NATO, diplomatic lines have remained open during many crises in the past. She said Lithuania will do what it has done in the past, which is to maintain a high degree of communication and understanding with its allies. She reminded the audience that “it’s institutions that work in the end.”

Regarding the U.S. stance towards the EU, Ambassador Murmokaite noted that “to undercut the population’s trust in the EU is part of the propaganda [and] the struggle faced everyday.” Though the EU has its problems, “There are processes that let us channel our views and opinions.” Ambassador Mazeiks added that the EU has been resolving its own crises and that the U.S. leadership role in the EU is not as important as its role in NATO.

Ambassador Mazeiks then reflected on concerns of international destabilization due to external propaganda. He noted the importance of teaching “media literacy,” or teaching the population how to evaluate information and how to tell the difference between news and fake news. Ambassador Murmokaite agreed, remarking that “the manipulation of the mind is being stepped up to a level of warfare,” the remedy for which is critical thinking. She said, “If we give up on critical thinking, we are definitely in trouble.”

 Written by Julia Ding, Yale College Class of 2019.