Baltic Sea: Flash Point For NATO-Russia Conflict

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Since the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, the third war by major Western powers against defenseless nations that had not threatened any other country (Yugoslavia in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001 being the previous examples) in a four year span, speculation has been rife as to which country would be the next target of military attack and where the next war would ensue.

So accustomed has the world become to expecting if not accepting wars, serial and gratuitous, to occur in the natural order of things, the discussion has centered not so much on whether war should be waged or whether it will be but solely on which nation or nations will be the next victim or victims of an unprovoked military onslaught.

In such an environment of international lawlessness and heightened alarm over military threats, otherwise minor contretemps and even fears of a neighbor’s and potential adversary’s intents can spark a conflict – and a conflagration.

The world has been on edge for a decade now and a form of numbing has set in with many of its inhabitants; a permanent condition of war apprehension and alert has settled over others, particularly those in areas likely to be directly affected. Over the past six years the worst and most immediate fears have centered on the prospects of three major regional conflicts, all of which are fraught with the danger of eventual escalation into nuclear exchanges.

The three are a renewed and intensified Indian-Pakistani conflict, an outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula and an attack by the US, Israel or both in unison against Iran.

The first would affect neighbors both in possession of nuclear weapons and a combined population of 1,320,000,000.

The second could set Northeast Asia afire with China and Russia, both having borders with North Korea, inevitably being pulled into the vortex.

The last could lead to an explosion in the Persian Gulf and throughout the Middle East, with the potential of spilling over into the Caspian Sea Basin, Central and South Asia, the Caucasus and even the Balkans, as the US and NATO have strategic air bases in Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan and, at least for the time being, Kyrgyzstan that would be employed in any major assault on Iran and the latter would retaliate against both land- and sea-based threats as best it could.

In the event that any of the three scenarios reached the level of what in a humane and sensible world would be considered the unthinkable – the use of nuclear weapons – the cataclysmic consequences both for the respective regions involved and for the world would be incalculable.

Theoretically, though, all three nightmare models could be geographically contained.

There is a fourth spot on the map, however, where most any spark could ignite a powder keg that would draw in and pit against each other the world’s two major nuclear powers and immediately and ipso facto develop into a world conflict. That area is the Baltic Sea region.

In 2003, months before NATO would grant full membership to the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Russian Defense Minister at the time, Sergei Ivanov, warned that such a development would entail the deployment of NATO, including US, warplanes "a three-minute flight away from St. Petersburg," Russia’s second largest city.

And just that occurred. NATO air patrols began in 2004 on a three month rotational basis and US warplanes just completed their second deployment on January 4 of this year.

Had history occurred otherwise and Soviet warplanes alternated with those of fellow Warsaw Pact nations in patrolling over, say, the St. Lawrence Seaway or the Atlantic Coast off Nova Scotia, official Washington’s response wouldn’t be hard to imagine or long in coming.

A 2005 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council confirmed that the US maintained 480 nuclear bombs in Europe, hosted by six NATO allies, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey.

More recent estimates indicate that over 350 American nuclear weapons remain in Europe to the present time.

If the six above-mentioned nations continue to host nuclear arms, what would new NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – the first and third currently governed by former US citizens, president Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Valdas Adamkus, respectively – deny the Pentagon?

In the interim between the accession of the three Baltic states and former Soviet republics into NATO and now, the Alliance as a whole and the US in particular have expanded their permanent military presence within all three nations: Estonia and Latvia which both border the main body of Russia and Lithuania which abuts the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

All three nations have been tapped for expeditionary deployments in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, where their complete NATO integration is effected through combat zone training and, as is the case with Estonian forces recently, direct participation in active combat operations in Afghanistan.

Along with the agreement reached by the US to station interceptor missiles in Poland – on the Baltic coast, only 200 kilometers from the Russian border – NATO’s absorption of three nations directly bordering Russia and within a short striking distance of both St. Petersburg and Moscow itself has belied the US’s promise in 1990 not to expand NATO "one inch eastward" and created a situation for Russia that, were it reversed, the US and its NATO allies would consider intolerable and a veritable casus belli.

After a series of computer attacks in Estonia in early 2007, which the authorities in Tallinn blamed on hackers in Russia and then the Russian government itself, the accusations dutifully taken up by Western officials and media through open assertion or repeated insinuation, NATO announced that it was establishing a so-called Cyber Defense Center in the nation’s capital.

The operation, now called the Cyber Defence Center of Excellence, was accredited in November of 2008 and "activated as an International Military Organisation by a decision of the North Atlantic Council." (1)

One person’s defense is another’s aggression – wars after all are declared and waged by what call themselves departments and ministries of defense – and what in fact NATO has initiated is a cyber warfare center with the means for conducting intelligence gathering, sophisticated surveillance and when the needs arises the immobilizing of the enemy’s communications, command and control systems.

Shortly after the cyber attacks in Estonia in May of 2007, US Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne first invoked what will be the main theme of this article in asserting: "The Russians have denied that this was their action, contrary to all the evidence. However, the good news is the attacks didn’t shut down this small country. But it did start a series of debates within NATO and the EU about the definition of clear military action and it may be the first test of the applicability of Article V of the NATO charter regarding collective self-defense in the non-kinetic realm.
(Air Force Link, June 1, 2007)

Six months earlier ranking Senator Richard Lugar, at the time chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued this demarche to Russia:

"Article 5 of the NATO charter identified an attack on one member as an attack on all. It was also designed to prevent coercion of a NATO member by a non-member state….[A]n attack using energy as a weapon can devastate a nation’s economy and yield hundreds or even thousands of casualties, the alliance must avow that defending against such attacks is an Article 5 commitment."
(International Herald Tribune, November 28, 2006)

The main paragraph of NATO’s Article 5 reads:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and onsequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

The only time in NATO’s sixty year history the article has been invoked and acted upon is after the attacks in New York City and Washington, DC on September 11, 2009.

Article 5 was the pretext NATO used to justify its role in the invasion of Afghanistan in October of 2001, NATO’s first ground war and its first war in Asia.

A war now in its ninth calendar year and set to escalate further as the tenth approaches and one which has served as the pretext for NATO also launching attacks inside Pakistan and stationing its military in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to follow.

Notwithstanding attempts by NATO and assorted Western government officials to portray it otherwise, for example as a vague pledge for mutual support in the event of natural catastrophes, Article 5, as the language above demonstrates, is an obligation to take collective military action by all twenty six member states – including that which accounts for half the entire world’s military spending and those with five of the world’s eight largest military budgets, NATO states collectively having spent $1,049 trillion of the $1,470 trillion allotted for arms worldwide last year – against any state deemed to pose a threat to any member.

Article 5 is a war clause.

Not a defense against armed aggression but a mechanism for waging war under whichever rubric and for whichever ostensible reason the bloc or any individual member of it chooses.

As evidenced above, it is openly being discussed in reference to cyber attacks and energy concerns; NATO has also identified such disparate topics as food shortages, water wars, piracy, poaching, drug trafficking, terrorism, failed states and uranium smuggling as examples of alleged strategic mutual threats to Alliance members and the bloc as a whole.

The above catalogue of reasons for NATO activating its mutual military assistance article was enumerated prior to August 8, 2008 when Georgia unleashed its military, armed and trained and advised by the Pentagon and NATO, on South Ossetia and Russian peacekeepers based there, in a move calculated to coincide with the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing that same day.

Having failed in its blitzkrieg drive to the Roki Tunnel to head off Russian reinforcements preparatory to launching a parallel invasion of Abkhazia, the Saakashvili regime turned to the US and NATO to bail it out.

The first to arrive in the Georgian capital to pledge support to the aggressor were the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine on August 12 while the war was still raging.

The talk in the main Western capitals at the time was of the applicability of NATO’s Article 5 to candidate in addition to full members of the Alliance.

Although the three Baltic states were overtly aiding and encouraging one of the belligerents, in fact the initiator of the war, and although the chief of the Georgian Defense Ministry International Relations Department Nino Bakradze acknowledged on August 14 that fifty Latvian mercenaries had enlisted in the Georgian army to fight Russia (2), Western government and media sources engaged in an hysterical campaign to convince the world that the Baltic states and Ukraine were only minutes away from Russian invasions, with Moscow’s tanks on the outskirts of Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius and Kiev.

At this point and for months afterward the threat of employing NATO’s Article was resounding broadcast in Western capitals.

Representative samples include:

In a joint column in the Wall Street Journal just two weeks after the war ended US Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham wrote:

"Contingency planning for the defense of all member states against conventional and unconventional attack, including cyber warfare, needs to be revived. The credibility of Article Five of the NATO Charter – that an attack against one really can and will be treated as an attack against all – needs to be bolstered."
(Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2008)

A month later US President Georgia Bush said, "It’s important for the people of Lithuania to know that when the United States makes a commitment through, for example, Article 5 of the treaty, we mean it."
(Associated Press, September 29, 2008)

In New York City at the time, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski "said NATO must get back to the basics of exerting its role as a military organisation in light of the war," reminding his audience that "as the Atlantic alliance we have nukes too."
(Reuters, September 26, 2008)

In announcing that he and all twenty six NATO ambassadors would visit Georgia to demonstrate and provide support to Saakashvili, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was joined by Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, who added: "Members of NATO states are confident Article 5 works. In this context NATO’s visibility in Estonia has importance. Today we see it in the form of the airspace guarding operation. There should be more such elements in the future."
(Trend News Agency, September 13, 2008)

US NATO ambassador Kurt Volker "said Nato was firmly committed to defending the Baltic states from attack because they were signatories to the alliance’s Article 5, which commits countries to come to the defence of fellow members.’
(Financial Times, September 4, 2008)

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said "NATO states back a U.S. call to show the alliance is prepared to defend Baltic members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from any attack after Russia’s intervention in Georgia" and in the same press report Kurt Volker said, ""We will have to make sure … that the Article 5 commitment is realizable, not just as a political matter, but as a military matter too."
(Reuters, September 3, 2008)

The US State Department’s Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried, visiting Lithuania in October, said "Lithuania is a NATO member, and NATO is a serious organization, and Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which provides for collective security, is a serious obligation," and speaking as it were ex officio for the Alliance further affirmed that "NATO is now authorized to do what it should do: to revise how the Alliance is ready to fulfill its obligations under Article 5."
(Interfax, October 3, 2008)

While also in the capital of Lithuania, the US’s top military commander, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, reiterated that "NATO’s commitment under Article Five for mutual defence is a very real commitment and it is one that NATO, I am confident, would stand up to."
(Reuters, October 22, 2008)

In meeting with US Pentagon chief Robert Gates in November of last year, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip was confident that "NATO will operate under the principle of Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty, which states that an attack on one ally is treated as an attack on all," and added "NATO has plans to defend all members of the alliance.”
(U.S. Department of Defense, November 12, 2008)

The Pentagon’s Press Secretary Geoff Morrell characterized Gates’s own position as wanting to "send a very strong signal of his support for

Ukraine and the Baltic States and our other NATO allies from Eastern Europe that the United States stands firmly behind them."
(Voice of America News, November 11, 2008)

A month before NATO Supreme Allied Commander (and top military chief of the Pentagon’s European Command) General John Craddock had dropped the final veil and, in recounting that "Prior to the Russian incursion in Georgia, Nato members had refused to draw up plans to fight the Russian military in Eastern Europe," now "has asked for the political authority to draw up contingency defence plans at a Nato meeting in Budapest later this week."

Indeed, "Nato’s top military commander has demanded the authority to draw up detailed military plans to defend former Soviet bloc members for the first time since the alliance expanded eastward" and he "has already proposed that Estonia, the Baltic state that has a 20 per cent Russian speaking minority, should be the first country to undergo a formal military risk assessment."
(The Telegraph, October 7, 2008)

Craddock has taken the call by the Polish foreign minister recorded above to its logical conclusion – to actively prepare NATO for war in Europe, namely on its northeast frontier – one which has been intensified evenly more dangerously this year at the Munich Security Conference in this month and since.

This year’s acceleration of those plans will be detailed after a brief chronicle of how NATO has matched its pronouncements with actions.

During the last few months alone the following initiatives have been added to NATO’s buildup in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania:

  • In mid-September General Roger Brady, US military air forces in Europe and NATO allies air forces chief, visited Lithuania and inspected its main airbase.
  • In late October Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff was in Lithuania meeting with President Valdas Adamkus, where "Adamkus expressed confidence that NATO is a guarantee of security for the Baltic states, while Mullen spoke of the United States as a reliable ally of Lithuania…."
    (Interfax, October 22, 2008)
  • Also in October NATO conducted the Strong Shield 2008 war games in Lithuania which trained over a thousand troops from the three Baltic states for the Baltic Battalion to be assigned to the NATO Response Force.
  • NATO warplanes from the US, Poland and Denmark conducted Quick Reaction Alert exercises over Baltic skies.
  • In the same month the US warship the USS Doyle joined a Lithuanian counterpart for joint naval drills in the Baltic Sea.
  • In November NATO held the Viking ’08 military exercises in Latvia to train and integrate NATO and Partnership for Peace forces.
  • Days later the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency confirmed that it would provide Lithuania with advanced air radar.
  • Still in November, the US 493rd EFS [Expeditionary Fighter Squadron] deployed to the Siauliai airbase in Lithuania "to provide air policing for the independent and democratic (4) nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to fulfill NATO air defense commitments in the region."
    (United States European Command, November 20, 2008)
  • At the end of the month the Czech Republic stated that its newly acquired supersonic Jas-39 Gripens would be tested out in the Baltic in "the biggest Czech military mission in modern history."
    (Czech News Agency, November 25, 2008)
  • In the beginning of last December it was reported that "The Baltic states are interested in entering into talks with Nordic nations about the basis for a regional defense strategy under the so-called Nordic-Baltic 8 format" and that the "Baltic governments are working on a common air-defense solution with NATO."
    (Defense News, December 3, 2008)
  • On the same day it was reported that Lithuania called for the extension of Baltic patrols by NATO warplanes for another decade, until 2018, and issued a draft that included the call for "the deployment of allied forces or ….Sea, airport and other infrastructures necessary for or incoming back-up forces in Lithuanian territory".
    ("Permanent NATO mission priority for Lithuania," Baltic Times, December 3, 2008)
  • A week later the US hosted the 2009 BALTOPS exercise, which gathered together delegations from Britain, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the United States – that is the expanded Baltic front against Russia – with the head of the German naval delegation saying, "Normally, we don’t train with the United States, so this is the only time we have training with Americans inside the Baltic. It’s a very important thing."
    (United States European Command, December 10, 2008)
  • On the same day NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer met with Latvian President Valdis Zatlers and NATO spokesman James Appathurai pledged an "increase of NATO presence and visibility in both Ukraine and in Georgia. The same is about Latvia you know, we’re going to increase NATO visibility in Latvia including air policing and training, military training, and also military exercises."
    (NATO International, December 10, 2008)
  • Later in the month the US Air Force and NATO dispatched engineers for the expansion and upgrading of Lithuanian air basing capacities with an American Air Force officials stating: "This base is undergoing an evolution and as new NATO partners, we can help them expand to allow more aircraft to occupy this space. The airbase will be a first-rate, top-of-the-line fighter base once everything’s complete."
    (United States European Command, December 19, 2008)

At the 2009 Munich Security Conference British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said:

"NATO provides a commitment to collective defence. The Article 5 Guarantee and the integrated military structures reassure each and every one of our Allies that their borders are inviolable."

Neither Europe nor the world required a further reminder of the fact, but Miliband’s words foreshadowed a concrete implementation for NATO military plans in Europe as two weeks later his government proposed "that Nato member states should set up a standing force of 3,000 troops that would be permanently committed to defending the Alliance’s collective territory from any future attack."
(Financial Times, February 18, 2009)

At last week’s NATO defense ministers meeting in Krakow, Poland Britain’s Defence Secretary John Hutton argued "that [a] standing force should be created to underpin Nato’s Article 5 commitment to the mutual defence of any member state that finds itself under threat" and "that the creation of the standing force would be reassuring to Nato’s eastern European members – above all the Baltic states…."
(Ibid)

American expatriate and current Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves had anticipated Hutton by two weeks when at the Munich Conference he advocated:

"No longer can we assume that international aggression, (as opposed to the civil wars of the Balkans) is excluded as a possibility in Europe….We can and must revisit the assumptions held in the past 17 years about the use of military force in Europe and we must follow our own legislation to ensure that we not become politically hostage to energy supplied by an outside power….NATO itself must deal with the new paradigm of in area armed aggression…."

Between the Munich and the Krakow gatherings NATO’s Baltic clients performed their appointed roles with Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene stating she plans to tell her American counterpart Robert Gates "that Lithuania would like to see NATO and the United States expand their presence in the Baltics, considering the nervousness that has followed Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August."
(Associated Press, February 11, 2009)

Not since the end of World War II, since the advent of the nuclear era, have major powers, ones moreover united in the world’s first global military bloc, so openly brandished plans for military action in Europe and just as indisputably named their intended target.

NATO has been pounding a steady, relentless drumbeat for the activation of its collective military plans in the Baltic Sea region and all it will take to bring that about is something as otherwise insignificant as the crash of an Estonian government website or Western proxies in Ukraine refusing to pay standard market prices for Russian natural gas. Nothing more.

Notes:

1). NATO International, Allied Command Transformation, November 13, 2008
2). Interfax, August 14, 2008

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