The Baltic region has consolidated around the geostrategic cohesion of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and their determined membership in both the EU and NATO.
By Rafael José de Espona*
In 2018 the three Baltic countries jointly commemorated the centenary of their birth as independent states. The integrated inter-Baltic vision, together with the coordination of Lithuania+Estonia+Latvia on the foreign policy and strategic agendas –particularly in security, defence, energy and infrastructures– has given rise to a regional geostrategic cohesion that, along with the region’s economic and infrastructure development, has consolidated the Baltics within the EU and NATO. The region’s contribution to Euro-Atlantic security is active and significant given its border with Russia (against the backdrop of Russia’s recent aggression in the Ukraine). The contribution of the Baltic countries to the EU in the post-Brexit context (especially through programmes like the Eastern Partnership) is wide-ranging, including support for the European sociopolitical convergence of Ukraine and Georgia and cooperation on regional energy security.
The regional cohesion of the Baltic countries
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania –the three Baltic states par excellence– have jointly forged ahead with common Baltic synergies ever since their simultaneous entry into the EU and NATO in the spring of 2004. Lithuanian regional leadership –as primus inter pares– took shape from the first moment of the implosion of the USSR, when the millennial Lithuanian nation (that had endured continuous battles against Soviet occupation until the 1960s) re-established its independence on 11 March 1990, defying Moscow on its own. This prompted the independence of the other republics in a chain reaction. Cooperation between the three Baltic countries formally originated with the Treaty of Concord and Cooperation, signed by all three on 12 September 1934 in Geneva. Much later, the Declaration of Unity and Cooperation was signed in Tallin on 12 May 1990, reviving this perennial framework for cooperation, and for which the Baltic Council and the Council of Baltic Ministers (1994) were established as permanent inter-governmental coordination bodies (and reconfigured after the entry of the Baltic states into the EU and NATO in 2004). The Baltic Assembly was also created in 1991 to promote cooperation between the three parliaments. The high-level annual strategic meetings held by these bodies are followed up by numerous coordination activities for the implementation of measures jointly adopted during the year.
At the last high-level meeting on 18 December 2017 the joint declaration of the Council of Prime Ministers was endorsed. It included the following joint action priorities for 2018.
In the realm of security and defence matters, the joint declaration called for the reinforcement of regional security through contributions to NATO and to the cooperative projection of the Atlantic Alliance for European defence.
In the energy sector, now that the energy isolation of the ‘Baltic island’ has been broken by both the challenging construction of the Lithuanian-Polish electric interconnection (LitPol Link I) and the importation of LNG through the Klaipeda Terminal in Lithuania, a competitive regional energy market is being developed (the Baltic Energy Market Integration Plan, or BEMIP). The BEMIP includes an expansion of the electric interconnection with Poland through the second phase of LitPol Link, the full operability of the NordBalt Link between Sweden and Lithuania, the synchronisation of the electricity systems of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Europe through Poland (Continental European Network, or CEN), and the construction of gas pipelines with Poland (the Gas Integration Lithuania-Poland project, or AMBER/GILP) and Finland (Baltic Connector). The remaining studies preparing for full synchronisation are expected to be concluded in 2018. At that time, Balt Pool, created to dynamise electricity commercialisation, will be integrated with the Scandinavian market to form the ‘Baltic ring’. In parallel, the coordination working group of the three Baltic countries, Poland and Finland is proposing a regional gas market. On the other hand, energy security problems that remain include the nuclear plant project in Belarus on the EU border, and the shortcomings of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 in complying with the energy principles of the EU.
In the realm of transport and telecommunications, the implementation of the intergovernmental agreement on the RAIL BALTICA project –with significant socioeconomic potential confirmed by the last study conducted in 2017– involves the extension of the European-gauge high-speed train network, particularly the Lithuanian-Polish branch. The European Digital Market Strategy –oriented to socioeconomic development and cooperation in and along the borders of the EU– is expected to be completed before the end of 2018. This will be key for the Baltic region and the functioning of its health sector, the Digital Administration and cybersecurity (according to the tenets of the Tallin Declaration on the 5G Action Plan).
In the area of European policy, following up on the repeated reaffirmation of common values and shared interests with the EU, concrete measures with a European drive have been undertaken in the Baltic that support a budget increase in the next multiyear financial framework 2021-27, and the objective to further develop infrastructure connections in the transport and energy sectors. With respect to Neighbourhood Policy, specific action instruments, like the Eastern Partnership, have secured continuity.
During 2018, Lithuania holds the presidency of the Baltic Assembly and the Baltic Council of Ministers. Its priorities are to: (1) facilitate military manoeuvres in the region; (2) improve border management along the EU’s frontier; (3) increase cooperation on cybersecurity and data protection; (4) promote the regional gas and electricity market; (5) heighten nuclear security; and (6) achieve common Baltic economic alignment during the run-up to the EU financial perspectives for 2021-2027.
European contribution and good neighbourliness
The Baltic is taking on the profile of a defined and stable European region. Despite being considered a risk zone, it has overcome the isolation imposed during the Soviet period to integrate with Scandinavia in an economic space known as the ‘Baltic ring’ (which aims for social parity in development of infrastructures, energy and transport). In many ways, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (members of the eurozone since 2011, 2014 and 2015, respectively) have innovative, vanguard economies. Evidence of this is found in: (1) the BlockChain Centre inaugurated in Vilnius at the beginning of 2018; (2) Estonia’s global leadership on e-Government (during its rotating Presidency of the EU in the 2nd semester of 2017, it launched the digital tax system); (3) the region’s various innovation centres on ICT and biotechnology; and (4) the establishment of multinationals providing back-office support services and call centres for Central and Eastern Europe (like those opened by Barclays Bank in Lithuania and Cabot Corporation in Latvia). This also implies the establishment of transnational professional work networks that favour social integration beyond the frontiers of the Baltics.
In good neighbourliness matters, the Baltic countries are decisive actors –as they reiterated in the December 2017 session of their Council of Prime Ministers– in the EU’s exterior action programme known as the Eastern Partnership. This aims at the development of democracy and European values and freedoms to promote convergence with the EU. Within the framework of this programme, the Baltic countries focus their action on Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldavia (and to a more limited extent, Armenia and Azerbaijan). Begun in 2018, their work aims at the practical materialisation of the tenets formulated at the last (the 5th) summit of the Eastern Partnership, held in Brussels in November 2017: (1) the commitment to support the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of all EU partners; (2) to promote the peaceful resolution, in line with international law, of currently open conflicts; and (3) the recognition of the European aspirations of those partners who have signed association agreements with the EU, including Georgia, Moldavia and Ukraine. In particular, the need to increase financial support to Ukraine through new economic instruments was highlighted, along with an improvement to the agreements established with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus to stimulate their reforms, to which are linked EU financial support. With the central emphasis on Ukraine, the group reaffirmed their support for its sovereignty and territorial integrity, condemning Russian aggression, the country’s annexation of Crimea, its infringement of the Minsk Accords and ongoing de facto Russian occupation of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia.
The concrete measures proposed by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for the promotion of democracy in Eastern Europe (and in the post-Soviet space in general) are based on lessons learnt from a common past and take into consideration the different timings and rhythms of the transitions in such countries; while the transition was fast in the Baltic countries, it remains pending in countries like Belarus and Russia.
The intention is to project vectors that help guarantee a democratic, peaceful and stable environment so that the national security conditions of neighbouring countries allow the flourishing of parameters that permit cooperative socioeconomic development among these neighbouring countries. On the one hand, to support the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA), established by the EU with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldavia, the Baltic states provide advisory services and expert support on economic, financial and social issues (an essential part of the Association Agreements these countries subscribed with the EU and which came into effect between 2016 and 2017). These represent a key prerequisite for access to the European Single Market in specific sectors and guarantee EU investors will face a regulatory environment analogous to that of the EU in each of these countries. On the other hand, the Partnership also facilitates the implementation of the EU agreement signed with Armenia (Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement, or CEPA) and the search for a similar framework for Azerbaijan, as well as the for common criteria (free of asymmetry in analytical parameters) to evaluate EU membership, in line with fundamental democratic rights and the commitment required to make membership sustainable through credible, positive reforms.
The governments of the Baltic states prefer action to be led by non-governmental actors. This preference is shown by the Lithuanian support for NGOs like Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, Pact Europe, Forum Syd (Sweden), the Swedish International Liberal Centre-SILC (Sweden), the Adenauer Foundation (Germany) and the International Republican Institute and Internews (US). Such entities have established permanent offices in Vilnius to coordinate their operations in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldavia and Georgia. In this last country, the Baltic states have been important contributors. Between 2015 and 2017, for example, Lithuania financed 78 projects through its Support for Democratic Development programme. Such projects facilitate integration into the Euro zone, support for democracy and human rights, development of civil society, regional stimulus, promotion of the socioeconomic activity of women and improvements in the public health system.
Efforts by the EU between 2014 and 2017 to facilitate the democratic process and European convergence in Ukraine included a programme of judicial, political, social and economic reforms that required some guarantee of continuity. Given their condition as a region of the ex-Soviet space but now also part of the EU, and with lessons learnt from their own transition, the Baltic countries have been especially committed in their support. Lithuania is leading an initiative for a new European plan for Ukraine that aims to improve economic dynamism and to stimulate a broader reach and deeper sustainability of current and future transition reforms.
The Baltic countries have also contributed to the EU’s response to the consequences of Brexit. Although it was initially believed that this disruption to European unity would be negative for Baltic interests (mainly because it seemed incompatible with the ideological foundations of the EU), the commitment to cooperate with the UK mitigates the negative impact. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania proposed to the European Commission in February 2018 to increase the budget contributions of Member States to cover the budgetary shortfall generated by the Brexit. On the other hand, given common membership in NATO, the British government has reaffirmed its support to the protection of the Nordic and Baltic countries against threats and antagonism from Russia.
Promotion of common security under the transatlantic umbrella
Common security was improved by the introduction at the end of 2017 of ‘permanent structured cooperation’ (ie, the EU’s PESCO), embracing military activity like training, development of capabilities and operational readiness. However, the Atlantic Alliance continues to be the principal force underpinning the stability of Eastern Europe and of Central Europe’s eastern border –and it will probably continue to be over the long-run–. NATO has strengthened its activities in the Baltic region as a theatre of operations through the deployment of military units on the ground to increase deterrence capabilities. In line with Article 5 of the Treaty on common defence, NATO’s permanent Air Policing mission (in which Spain’s contribution stands out) has been joined in the Baltic region by the Enhanced Forward Presence. The EFP has multinational units deployed in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Although the NATO contributions of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are quantitatively limited by the scale of their states, they are qualitatively advanced and of great practical use for the allies as a group. On the one hand, the reactivation of compulsory military recruitment has received a favourable social response that supports the Baltic countries’ exemplary compliance with the recommended military budget for the Atlantic Alliance (2% of GDP). The Baltic defence systems enjoy solid information and early warning platforms, and Baltic units are trained to face the real threat in the area which those farther west in Europe have only been slow to perceive. The armed forces of the Baltic countries have joint institutions –eg, the Baltic College of Defence– and combined ground and naval defence units equipped to deal with both conventional conflicts and hybrid warfare. Furthermore, these combined forces can respond to threats to the energy sector and critical infrastructures, information and psychological operations, and cyberwar. Each of these three Baltic countries has a modern NATO Centre of Excellence: in Estonia, the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (NATO CoE CCD) was established in 2008; in Lithuania, the Energy Security Centre of Excellence (NATO ENSEC CoE) was accredited in 2012; and in Latvia the Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (NATO STRATCOM CoE) was created in 2014. Estonia’s experience of a massive cyberattack in the spring of 2007 (coming from Russian territory) and the lessons learned by Lithuania after the blockade of Russian crude to its Mazeikiu Nafta refinery since 2008 (due to a unilateral Russian decision) have served as examples for all the allies of the realities of crisis management in cyberspace and across the energy system.
Each time the Baltic countries have proclaimed the need for the transatlantic link for the common defence of the allies and the security of the EU, they have reiterated their express recognition of the commitment of the US to regional defence. They are immersed in the process of implementing the decisions of the NATO Summits of Wales (2014) and Warsaw (2016) to raise the credibility of NATO deployments and means (Enhanced Forward Presence, EFP) and they participate in international missions (with the US in Ukraine and Iraq; with NATO in Kosovo, Turkey and Afghanistan; with the EU in Central Africa and on Operations Atalanta and Sophia; and in EU+UN missions in Mali). At the same time, the Baltic states are continually undertaking border vigilance missions on their own territories, along with other manoeuvres, crisis management exercises and cooperation with convergent countries within the Atlantic Alliance. In this respect, the cooperation with Ukraine has also spilled over to the military sphere: Poland and Lithuania have created a combined unit with Ukraine (UkrLitPolBrig) through which the standards and procedures of the NATO forces are being incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces.
In the realm of nuclear security and nuclear non-proliferation, Lithuania is the only Baltic country with nuclear experience. This comes from the Ingalina nuclear powerplant, decommissioned in 2009, and from an important scientific tradition at the Energy Institute of the University of Kaunas. Lithuania is seriously concerned about a nuclear powerplant project in Belarus (near the locality of Astravets) because the Astravets plant is being constructed in a way that violates international criteria on nuclear security and environmental protection (its infringements of the Espoo and Aarhus Conventions in 2011, 2014 and 2017 have been confirmed). The plant is located only 20km from the EU border and 40km from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. The multidimensionality of the threat encompasses the realms of ecology, public health, energy, and military and territorial issues; but while the threats hover directly over Lithuania, they project themselves across the Baltic region and the EU.
Close and persistent conflict
The three Baltic countries have modern democratic societies and market economies. At the same time, they are neighbours of states that have not yet completed the post-Soviet transitions and are often still caught up in vectors of political involution, aggressive foreign policy, conflict and constant friction.
Russia continues to promote its unique concept of ‘sovereign democracy’, formulated by Putin. Russia is constantly applying economically hostile measures and pressure beyond its borders, including against its Baltic neighbours. As the obligatory transit country for access to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Lithuania continues to firmly condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia even while it also maintains an attitude of good neighbourliness. Evidence of the Russian action against the EU in the ‘fake news’ case in the fall of 2017 –which destabilised intra-European relations with respect to the separatist subversion in Catalonia– was picked up by the Baltic countries. In addition, energy projects like NordStream 2 and incidents of clandestine operations (like the Skripal case) over the course of the winter of 2018 have made clear the multidimensional nature of Russia action. In parallel, the Baltic countries are intimate with the evolution of Russian hostilities in Ukraine –including the invasion of Crimea and the support for aggressive action in the Eastern zone of Donetsk and Lugansk– and in Georgia, with the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In Belarus, the Lukashenko regime continues to have a deficit in human rights, democracy and the rule of law. In recent years the regime has increased politically-motivated arrests and sanctions, and frequently used the death penalty. In the face of this situation, the EU has no other option but to maintain sanctions and other restrictive measures (like the EU veto on arms sales). From the outside, it appears that the Belarus nuclear project at Astravets is more a deliberate attempt at regional destabilisation than an antiseptic energy sector project. In January 2017, Lithuania notified the European Commission that there had been repeated accidents during the construction (with ROSATOM technology) of this nuclear plant. The Baltic position on Belarus aligns tightly with EU criticism. However, windows of opportunity have opened up through the Eastern Partnership that could catalyse the eventual evolution of the regime while supporting civil society. Lithuania, for example, is the one EU country with which Belarus has subscribed a series of bilateral agreements of good neighbourliness (facilitating commercial relations, transport and economic activity in general). At the same time, Lithuania serves as a place of refuge for part of the Belarus academic and intellectual community that has been exiled for its aspirations for freedom.
Relations with these two close neighbour countries directly affect the situation of the Baltic countries, but they also concern the entire EU and NATO. In this way, the geopolitical scenario of the Baltics continues to place the region at the vanguard of early warning with respect to the various vectors of Russian foreign policy. This also makes it the place which provides the clearest perceptions of the Russian regime’s true intentions and real aspirations, and therefore its global strategy. The conscience of the peoples of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the lessons learned from the past, and the agendas of their governments to promote regional stability and cooperation represent a not insignificant legacy and contribution to Europe and the Atlantic Alliance.
Within the post-Soviet space –where currently there are real democratic transitions underway, if at different stages– the Baltic region of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania represent the full materialisation of the rule of law, in accordance with the values of the EU, and incorporation into the global security agenda of NATO.
The regional cohesion of the three Baltic countries is conceived as a contribution to Europe and to good neighbourliness. At the same time, it promotes common security under the transatlantic umbrella. More than a mere organisation of military assistance, NATO provides a common projection of global security and helps prevent hostile military pre-crises and crises (in their many forms, including the modern mode of hybrid warfare).
Despite the tensions and conflict generated by proximity and persistent Russian aggressiveness –suffered especially by Ukraine– the three Baltic countries continue to follow a policy of sociopolitical and economic stability that allows the continued consolidation of achievements already made and as societies now fully anchored in Europe. Their lines of strategic action are harmonised and focused on continuity in national, regional (oriented economically to the development of transport and energy infrastructure to reinforce the integration of networks and grids and promote the diversification of supply) and foreign policies, and they make a special contribution to the Eastern Partnership.
As a group, the Member-states of the EU and NATO will continue to find –through the lens of the Baltic countries– a well-informed and well-positioned perspective for perceiving the geopolitical and socioeconomic dynamics of Eastern Europe.
About the author:
*Rafael José de Espona, Institute for International Relations and Political Science, TSPMI-University of Vilnius.
This article was published by Elcano Royal Institute.
Original version in Spanish: Lituania, Letonia y Estonia y la consolidación euroatlántica regional del Báltico.
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