Twenty-five years ago, soon after I joined Carnegie, I launched my first project at the Carnegie Moscow Center. It was focused on the Baltic Sea area. As a result, I even wrote a short book for CMC called The Baltic Chance: The Baltic States, Russia, and the West in the New Europe. The idea behind both the project and the book was to conceptualize the role of the Baltic Sea region as a laboratory for ever closer collaboration between Russia and the rest of Europe.
Fast forward to today. The Baltic Sea area has become the part of Europe where Russia and NATO, as a result of its enlargement to the east, sit physically side by side along a broad front. To all intents and purposes, it is a de facto front line. Following the 2014 Ukraine crisis, relations between Russia and NATO have turned as hostile as they were during the Cold War. Small Western military contingents are now deployed in each of the Baltic states. Poland is emerging as a new hub for the U.S. military presence in Europe.
Russia’s relations with non-NATO countries in the Baltic Sea region—Sweden and Finland—have also become markedly strained. Stockholm has just decided on a major increase in its defense spending, citing the Russian threat. Moscow, of course, has always considered Sweden an informal member of NATO. What is new is that Finland, Russia’s direct neighbor and a neutral–friendly partner during the Cold War, is now cooperating very closely with the United States and NATO. The Baltic Sea has largely become a NATO lake.
In response, Moscow reversed the post-Cold War policy that had long seen its western flank as its safest. New military formations have been established. The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, rather than becoming a laboratory for close Russian-European cooperation, has been rebuilt as a military fortress, a behind-the-lines West Berlin on steroids. While Russians worry about defending Kaliningrad, Poland and the Baltic countries fear a Russian strike to cut off the Baltics by seizing the Suwalki gap.
What we are witnessing here is not a new Cold War, but a new kind of confrontation, which is also fraught with high risks. The most likely danger is no longer a massive cross-border invasion or a large-scale nuclear attack, but an inadvertent direct collision between Russian and Western forces where they operate close to each other, or a miscalculation by one side linked to misperception about the other.
After 2014, this is no longer too far-fetched. As NATO pilots are ordered to fly closer to Russia’s borders, Russian pilots fly close—very close—to NATO planes. Mid-air collisions have not yet occurred, mercifully, but incidents involving Russian aircraft and NATO missiles have. Russia’s 2017 Zapad exercises were widely seen in the West as preparation for invasion of NATO territory or, at the very least, for the permanent occupation of Belarus.
While the Russia-NATO confrontation itself has deep roots and will not be resolved in the foreseeable future, something can and must be done about bolstering military security in the Baltic Sea region. A number of reasonably noncontroversial steps have been recommended by various experts from Russia and the West. These include:
— Reliable 24/7 communications between Russian and NATO military headquarters, from the Chief of the General Staff/Supreme Allied Commander Europe level down to the operational headquarters;
— Regular personal contacts between the Chief of the Russian General Staff and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, as well as national military headquarters;
— Incident prevention mechanisms;
— Confidence-building measures;
— Exercising unilateral/bilateral restraint, such as—arguably, the most important issue at this point—non-deployment of nuclear- and non-nuclear-armed intermediate-range systems (INF) in Europe.
While these measures would not qualitatively change the adversarial relationships that exist today or even start rebuilding trust between the parties, they would reduce the likelihood of an inadvertent collision between Russia and NATO.
Economic cooperation, which looked promising twenty-five years ago, has not lived up to expectations. Recently, economic sanctions have become a salient feature of the international landscape and a weapon of choice for those who feel economically superior to their adversaries. It is unlikely that the EU sanctions imposed on Russia will be eased, let alone lifted in the foreseeable future.
The issue of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is an illustration of the complexities of and challenges to economic relations in the energy field. Whatever the ultimate fate of the project, one cannot help but conclude that energy is losing its former role as a principal strategic backbone in the relationship between Russia and Western Europe. That fifty-year era is drawing to a close, and there will be no substitute for the decades-old energy relationship as the material foundation of Russo-EU ties.
Not much can be done about this in the present circumstances. Geoeconomics, alas, now follows geopolitics, not the other way around. However, a post-pandemic revitalization of the economies might open new opportunities, and any sustained growth in Russia—supported by structural improvements, whenever that happens—would doubtless make the country more attractive to European businesses. Europe, of course, will remain attractive to Russia as a source of advanced technology—albeit, within the constraints of sanctions.
One new thing that might be attempted with some hope of a breakthrough is Russia-EU collaboration on the issue of climate. This is now seen as a priority not only in the European Union, but increasingly in Russia as well. What is particularly interesting here is exploring the nexus between climate and energy.
The humanitarian dimension demonstrates a host of problems that are of a fundamental nature and are unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. Little can be hoped for there, except for salvaging some cultural ties, academic and scientific exchanges, and, the pandemic permitting, cross-border travel and tourism. Even where active engagement is not possible, staying in touch or restoring contacts is a down payment for hopefully better times.
Certainly, the present situation in the Baltic Sea area is unsatisfactory. Looking ahead, it is important to set our sights on something more secure, more productive, and more positive. While doing that, it is also important to be realistic. Of course, we don’t know what will happen in the next decade—and a lot will.
Given these precepts, one could consciously start repairing the badly broken relationship on a common basis of neighborliness. This would fall far short of partnership, but it would end unchecked hostility. Russia and its Baltic Sea neighbors will continue to disagree bitterly about many things, but they would seek to:
— manage these conflicts and disagreements in order to prevent a war that neither side wants or needs;
— desist from provoking their neighbors;
— give those neighbors a modicum of respect, no matter how grudging;
— find niches, however small, for productive dialogue and even cooperation, including on environmental protection, climate change, the Arctic, and the like.
A special mention needs to be made about Russia’s relations with the three Baltic states. The fundamental issues that breed distrust and resentment on both sides will not have gone away in a decade’s time. Historical reconciliation between Russia and each of its three Baltic neighbors is way beyond the horizon. The issue of ethnic Russian non-citizens in the Baltics will be eventually resolved by demographics rather than politics.
Russians would be advised that they will be able to deal with their Baltic neighbors more productively if they manage to put history to one side and learn to control their emotions, particularly when reacting to critical or unfriendly statements. Russian residents of the Baltic states can be part of the Russian world culturally, but should not be regarded as a pro-Russian lobby in their countries. The Russian world itself can only exist as a cultural phenomenon. Any attempt to use it for geopolitical purposes compromises and kills it.
Contacts between Russia and the Baltic states are best maintained and developed between actual neighbors. On the Russian side, these are the residents of St. Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad region, Kaliningrad, and Pskov. The issues on which cooperation is possible and desirable are all mundane and nonpolitical. Political contacts may be possible and reasonably productive in multilateral fora where politics takes a back seat, such as the Baltic Sea Cooperation Council (but are extremely unlikely within the Council of Europe).
Finally, Russians should take the trouble to study their neighbors more closely. Expertise in the Baltic countries in Russia is light: a situation that is hardly surprising, but far from ideal. Setting up or expanding centers of Baltic studies at the federal and regional universities in Russia’s northwestern regions makes sense. Writing this piece from my dacha in the snow-covered Moscow countryside, I can only say that neighbors may be big or small, but they are all neighbors, and are ignored at one’s own peril.
From our partner RIAC
Untouchable U.S. troops in Lithuania
This month the Pentagon has been accused of blocking the sharing of U.S. intelligence with the international criminal court (ICC).
Located in The Hague, Netherlands, and created by a treaty called the Rome Statute first brought before the United Nations, the International Criminal Court operates independently.
Most countries on Earth – 123 of them – are parties to the treaty, but there are very large and notable exceptions, including Russia and the U.S.
It is interesting, that the Biden White House and State Department have been a proponent of cooperation with the Hague-based ICC, as a means of holding Russian forces accountable for war crimes, but the Defense Department is firmly opposed on the grounds that the precedent could eventually be turned against U.S. soldiers.
U.S. opponents of the court argued that it could be used to prosecute U.S. soldiers fighting in foreign wars, despite safeguards written into the statute stating that the international court would only have jurisdiction if the courts in a suspect’s home country were unwilling or unable to prosecute.
Anyone accused of a crime in the jurisdiction of the court, which includes countries that are members of the ICC, can be tried. Though the court tries people, not countries, and focuses on those who hold the most responsibility: leaders and officials.
And the Pentagon has really something to fear.
The U.S. has sent some 20,000 additional troops to Europe as part of an effort to bolster NATO’s defenses, assist Ukraine’s war efforts and deter Russia. This includes additional deployments to Poland, the Baltic countries and to Romania, bringing current total to more than 100,000 service members across Europe.
According to David Vine, professor at the American University in Washington, DC, the U.S. had around 750 bases in at least 80 countries as of July 2021. The actual number may be even higher as not all data is published by the Pentagon.
The U.S. government attracts people to the Armed Forces by introducing a large number of various benefits and preferences to military personnel.
Since the support for military is very popular in the United States, congressmen and senators, gaining political benefits, actively vote for further expanding the aid package and legal guarantees.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, “We recognize the service and sacrifice of our military and their families, and dedicate resources, services, policies and programs to support the more than 2 million uniformed service members and 2.6 million family members across the globe.”
Thus, the law on civil assistance for military personnel protects them from prosecution during military service and for a year after its completion, as a result of which a soldier cannot be evicted from his home or bankrupt. The law also limits the interest rate for the military – its size when buying a home, a car or using a credit card cannot exceed 6%.
The authorities also provide tax incentives to organizations that employ the wives of military personnel, and oblige them to provide them with a 30-day free vacation once a year. In addition, for family members of military personnel there is a discount in grocery stores, as well as preferential travel on public transport, on trains and on airplanes. In addition, active military personnel and veterans are entitled to lifelong medical insurance, through which they can pay for any medical care.
As for those U.S. troops who serve abroad, there are agreement on status of U.S. troops and their families. Such documents make American soldiers just untouchable. Thus, Lithuania and the U.S. signed agreement on status of US troops and their families in 2017. The agreement gives the U.S. jurisdiction over crimes committed by its military personnel. The document also gives the U.S. the right to use certain military facilities.
Though all these deployments raise separate questions about the nature of the various missions. American troops are often accused of serious human rights abuses.
These cases very often are hidden from the society and known only among those who are close to the Armed Forces. Nobody in the U.S. cares of Baltic States’ local population which expresses dissatisfaction or even scared of foreign soldiers in their territories. The U.S. authorities made their best to protect its military personnel. The Lithuanian authorities in their turn do nothing to protect population from foreign soldiers’ criminal behaviour.
The Ukraine War and Great Power Competition
The term Great Power competition (GPC) can be used as a framework to analyze interstate relations, such as those between the United States and the Russian Federation. GPC eras existed prior to World War II, during the Cold War, and in the post-Soviet period. They feature multiple powerful states competing for relative status, position, power, and influence. The primary rivalry during the Cold War was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR, there was nearly a 20-year period where the United States was arguably the only super power. Since the 2010’s, however, both the Russian Federation and China have emerged as great powers pursuing interests conflicting with those of the United States. At least since 2018, the United States National Defense Strategy has identified China and Russia as the primary threats to U.S. prosperity.
Great Power Competition is said to exist when powerful nations compete for the authority to shape global security architectures, drawing other countries into their orbit. The competitors also vie for the ability to set the norms and practices of economics, trade, and investment. Additionally, GPC involves countries competing to control the flow of information, as well as the development and regulation of new technology. Competition does not have to mean conflict, however. The U.S. competes with its partners in the E.U., particularly with Germany, as well as with Japan, but this is healthy competition which in the end, improves the competitive environment of the global economy. True global power competition is more of a zero-sum game, whereby the winner will be more powerful and the looser less powerful. GPC often results in war between two great powers, but war, including proxy wars and limited wars, even between actors other than the most powerful nations, can be the symptom of a great power competition.
The Ukraine war, has the markings of great power competition between the U.S.-led western bloc and the Russian-led bloc. The U.S. side includes NATO, the E.U. the rest of Europe, and close U.S. allies in Asia, such as Japan. On the other side are Russia and its allies, Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Serbia, and China.
Destabilization from Europe to Asia
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for the second time in less than ten years, is clearly an act of power projection and an attempt to change the world order. The Russian annexation of the Crimea, in 2014, was an attempt at destabilizing Ukraine while creating problems and challenges for the broader European community and the United States. The fact that Russia did not suffer any significant repercussions for its actions in 2014, emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine in 2022. Both the 2014 and 2022 incursions in Ukraine can be seen as extensions of the Cold War and both were attempts by Russia to disrupt the international order.
The Ukraine War is taking place during a period of intense competition between the United States and China. Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion at the UN Security Council or the G-20 meetings. China does not participate in western sanctions. In fact, China is helping Russia circumvent sanctions. As a result, this conflict involves the world’s three largest military powers, threatening the global order from Europe all the way to Asia.
The intensified strategic rivalry between the United States and China carries severe implications for security in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region. Russia and China are collaborating to support the military junta which seized control of Myanmar. China provides money, while Russia provides weapons and oil. The western-led democracies have condemned the coup, but the Russia-China bloc are supporting it, drawing Myanmar into the axis opposing the U.S. and the West. Similarly, both Russia and China are supporting the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.
Propaganda and Information War
Wars are not only fought in military terms but also across a wide array of domains, including information. Both the Ukraine and Russia have created a narrative. Ukraine has broadcast the message that they are defending their homeland, a sovereign nation, suffering a foreign invasion. Russia claims to be annexing a historically Russian piece of land. Putin has stated that he is reuniting Ukrainians and Russians which have always been one people. He also maintains that his fight is necessary for the preservation of Russia, as he accused the west of wanting to erase Russia from the map. The west has portrayed the war as a battle against authoritarianism and for the preservation of democracy. The White House issued a statement in February, reconfirming the U.S. support for Ukraine, citing territorial integrity, democracy, dignity, human rights, and “the UN Charter that unites the whole world.”
In its attempt to control the narrative, the Kremlin has shut down newspapers and other media, killed or intimidated journalists, and jailed or otherwise silenced critics and protesters. However, these information warfare efforts have failed, as the U.S. and western allies have managed to present the world with a different picture, painting Russia in a worse light.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) working together with their Ukrainian partner, the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), have determined that since the war began, 12,000 Ukrainian and foreign journalists have been accredited to cover the war, exposing frequent Russian bombardment of and deliberate targeting of civilians and journalists. So far, eight journalists have been killed. Twenty-six have been specifically targeted, and 19 have been injured. Russian forces have targeted 16 TV towers, and committed 42 cyber-crimes against media, while shutting down 217 media.
Despite Russian efforts to the contrary, Reporters Without Borders has managed to continue supporting journalists. They have supplied 750 journalists with protective equipment, 91 media with power sources, 28 media with funding, 288 journalists with training, and 129 with financial assistance.
In addition to the official press, social media has also played a tremendous role in this war. Ukrainians have uploaded images of their suffering and published photos and videos of Russian failures. These social media efforts have attracted western support for Kyiv, while encouraging Ukrainians to keep fighting. In the blurred world between cyber and real life, U.S. companies, such as Microsoft, have been able to nullify some of Russia’s advantages in space and telecommunications. Russian entities were kicked off many internet platforms and social media, further detracting from Moscow’s ability to control the story. Furthermore, the largest, most widely read media are owned by the Americans and the Brits. And so, they were able to tailor the message coming out of the war.
Sanctions as Weapons
Although there are two combatants in the Ukraine war, many more countries are involved politically, diplomatically, and economically. Some are providing weapons and training. Others help with intelligence, allowing Ukraine to use their satellite guidance systems. Additionally, the U.S. and its allies are waging economic war against Russia by bringing sanctions.
Not only governments, but also private businesses have joined in the fight by organizing their own boycotts and bans on commerce with Russia. McDonalds and other corporations have pulled out of Russia. Visa, Master Card, and Paypal have suspended service in Russia, making it difficult for Russian entities to conduct international business or to send or receive payments.
The official sanctions, naming high ranking government officials as well as specific companies, are meant to disrupt Moscow’s ability to finance the war. To this end, the foreign currency reserves and other assets of the Russian government and oligarchs have been frozen in foreign banks. Specific sectors of the economy have been completely cutoff from trade with allied nations. The most damaging blow to the Russian economy has been a price-cap imposed on the export of Russian oil. Allied nations have prohibited their ships and insurers from engaging in trade of Russian oil which exceeds the cap price of $60 per barrel. Together, these sanctions limit Moscow’s access to hard currency in a world where the ruble is effectively useless in international trade.
On the opposing side, Moscow’s allies, as well as officially unaligned countries, Turkey, India, and Vietnam, continue to trade with Russia. The non-convertibility of the ruble and the inability to use major international payment systems, however, has complicated this trade. Furthermore, in order to convince countries to violate sanctions, Russia has to offer oil at below market prices. Shipping to India adds about $11 per barrel to the cost, nullifying Russia’s additional profits when the world price of oil dips below $70 per barrel.
Rewriting the International Security Architecture
The Ukraine War has caused the realignment of the world’s nations into three categories: the U.S. camp, the Russian camp, and those who refuse to take sides, remaining non-aligned. NATO and the U.S. sided against Russia immediately. This was to be expected, given the U.S. leadership of NATO and that NATO was formed to prevent the expansion of the USSR. However, European nations who were not NATO members also joined the western bloc. The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution condemning the invasion. Among the Asian countries that voted with the western bloc were Singapore, South Korea, and Japan.
Thirty-five countries, however, abstained from a vote of condemnation, three of which were British Commonwealth states South Africa, Pakistan, and India. All the BRICS countries abstained from the vote, including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Western countries, along with western aligned allies in Asia and elsewhere, feel that the west is maintaining a global, rules-based order. Finland and Sweden have asked to join NATO, while the Balkan States have shifted even more towards the western orbit. Many Asian and African countries, however, found it better to remain unaligned, so they could continue to trade with Russia. These nations are not, however, rallying with overt support for the Russian side.
With its chip bans and other restrictions on the sale of technology to Russia, the U.S. is rewriting the rules on Russia’s use of technology and most likely impacting Russia’s future technological development. Drones have played a significant role in the war so far and now it seems that Russia has deployed hypersonic missiles. The chips and other technological inputs needed to manufacture and maintain these technologies are all covered by the U.S. sanctions. At the same time satellites are proving critical as they are being used for imaging and directing fire. Moscow has threatened to attack U.S. satellites aiding Ukraine. Meanwhile, the EU has officially ended its cooperation with the Russian Space Agency. These and other sanctions are expected to cripple the long-term development of Russia’s space program.
Great Power Competition
What started out as a simple conflict between two states over the control of territory, became a great power competition between the U.S.-led west and the Russian Federation. Without firing a shot at one another, the two actors are battling for hearts and minds, to control the narrative, to win-over new supporters, and to establish which is the greater power. Even more, both sides believe that losing would mean a permanent loss of power.
Applying the definition of great power competition: The Ukraine war involves two large nations, the U.S. and Russia, competing for the authority to shape the global security architecture. The U.S. has built a coalition, including NATO, the EU, and far away allies, rewriting the existing global security architecture. In great power competition, two powerful nations compete to set the norms and practices of trade and investment. By organizing a coalition and bringing sanctions, the U.S. has is now dictating the norms and practices of trade with Russia and controlling Russia’s trade with most of the world.
Another aspect of GFC is competition for the development and regulation of new technology. The Russian Spacey Agency has been banned from cooperation with Europe, and Moscow’s access to chips has bas been restricted. Effectively, the U.S. is controlling the development and regulation of Russia’s technology. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Ukraine War is a great power competition which will most likely set the tone for all future conflicts.
Lithuania is on a slippery slope hosting NATO troops
As Lithuania not only calls on NATO partners to increase military presence on its territory, the authorities also allocate large sum of money to develop national military infrastructure.
Thus, the Ministry of National Defence is implementing an infrastructure development project in preparation for hosting the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. The contract was signed by the NATO Support and Procurement Agency as the project coordinator and Merko Statyba UAB.
As a result, 10 buildings will be constructed to house barracks, mess-hall, vehicle repair facility, helipads, multipurpose facility, etc. The work is planned to be completed by 2026. The assessed worth of the contract is over EUR 110 million.
According to Minister of National Defence Arvydas Anušauskas, Lithuania is developing infrastructure to strengthen deterrence and defence.
But this large-scale project does not look like a defensive one. Completion of the project will make the Pabradė Training Area capable of hosting up to 3 thousand military personnel and one of the most developed military ranges in the Baltics! It will ensure good conditions for training activities and resting, as well as logistical and technical support.
It is just one of the several Lithuanian Armed Forces modernization projects the Ministry of National Defence is implementing with coordination by the NATO Support and Procurement Agency.
The question arises if Lithuania considers the Ukrainian crisis lasts for 3 more years or authorities try to hide the real purpose of the modernization efforts.
In fact such plans will not help Lithuania to defend itself in near future because the project to be finished only by 2026.
The more so, at the end of February Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis confirmed that there is no direct military threat at Lithuania’s border.
It could be concluded that Lithuania or its NATO partners considers Lithuania’s military infrastructure as a starting point for any offensive operations, which could jeopardize complex relationships with neigbours.
It is well known that most interstate wars are fought or begin between neighbors. These steps will make it harder for Lithuania to improve relations and even could re-start an arms race and threaten seriously the stability of the region. It is quite evident that ordinary residents do not need such consequences of political decisions. On the other hand, authorities insist on further militarization of Lithuania and thus complicate the prospects for normalizing relations with neighbors bring the war closer.
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