NBP9 – Time for a Leap Forward
The ‘Why?’ for Renewed Defence Cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region
While analysis and policy prescriptions on how to best ensure peace and stability in the Baltic Sea region vary, it is clear that the regional security situation has recently shifted. This has been highlighted by not only rhetoric, such as the surprisingly bold statement by Nordic Ministers of Defence that “Russia’s conduct represents the gravest challenge to European security”, but also by numerous events that have heightened tensions, including territorial intrusions in Sweden, propaganda and even the kidnapping of a security police officer in Estonia. Of key importance, several examples of military buildup by Russia next to its Western border should alert the Baltic Sea region countries. For instance, in the summer of 2013 the Ostrov Air Base was reopened next to the Latvian border and by the spring of 2014 it housed a full-scale army aviation brigade, equipped with about 50 of the newest attack and transport helicopters.
Perhaps the boldest and most pessimistic report on security in the Baltic Sea region published recently is ‘The Coming Storm’ by Edward Lucas, which outlines alarming prospects for the Nordic Five – Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland –, the Baltic States and Poland (collectively referred to as the NBP9) and urges immediate, collective action in order to avert trouble.
Many experts agree that an adjustment is due and, as Imants Lieģis stated in April, “scaremongering in Latvia and across Europe is not without foundation, and it should be clear to both NATO and the EU that relations with Russia, regrettably, cannot go on as business as usual.” Consequently, the NBP9 countries should reconsider how to best cooperate in this new security environment.
Status Quo of Cooperation Initiatives
First of all, it must be recognised that numerous platforms for regional cooperation already exist. NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation), for instance, replaced several previous military cooperation initiatives among the Nordic Five in 2009 and aims to “strengthen the participating nations’ national defence, explore common synergies and facilitate efficient common solutions.” The Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8) format holds regular meetings to discuss regional issues and current international topics. In recent years, its most prominent success has been an agreement on reinforcing diplomatic cooperation. Up until now, this format has also been occasionally extended to include the United Kingdom (constituting the Nordic Future Forum, which is mostly focused on trade and economic relations) and Japan. The Council of Baltic Sea States, for its part, does not have extensive defence cooperation as one of its objectives.
Otherwise, the Nordic Battlegroup NBG15 has been a successful project which involved 2500 participants from Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway. European Union Battlegroups – trained to be ready as strong contributors to the EU crisis management capability – rotate in their role every six months, and the standby period for the third Swedish led EU Battlegroup NBG15 has now finished, thus it handed over its readiness to a French led EU Battlegroup. In addition, the Baltic Battalion (BALTBAT), first active between 1994 and 2003, has recently been brought back into action and will be deployed to the NATO Response Force standby in 2016.
Another initiative worth attention is the enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe (e-PINE). Launched in 2003, e-PINE is a mechanism for US officials to meet their Nordic and Baltic colleagues together in “8+1” formats on a range of policy issues, including security of energy supplies and environmental protection.
As of today, NATO and the EU remain the two chief organisations for cooperation in the region, though comprehensive results are all but impossible to achieve due to the complex membership situation. Denmark, while a member of the EU and NATO, prioritises the latter by standing outside the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and is also less involved in Nordic cooperation. Norway, although a member of NATO only, takes part in the CSDP as well. Iceland is a member only of NATO, but has no armed forces. Sweden and Finland, on the other hand, are members of the EU, but not NATO.
Why is the Status Quo not Sufficient?
“While substantial, NATO’s reassurances cannot answer all CEE security problems, in order to fill the remaining gaps and avoid a politically difficult, unbalanced division-of-labour within NATO, the region’s states themselves need, in parallel, to foster greater cohesion in defence matters”, Eoin McNamara pointed out last December. Indeed, the changing security situation in the region, the fact that not all NBP9 countries are members of NATO and the organisation’s reluctance to truly ‘put boots on the ground’ in the Baltic States, imply that a credible format of defence cooperation that could complement NATO and assist in ensuring the territorial integrity of the NBP9 countries is necessary. The aforementioned initiatives, however, are not sufficient.
NORDEFCO, for example, has enjoyed certain success in its activities, but also at times failed and, essentially, excludes the Baltic States and Poland. Overall, NB8 and e-PINE are good initiatives, yet do not have a strong military component. The temporary nature of EU Battlegroups, on the other hand, means that this cannot be a permanent security guarantor in the Baltic Sea region. In general, the effectiveness of the aforementioned defence initiatives could be improved, not least because none of these has all the NBP9 on board.
The case for defence cooperation among the NBP9 is convincing when looking at the numbers. The NBP9 countries have a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion — a third more than Russia’s – their population is 70 million and collective defence spending is $33 billion. As Lucas affirms, together the NBP9 would have a good claim to be the most militarily effective non-nuclear power in Europe. Consequently, an effective NBP9 network could be an important military player in the region and contribute to NATO’s deterrence policy.
National Positions on Defence Cooperation
Recently, both domestic and international events seem to have fertilised the ground in most of the NBP9 for extra cooperation.
In Finland, the issue of military cooperation with other countries and NATO has been divisive for years due to its historic non-alignment. Despite recent remarks that “Finland is not in a position to provide security guarantees for anyone else that it does not itself have”, some progress towards greater military cooperation can be observed. For instance, Finland once had ruled out NATO membership explicitly, but now the new Finnish government has included the option of applying for membership “at any time” in its government programme. Of great importance, Finland signed a declaration extending military cooperation with the other Nordic States in April.
As a country whose borders have been violated by Russia several times over the last year, it is not surprising that support for enhanced defence cooperation remains unusually high in Sweden. In fact, nearly one in three now thinks the country should join NATO, according to a poll in May, up from just 17 percent in 2012.
Having dropped its bid for EU membership this March, Iceland has recently lost its right to take an official position regarding the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and perhaps is the least motivated country of the NBP9 for closer defence cooperation. Denmark, on the other hand, seems willing to soon hold a referendum on ending its opt-out from the CSDP. Ending the opt-out would enable Denmark to take part in joint EU military operations and to cooperate on development and acquisition of military capabilities within the EU framework.
Regarding the fifth Nordic country, Norway is currently experiencing financial problems due to the long and significant drop in oil prices. This should serve as an extra incentive for regional cooperation regarding defence, as pooling resources can result in significant savings. All of the Nordic countries, most of which have a large territory combined with a small population, face growing costs and diminishing defence budgets. Acting on their own to procure weapons and fulfil the requested tasks within international missions, as well as territorial defence, is increasingly challenging, and thus more cooperation should be pursued.
The Baltic States have always been wary about their defence. Nevertheless, only recently it seems that all three are ready to match rhetoric with action and Lithuania, for instance, has reintroduced conscription over concerns about "the current geopolitical environment" in the Baltic States. Latvia and Estonia, for their part, have just announced measures to improve the security of their border with Russia. This is not surprising, given numerous incidents, including the seizure of a Lithuanian fishing vessel in international waters by Russian border guards, that have intimidated locals, and public opinion is strongly in favour of greater regional cooperation to enhance security.
More significantly, with Estonia having persistently met NATO’s 2% of GDP spending target, Latvia and Lithuania are finally on course to reach this level as well. This is crucial for successful collaboration among the Baltic States, as it can help to finally address the ‘trust gap’ between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Up until now, the spending gap has been “then translated into a trust gap with Estonia’s defence policy establishment prospectively holding little confidence in any proposed system where they rely on their southern neighbours’ ability to invest in delegated defence capabilities”. With defence budgets set to increase to 2% of GDP by 2018 in Latvia and 1.5% in Lithuania, such perceptions should shift.
As for Poland, it is a major security actor in the Baltic Sea region and, similarly to its neighbours, has made defence one of its top priorities. Consequently, Poland will invest more than $40 billion to upgrade military helicopters, missile and air defence systems, modern artillery, and army mobility by 2022. Furthermore, it will spend 2% of GDP on defence from 2016.
Apart from Poland’s formidable military power and strategic importance, recent political developments have created a momentum for more cooperation with the Nordic Five and the Baltic States. There is a growing recognition that Poland has more in common in terms of threat perceptions with Sweden, Finland, and the three Baltic States than with, e.g., the other Visegrád countries. As Mr. Kulesa affirms, Poland and the Baltic States have a shared perception of Russia as a major threat and the need of building a ‘pocket of resistance’ against its assertiveness.
Paradoxically, while the election of Poland’s new president Andrzej Duda has caused concern in Brussels and Western Europe, it might turn out to be a positive development for the Baltic States. The rebuilding of close cooperation on foreign and security matters with the Baltic States appeared as one of the priorities for President Duda in his election campaign and he is moving to pivot Central Europe’s most important country to closer security ties with its immediate Eastern neighbours, choosing Estonia as the destination of his first overseas trip on August 23rd. He has also said that Poland could be a “security guarantor” of the three Baltic States. While these remarks should be considered with certain scepticism and it remains to be seen whether they will be followed up with relevant action, there still seems to be room for some optimism regarding Poland’s new foreign policy vis-à-vis the Baltic States.
Latvia should be an Active Supporter of NBP9 Cooperation
It is clearly in Latvia’s national interests to promote NBP9 defence cooperation, and political circumstances seem benevolent for that at the moment. First and foremost, the election of Raimonds Vējonis as the President this summer is a strong and positive signal for greater defence cooperation. "My priority without any doubt will be national security, the strengthening of our armed forces and our borders," he told reporters after being elected. In fact, all other political leaders seem committed to strengthening defence as well. Furthermore, the generally acclaimed leadership Latvia displayed during its Presidency of the Council of the EU has granted extra credibility and political capital to the country.
In terms of military aspects, the current structure of national defence units, including Land Forces, Air Forces, Navy and Special Operations Forces, seems unsustainable in the long run for most of the NBP9 countries. Instead, a leap forward towards specialisation, similarly to the NATO’s Smart Defence initiative, should be considered. Ideally, the new initiative could ensure a common approach to military procurement, interoperability, planning, training, exercises, information sharing, crisis management, disaster preparedness among the NBP9 countries.
Expanding NORDEFCO to NORBALDEFCO could be one of the options to strengthen regional security, yet does not seem feasible in the short term. In addition, opening up NORDEFCO to include cooperation with Poland would have a bigger potential than the Baltics alone, but while NORDEFCO's 2014 Annual Report refers to a push to scale-up Nordic-Baltic defence cooperation, it does not even mention Poland. Consequently, a new institutional arrangement might be preferable. To gain support, such an initiative needs to be presented in a clever way; pointing out the power that NBP9 can project collectively in terms of, e.g., number of soldiers, seems smart.
As the country coordinating the work of the NB8 format in 2016, Latvia has the chance to advocate in favour of inviting Poland to join the discussions and should put military cooperation among the NBP9 partners as a priority. Realistically, however, it might be necessary to start with less than the full NBP9 on board, and then Latvia should prioritise the involvement of Poland, its Baltic neighbours, Sweden, Finland and Norway, as the vital core to its interests due to their location and military capabilities. At the same time, even if initial negotiations are not entirely successful, other countries of the NBP9 should be warmly welcomed to opt-in later.
On the national level, Latvia should also reflect the increasing importance of the NBP9 partners to its security by explicitly mentioning them as key strategic partners in its revised State Defence Concept. In addition to the five workshops already held this year regarding the State Defence Concept review, hosting another meeting to collect input from stakeholders on how to best develop the NBP9 format, would be welcome.
Cooperation with Russia would be highly desirable in the long-term, of course. Nevertheless, it seems implausible in the near future, taking into account the rhetoric both by Russian leaders, as well as Baltic Sea region politicians. As a result, a serious stall and lack of trust in relations between the West and Russia is most likely here to stay, at least in the nearest future.
Without a doubt, NATO Article 5 security guarantees and continued U.S. engagement in the region remain essential, and any new initiative should be regarded merely as a beneficial complement to these. And yet, the vulnerability of the NBP9 countries, as well as numerous domestic developments, point to growing support for enhanced security cooperation in the Baltic Sea region which, hopefully, will materialise in a leap forward soon. Latvia should grasp the opportunity that might exist at the moment and actively advocate for NBP9 cooperation as an extra guarantee for security in the Baltic Sea region. With Poland – the host of the next NATO summit in July 2016 – hopefully on board, it would be easier to promote the NBP9 format as a valuable complement to NATO’s action and get support from other NATO members for such an initiative.
Arnolds Eizenšmits is an intern at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.
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Published 08 September 2015