Baltic countries look to Britain to bolster NATO support – POLITICO

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LONDON – Amid fears they could be Russia’s next target, the Baltic states hope Britain can step up its call to NATO for more military support.

Security cooperation between the UK and the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – has long been seen as strong and unaffected by Brexit drama.

But since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, the relationship has taken on a new dimension and become a clear axis in Europe’s broader security debate.

The Baltic states have compiled a “wish list” of requirements to better protect their borders, including permanent NATO bases and an air defense system that the region does not currently have. They learned painfully that in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked NATO to withdraw all its forces from the region, which was once part of the Soviet Union.

Their request received a sympathetic response in London, where the government was happy to support their case.

Recalling the Baltics’ worst fears, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace last month warned Putin “will use everything” in the Baltic states. “He doesn’t believe the Baltic countries are really countries,” he told the BBC.

A British defense official described the Baltics as the “frontline of NATO’s security” and said: “We share their concern that, more than ever, NATO’s eastern flank needs to contain one country. Russia does not attach importance to international law and sovereign borders.”

To mark the importance Britain now considers the Baltic region, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss visited the Lithuanian capital Vilnius last week in an attempt to reassure the governments it backs.

“What we have to do now is we have to strengthen NATO, especially we have to strengthen the eastern flank,” she told the House of Representatives on Monday. “We have to get serious about defense spending, right within NATO.”

However, even with UK support, the rest of NATO would have to be persuasive to meet the Baltic demands – and especially to pay for them. For years, NATO has been hesitant about having significant numbers of troops in the Baltic states amid fears this could offend the Kremlin. Members are also concerned about the cost of establishing permanent bases in the region and conducting military exercises.

Baltic wish list

Edward Lucas, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Britain was playing a “very important role” in helping to resolve the “mess” that is security in the Baltic region. The current situation, he said, is characterized by “a very complex command structure, a lack of troops on the ground, a lot of fantasies about how things will work out in a crisis, and realism.” the lack of exercises to test like. everything will actually work. ”

One reason Britain can afford to do this is because it leads the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) of 10 Nordic countries, which includes non-NATO members like Finland and Sweden as well as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Launched in 2012, the JEF is considered to be more agile than NATO and can provide a quick response within the first 12 hours if Russia attacks one of its members. Rihards Kols, president of the association, said: “The rapid deployment of additional troops in the event of an attack is crucial for the Baltic states. Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian parliament.

Through the JEF, the Nordic countries have agreed to conduct maritime and aviation exercises.

“We see the UK as very important to our region,” said Kols. “Overall, the UK has shown truly outstanding leadership in this crisis. We can always say that when it comes to situations like these, the UK’s head is in the right place, on its shoulders. ”

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, said the Baltic states were approaching the situation as if they were West Berlin during the Cold War.

“That means we need… all the credit to defend the territory because NATO will defend any other territory within its alliance,” he told a British parliamentary committee last week. .

Landsbergis said that as the most exposed Baltic country, Lithuania required a specialized strategy. It fears the Kremlin might try to take over the Suwalki void, a strip of land that connects Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea with Belarus. British and Lithuanian intelligence forces are currently working together to fortify the area.

Latvia has asked Britain to cooperate more in the maritime and military industry, and to send planes to Latvia’s military airfields.

Estonia, as the host of a British-led battalion, has seen the number of British troops double in recent weeks, and the country has received additional Challenger 2 tanks and armored fighting vehicles. steel from England.

Long way to go

Although NATO has three such battalions in each of the Baltic states – with Britain leading one battalion based in Estonia, Canada leading another in Latvia and the US leading the group in Lithuania. These attacks are not intended to counter a Russian attack but to convey a message to Moscow that any attack would be an attack against the entire coalition.

“It depends a lot on the idea that Russia wouldn’t want to kill Canadians, Germans or British,” Lucas said. “It was better than nothing and it worked in West Berlin during the Cold War. But we don’t have anti-aircraft missile defenses for that and we need that. And we don’t have the surveillance and reconnaissance and maritime intelligence and strategic capabilities that we need.”

“Since the early 1990s, whenever Russia did something unacceptable, we did the bare minimum to confront it – and then we thought it would go away,” he said. “But every time it comes back.”

Kols said the Baltics were often labeled “alarmers” by their EU partners when they flagged concerns about Russia in previous years, adding that working with Britain was “of paramount importance”.

Lucas is optimistic that backing the Baltics is also good for Britons, especially since Brexit.

“This helps us to work very closely with European governments,” he said. “It looks very raw, it makes for a great kind of pro-British lobbying, where you have seven countries that really, really care and are grateful for doing what we’re doing. And that’s a good antidote when the French start fussing about other things.” Baltic countries look to Britain to bolster NATO support - POLITICO

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