BALTBAT, BALTNET, BALTRON, BALTDEFCOL — these are projects embodying military cooperation between the three Baltic countries. After joining NATO and the EU, however, many think these projects are starting to lose their purpose. The trilateral cooperation itself is starting to lack vigor and vision, too. Indeed, membership in the alliance created many opportunities to cooperate with a much larger circle of allies and partners, writes Tomas Jermalavicius in Delfi.lt portal on 12 October.
Thus, one wants to ask whether the trilateral military cooperation between the Baltic States can still find a place in the foreign and security policies of the countries, or whether it will be lost in the merciless competitive fight over priorities, attention, and resources.
BALT Dreams in the Past: “Together Into the West”
Before they were accepted into NATO, the Baltic States had been cooperating in the defence area for over a decade. The Baltic Battalion (BALTBAT) was established in 1994. It was intended to help prepare for peacekeeping operations. Later, between 1998-1999, BALTRON, the trilateral squadron of minesweepers, BALTDEFCOL (Tartu, Estonia), the joint headquarters officers’ college, and BALTNET, the common airspace monitoring system with the coordination centre in Karmelava, were established. All of these projects were possible only because they were initiated, overseen, and supported in every way by Western states, for which this was a defence policy tool, trying to strengthen the new democracies and regional security. The BALT projects helped our militaries to learn cooperation skills and to understand what communication and integration mean in practice.
These projects affected the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian militaries at least in three aspects. First, they allowed them to gain important knowledge about activities of modern Western military organizations. Second, thanks to contribution in the joint projects each of the three countries started to realize that in striving to achieve international security, one cannot be a freeloader, but must try to contribute to the creation of international security in every possible way. Third, as the officers of these countries started to work together and started to cooperate with Western partners, the ability to quickly understand each other, to make effective decisions, and to trust each other began to form.
Integration into NATO forced them to work together in solving problems, in expanding the cooperation agenda little by little, and even to come closer to trilateral military integration. After NATO membership was achieved, this beautiful picture that was beginning to form became blurry, and the Baltic States started to look at each other and the cherished BALT projects differently.
Attack of National Interests and Ambitions
After joining NATO, for a period of time the Baltic States felt like they were experiencing the “end of history” announced by Fukuyama. The engine of the trilateral cooperation — the goal of joining NATO — was turned off (although its isolated parts are still turning from inertia) and the future of the BALT projects became hazy. Despite a few positive tendencies, it is impossible not to notice that since the accession into NATO no new joint projects have been started.
The Baltic States are not trying to work together in NATO operations. Afghanistan, where one of the most important NATO operations in history is taking place, is an excellent example of this. All three countries are participating in this mission. For a while there were ideas to have a joint mission in the Provincial Reconstruction Group in the Province of Ghowr. However, Lithuania decided to lead the mission by itself and to invite Estonia and Latvia to join in. The latter countries were insulted by this and decided to work with other allies in other provinces. The opportunity was missed.
Why was the cooperation idyll disturbed? First, the role of Western countries in the BALT projects decreased. This removed the incentive of organization and discipline. There was no one who could criticize advice or support. Therefore, individualism and national ambitions were allowed to flourish freely.
Second, without proper vision, the elements of competition and of certain disdain for one another that had existed in each of the three defence systems were given an excellent opportunity to flourish. The Baltic States started to compete whose idea was the best and more acceptable. The Estonians were proud of their Cyber Defence Competence Centre. The Lithuanians became preoccupied with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan and with the dream about the Energy Security Competence Centre. All of these initiatives could have easily become joint projects of the Baltic States. Disdain for one another forced the Baltic States to think that it would be better to boost cooperation with bigger and more important partners.
Third, it looks like the countries react to NATO transformation differently. Estonia still devotes the most attention to the country’s territorial defence and remains loyal to its army of recruits. Latvia and Lithuania are creating small, mobile professional armies, supported by active reserves. Both countries have already abandoned the recruit system. Therefore, their priorities and needs are different from Estonia’s.
Geography Is Our Fate?
Thinking about the future, it becomes increasingly clear that the people responsible for the defence policies of the Baltic States finally need to agree on a vision and ambition of trilateral cooperation. Otherwise, constant mantras about the importance of cooperation and solidarity will remain empty.
The worst case scenario would be haphazard partnerships in the alliance, when the three countries “meet” only once in a while in projects with other allies. Such a scenario is not unlikely: A lack of ideas and leadership, growing antipathy among the three defence communities, and overly-different trajectories of their development can easily turn such partnerships into the main cooperation method among the three countries.
Another development scenario would be to retain military cooperation among the Baltic states within the framework of the current projects and to mold and adjust these projects to solve new problems and challenges. Considering the fact that the Baltic states’ military capacities and military organizations are on a similar level of development, they would have plenty of tasks and work for these joint projects for a long time, and their strategic essence would be retained – they would cooperate in “growing muscles” and in “training the brain.”
Finally, it is possible to strive for bilateral military integration. Despite individual ambitions and interests, the Baltic States are in one strategic region in terms of defence and geopolitics. The geopolitical aspect draws attention and leads to clear understanding that the worst case scenario in terms of security — a situation involving the Fifth Article of the Washington Treaty — in our region would be a question of survival of all three Baltic States, not just of one of them. Trilateral military integration would also demonstrate mature understanding that reliability of NATO’ collective defence depends not only on the allies’ desire to defend us, but also on our own will to unite our efforts and military preparedness.
Trilateral military integration would be an ambitious project and challenge, which would dictate the defence policy agenda for decades. At the political and strategic level, this would mean constant coordination and joint decision-making. In organizational sense, such ambition would demand abandoning various defence institutions at the national level and switching to joint trilateral organizations in various sectors (for example defence acquisitions, logistical and technical services, scientific studies and research development, creation of doctrines, defence education, leadership and control, military intelligence, and so on).
Of course, such a model of defence cooperation would require a lot of effort, but it would also produce more results (more capabilities, knowledge, and visibility in the alliance) than the Baltic states can achieve individually, because they are small and lack human and financial resources.
During the interwar years, the three countries did not manage to achieve a serious military cooperation because of immature strategic thinking, ambitions of authoritarian leaders, and silly disagreements between them. This, in the end, made it easier for totalitarian geopolitical predators to implement their schemes. It would be sad, if we did not learn anything from this experience, as we are piecing together the game of puzzle related to military cooperation inside NATO, and if we were unable to find leaders who have strategic thinking and who are able to formulate and implement an effective vision of defence cooperation between the Baltic states.
Tomas Jermalavicius is currently a researcher at the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn and a former civil servant the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence, who also spent almost seven years working at the Baltic Defence College in Tartu.