The August 2008 Russia-Georgia war sparked great unease in the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and in Poland about the willingness of the United States and other key members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to defend them against Russian military pressure or even a possible attack, unlikely though that might seem.
One of the consequences of this apprehension was an effort by NATO military planners in December 2009 and January 2010 to expand the alliance’s Eagle Guardian “defense plan,” which initially applied only to Poland, and have it cover the whole “Baltic region.” Senior U.S. and German officials tried to keep the revised contingency planning secret, but some details began leaking out in early 2010, and then the posting of huge collections of secret documents on the Wikileaks website in 2010 and 2011 left little doubt about what was going on. Neither the United States nor especially Germany had initially wanted to produce contingency plans to defend the Baltic states, for fear that such an effort would damage relations with Russia if it became publicly known. But persistent pressure by the Baltic governments spurred U.S. and German officials to agree to a compromise whereby the already existing Eagle Guardian plan for Poland would be expanded, an approach that was not especially welcome in Warsaw. Polish officials were, however, willing to embrace the expanded contingency plan, provided that Poland was treated separately in it and that U.S.-Polish bilateral military cooperation would increase.
One of the risks is the intensification of a security dilemma in which the steps taken by large NATO states to protect the security of smaller allies are seen as threatening by the Russian authorities, who then take military steps to counter NATO preparations, which in turn could lead to even greater efforts by NATO. The initial cycles of the security dilemma, as shown below, have already been apparent. The different interests and outlooks of the NATO states involved in Baltic defense gave Russia possible avenues for trying to play the parties against each other and thereby undercut the military planning, but instead the Russian authorities responded in ways that hardened, rather than weakened, NATO’s resolve. At a time when xenophobic anti-Westernism has pervaded Russia’s political discourse and Russian political leaders have been playing up supposedly “threatening” actions by NATO, the security dilemma may heighten the risk of a crisis or confrontation.
PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 267
by Mark Kramer