Has Nato taken its eye off the ball over Russia?

For anyone seeking guarantees that the West would stand up to Russia over Ukraine, the recent comments from Nato’s top military commander were perhaps less than reassuring.

Interviewed on the day that armed pro-Russian gunmen siezed government buildings in Crimea, US Air Force general Philip Breedlove, who is Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said there were no “contingency” plans on how to respond.

For an organisation whose very raison d’etre is stopping East-West confrontation, this might sound a little odd, although on this occasion, it wasn’t quite how it seemed. What Gen Breedlove meant, of course, was that Nato was not taking its tanks out of storage and checking the codes on the nuclear missile silos. But to critics, it did sum up the way that a body created around the notion of a hostile Russia in 1949 now seems to have forgotten that its old adversary ever existed.

In western Europe, that’s understandable. The Cold War proper is a distant memory from the 1980s. Today, the only place in Britain that still keeps Protect and Survive leaflets on how to cope a nuclear strike is the Imperial War Museum. Most of the Russians we have come to know in the post-Communist era are not ideologues who aspire to rule over us, but football club owners and businessmen. Germany and Russia, for example, are each other’s biggest trading partners.

That’s not the case though, in parts of eastern Europe, where the fear of an expansionist Russia has never really gone away. This is particularly true in the Baltic small Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia, which acquired large Russian minorities during the process of “Russification” in the 1950s. Just like Ukraine, these countries aggressively re-asserted their national identities after the Soviet Union’s collapse. And just like Ukraine, they complain that Moscow still bullies them.

It’s no coincidence that today both Latvia and Estonia are among Nato’s keenest new members, much to Moscow’s fury. But with that enthusiasm comes criticism too. Many in the Baltics believe Nato has become far too complacent about Russia, focusing too much instead on the strategically minor threat from Islamic terrorism. As one Estonian security analyst once put it to me in 2008: “Nato has spent all its time chasing a few people in the desert in Afghanistan, when it still has a hostile superpower sitting right on Europe’s doorstep.”

Pro-Russian protests in Estonia, 2007

Was my analyst friend being paranoid? To a degree, perhaps. But Estonians do harbour bitter memories of the Russian occupation. And they also point out that unlike the Germans, post-Communist Russia never went through any equivalent of “De-Nazification” to rid them of totalitarian, empire-building mindsets. Hence Russia’s willingness to use military force in places like Georgia and Ukraine, despite the appalled reaction from the wider world.

Besides, as a cyberespionage expert, that particular analyst had good reason to be worried. In 2007, Estonia was the target of a massive, organised cyberattack, the first ever of its kind directed against a nation state, which overloaded government websites and even briefly disabled the country’s emergency services telephone lines. It followed demonstrations by the country’s ethnic Russians, who make up around a third of the population, over a decision to move a statue of a Red Army army soldier from a prime city centre location. While the hackers’ identities have, of course, never been nailed down, it was widely thought to have been Kremlin sponsored.

The concern among these Baltic states is that this kind of flare-up with Moscow is likely to happen again sometime, and while they are now members of Nato, they are also its Achilles’ heel. No other European Union states have substantial proportions of ethnic Russians. As such, all Moscow has to do is engineer some fresh political “crisis” and then send its troops in, just as they have done in Ukraine, using the “protection of Russian citizens” as a pretext.

“If you are sitting in the Baltics, you might well be thinking right now, ‘what will Nato if we come under pressure?'” said James Sherr, Russia and Ukraine expert at London’s Chatham House think tank. “Russia can engineer the same bogus justifications, and there will be the same pressures on the West about not wanting to either to go to war or jeopardise business relationships. There is a risk that the treaties these countries have signed with Nato may not be seen as being worth the paper they are written on.”

Indeed, the parallels between the Baltics and Ukraine are uncomfortably close. As in some of Ukraine’s Crimean cities, Russian speakers are a majority in Narva, one of Estonia’s biggest cities, and dominate the Latvian city of Daugavpils. Many are also staunchly pro-Moscow, and bitterly resent efforts to promote Latvian and Estonian as languages over Russian. What would happen if there was a pro-Russian insurrection in these cities? According to Lithuania’s lady president, Dalia Grybauskaite, it’t not something to worry about. “Thanks be to God, we are NATO members,” she said on Monday. Whether she really believes it is perhaps another matter.

More by Colin Freeman

The Iraqi cleric who deserves a Nobel Peace Prize
What would an independent Scottish BBC look like?
Did US evangelists help inspire Uganda’s anti-gay laws?



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