NATO’s credibility is at stake in the Baltic.
A glance at the map shows all too clearly that reinforcing the Baltic states in a crisis is hard without the help of non-NATO Sweden and Finland. In fact, it’s impossible—unless the West is willing to react to a Russian invasion or other provocation with nuclear weapons. The choice is stark: See the end of NATO, or risk World War III.
Vladimir Putin knows this. He is systematically provoking the countries of the region to highlight the Kremlin’s relative strength. Russia has kidnapped an Estonian security official. It threatens and practices the use of nuclear weapons. It has warned Sweden and Finland not to even think about joining NATO. It runs a relentless propaganda campaign against the Baltic states. It carries out dummy attacks with nuclear-capable aircraft. It flies warplanes around the region with their transponders switched off, endangering civilian aircraft.
Russia is winning because of Western weakness—but that weakness comes from choice, not necessity. United, the Nordic five (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden), the Baltic three (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), and Poland have a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion, roughly a third more than Russia’s $1.7 trillion. Even their defense spending is a healthy $33 billion. As one country, they would be a formidable power—and more than a match for Russia.
But the NBP9, as I call them in a forthcoming report for the Center for European Policy Analysis, the think tank where I work in my spare time, are divided: into NATO and non-NATO, EU and non-EU, big and small, rich and poor, free-riders and heavy spenders on defense (only Poland and Estonia meet NATO’s 2%-of-GDP target).
Mistrust abounds. Sweden and Finland like cooperation with the alliance, but are unlikely to join anytime soon. NATO likes the idea of working with Sweden and Finland—but only up to a point. In a crisis, it cannot depend on non-members. Poland, the regional superpower, fears that defending the neighbors would overstretch its own security. For their part, the neighbors fear the next government in Poland may revert to grandstanding and unpredictability.
In short, every country in the NBP9 has an excellent reason for not making regional defense cooperation the centerpiece of their thinking. But without it, they are weak—and war is far more likely.
So too are Russia’s chances of a strategic breakthrough. If the Baltic states are successfully attacked or undermined, the damage already done to the European security order by Russia’s successful seizure of Ukrainian territory will become irretrievable. The humbling of America in the Baltic region would also have a huge and potentially catastrophic effect on security elsewhere (who will trust Washington in Asia if it lets down its oldest and closest allies?).
Yet this is all avoidable. As my report shows, the NPB9 could do far more in sharing intelligence, in military planning, joint purchasing, and exercises.
This will involve some painful adjustments. Poland must take its smaller neighbors seriously. The Baltic states will have to accept non-NATO involvement in their defense. Sweden and Finland will have to intensify their cooperation with each other and with NATO, which will have to end its theological objections to depending on non-members. But the fast-escalating threat from Russia leaves little choice.
Only leadership from the United States can turn the NPB9 into a working defense and security alliance. For each country in the region, America is (by far) the most important partner. They will drop their treasured taboos and shibboleths if told to do so. The more actively the United States shapes European security, the less it will have to be its backstop.
Edward Lucas is director of the Baltic Sea Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank with offices in Warsaw and Washington, D.C.