This small essay does not try to be pleasant, even if it is marking a success. I earned my right to be constructively critical by working for Baltic States’ independence even before 1991 and by toiling stubbornly thereafter for more than a decade – in region – assisting its integration into the Euro-Atlantic framework that has now been the situation for five years.
In parallel with the continued observations of the developments and situation during my stay, I studied the interwar as well as German and Soviet periods of the three states’ history. The combination should prepare a better understanding of the rather difficult and poisoned fields of domestic politics in the three and co-operation of Baltic State’s. Some results of my observations were published in a comparatively diplomatic form in the ‘Baltic Defence Review’.
1920-1940 in retrospect
The three Baltic States achieved their independence as a result of a deliberate British decision in November 1918. France preferred to work for the return of a more normal Russia that could balance German power from the east in some future. If this was not possible, Poland should be as large and powerful a counterweight as possible.
British basic strategic interests were, however, different from those of its continental ally. In the draft of the Foreign office telegram sent to the new British envoy to Copenhagen – chosen as the staging and support base of the coming Royal Navy intervention in the Baltic – it was made clear that the navy’s mission was to support the newly created states. It was not the main mission to support the ‘Whites’ against the ‘Reds’. After having loaded 300 Madsen light machine guns for the Estonian Army in Copenhagen, rear-admiral Sinclair proceeded to do just that. His successor in Baltic command, another light cruiser admiral, Walter Cowan, completed what Sinclair had started, using Finnish territory to scare the Russian Navy into its cave by a daring raid into Kronstadt base. Only Lithuania needed more sponsors than the British to counter Polish ambitions and gain independence.
With the German Navy self destroyed, the British could ensure naval freedom of action by putting most of the Baltic Sea littoral into the hands of small friendly states and by having the Aaland Islands given to Finland against the wish of the majority of the islanders. As a result the Royal Navy ruled the Baltic Sea during the first decade of the interwar period.
It was the direct sponsor and military guarantor of Baltic States independence.
However, the ‘Senior Service’, was soon weakened by the ‘payment of the peace dividend’ and by the administrative continuous extension of the assumption of a temporary end to European history, with no major war the next 10 years. From 1931 the Royal Navy became increasingly pressed attempting to deter first the Japanese and then the Italians with the surviving forces. At the same time its development was handicapped by the Royal Air Force’s ideological based resistance to the special naval aviation that had been used so effectively in 1919-20 in the Finnish Gulf. In 1935 the service was forced to give up the Baltic Sea to Germany in a vain attempt to limit its naval growth through arms control.
By then the domestic politic development of all three Baltic States had shifted away from parliamentarian democracy to right wing, nationalist authoritarian rule, first in Lithuania by Smetonas, then, under the pressure of the local effects of the Great Depression, by Päts in Estonia and finally by Ulmanis in Latvia.
At the same time the leadership of the Baltic armed forces either stayed far longer in their job than was good for their service or – worse – became deeply politicized. No professional adjustment of doctrine and structure to the local defence conditions of the type that took place in Finland catalyzed by general Kirke’s mission in the mid-20’s happened in the Baltic States. Even Estonia and Latvia, where the armies had fought closely together during the Wars of Independence, and where the acknowledged, common main military threat was the Soviet Union, left their operational defence plans uncoordinated.
In spite of the fact that the Riga was the then ‘Spy Capital’ for information about the Soviet Union, the Berlin of that era, the reactions of the peoples of the Baltic States in 1939-1940 seemed to indicate that the brutal character of Stalin’s empire had not been realized in advance. Until too late, the Soviet Unions was apparently seen as something similar to the benevolent an ineffective Russia of Nicolai II that had allowed growth of the Estonian and Latvian national movements for autonomy.
In 1941 the Germans came, preparing to further develop and realise their 1918 ambitions for the region, and then the Russians returned in 1944.
The next two decades of independence
Fifty years after the end of the first double decade, independence was regained due to a clear and effective U.S. sponsorship. Thereafter it was successful American support that ensured that the three States were accepted into NATO (and by logical implication into the EU).
I am personally happy that my country, Denmark, driven by the visionary effort of a handful of key leaders, was among those endeavouring to act as a catalyst in the process. However, without the U.S. leadership, the three states would have been left in the grey zone no man’s land of Russian ‘Near Abroad’ by West Europeans always incapable of concerted action when facing states and leaders thinking different than themselves.
Loss of empire is tough on self esteem, and other former imperial nations, especially the French and Italians, felt empathy for the poor ex-imperial newcomers. The Germans were guided by their well earned bad conscience. They all failed to see that what emerged in Russia after the zigzag of drunken, well-meaning confusion under Boris Jeltsin was a state leadership with the mindset of the period 1900-1930. The resulting Russian world view crystallised into being driven by the geo-strategic paradigm of that time, where neighbours should be destabilised and weakened by political and economic infiltration, including ‘economic encouragement’ to their political and business leaders. The retiring German chancellor Schröder offered himself as a role-model of selfish amorality.
If necessary and without clear risks, military threats and even limited military operations could be employed. The Russians copied the autocratic national-conservative leaders in Weimar Germany in significant ways – beyond the general worldview. The history of the past was deliberately rewritten to hide past state misdeeds and pass blame to the domestic opposition and the outside world. Thereafter the manipulated stories were used as a tool in the manipulation of the young in schools and the ‘Nashi’, to reinforce the misconceptions of the old and act as a weapon of historical misinformation against ‘enemies’ encircling the country. The falsified history would be used in a directed way to destabilise the neighbours with a significant Russian speaking diaspora, using its dependence on homeland information and reinforcing its separation from the nation it lived with. Especially the young and otherwise insecure expatriates in the neighbouring states could be mobilised for the ‘home country’, creating local branches of SA – or in the case the Nashi.
As demonstrated by the Germans in the interwar period, any historical interpretation, even the most manipulated and twisted, would receive support from some western academics as part of their critical attitudes to main line interpretations in their field.
The only two good pieces of news in the present situation are firstly that Putin and his political supporters are more like the autocratic national-conservatives of the German Fatherland movements than like Hitler and his minions, and secondly that the Russian way and level of peace-time self-organisation, rational strategic behaviour and effectiveness is dramatically different from what we saw in interwar Germany.
On the other side there remains a serious handicap on the Baltic side. Many leaders are to a rather high degree still twisted and damaged mirrors of their upbringing in the Soviet Union. They are therefore very different from the cadres of 1919 that copied Baltic German, Russian and Polish bourgeois norms.
In the late Soviet Union interpersonal relations outside the family were too often built on power-dependent client relations rather than on a foundation real trust based on a developed ability to ‘read’ your fellow human being. Especially the men now above 35 too often perceived public office as a large or small milking cow or privilege bank rather than a chance and inspiration to serve the public common good. Façade was more important than substance. Honest analysis and reporting of problems was often still being replaced by a code of necessary embellishment by lying about reality. Actions of public organisations too often remained at the planning stage to avoid risk and because actual implementation required (missing) decisiveness at the top and (equally missing) trustful co-operation in and among involved persons and supporting agencies.
The resulting political structures in the three very different states were influenced in different ways. In Estonia the worst ‘fat cat’-politicians were weeded-out fairly early, but both before and after this happy development, the implementation of broadly agreed sound policies have been hampered by a rather immature level of interpersonal relationships and by a populist and shifty opportunistic opposition. In Latvia central control over appointment of candidates for parliament and other key public positions have made it very difficult to avoid a public sector that continues to be stuck in a system financed by the purchase of office, public contracts and services. It is a system wide open to hostile Russian influence, infiltration and action. In Lithuania progress in the development of an honest and qualified leadership has been slow, dominated by the phases of running ‘civil war’ and political zigzag between the loose coalition of nationalists on one side and even more loose and opportunistic groupings around central and local political and management nomenclatura on the other with the security service in the middle spying against all.
In the 1930’s, the main military sponsor, the Royal Navy, departed to counter security problems in Asia at the same time where the Baltic States were hard hit by the economic depression. As mentioned, the still weak democratic political structures in Estonia and Latvia gave up under pressure. Lithuania by then already mirrored autocratic model of Poland.
Now, the sponsor and allies of the Baltic States in NATO are increasingly focused on the security threat centered in Asia, in Afghanistan and the likely terminally weakening nuclear armed state of Pakistan. The Alliance cannot even agree on meeting this challenge in a timely and sufficient way. In the attempt to do better, it has apparently been more or less tacitly decided by members to assume that no other issue will arise that can derail the effort.
Russian behaviour in Georgia implied a requirement for reinforcing Alliance Article 5 credibility in member states with a recent history in the inner or outer Russian Empire. Especially those with problems like the Soviet diaspora in Estonia and Latvia or the Lithuanian Kaliningrad Oblast transit issue. However, this fact seems to be beyond comprehension and agreement by members. Western Europe, the Old NATO Europe, has still no direct security problems. Many in Western Europe argue in the same way as their grandfathers did when defending German actions in the 1930’s: Russian claims and actions are just and reasonable. It is implicitly seen as justified and normal for a ‘great’ state to seek geo-strategic control over and respect from its small neighbours, the word ‘respect’ used as understood by a mafia don.
The Americans are now trying to enhance the credibility of the Western security support to the Baltic States by a framework of exercises. However, the deterrence effect of such activities depend on a clear character of the security challenge, on Baltic States territorial defence capabilities and on a timely and adequate response capability of other member states.
In theory the West European countries could assist effectively due to the shorter deployment distance. In reality most find it difficult to maintain even their rather small contributions to the missions in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa. Only France and Great Britain do a little better. The Western European militaries are increasingly becoming top-heavy, bureaucratic, de-professionalized monuments to the ‘New Public Management’ GOSPLAN-like fashion.
The Baltic defence and security forces are presently far from capable of mobilising the necessary initial dense presence in their land- and sea border territories and stabilising security presence in threatened areas, even if such a capability is a precondition for being reinforced by friends. The Anglo-Saxon late 1990’s advice to create small standing forces was welcome. The alternative was to start by creating an effective, broad conscription based territorial structure with a strong reserve cadre. That this could be done on the cheap was demonstrated by Finland. The comprehensive advice given by the Nordic States to follow that line was received politely, but considered irrelevant in the domestic political context. The Anglo-Saxon advice was welcome, because none of the Baltic States elites really accepted that their sons (and possibly even daughters) should be committed to contribute to the national defence in a serious way. Even in the militarised Soviet Union they could get away with some pseudo-reserve officer training when in university. The Brits ridiculed the Nordic advice, having completely forgotten how they organised themselves, when the enemy was just across the Channel.
In theory it is still possible to adjust effectively to the new situation by learning from the Finns and using the experience gained in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, my experience does not make me an optimist, and the new pressure by the state finances by the fast near collapse of international trading has already led to serious cuts in the already very small defence budgets.
The three states could, to be more effective, co-ordinate their actions and planning and be willing to co-operate effectively, even by practicing reinforcement of each other, exercising putting their forces under operational control of the challenged state. In my time in the Baltic States, I never experienced any mature acceptance of such a possibility.
However, as the Baltic States, Russia is now hit very hard by the international depression, due to the country’s dependence on an increasingly rundown oil industry. In the short term this may be good for Baltic security. However, if the current depression worsens, and lasts several years, which is now most likely, it could destabilise Russia politically far further than in the early 1990’s. Russia is far too large and screwed to be helped by an IMF-loan. The final result of such a destabilisation is very hard to foresee.