Central Europe Frets About NATO’s Ability to Curb Russia

President of Estonia Toomas Henrik Ilves and Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Dec. 9, 2010Today’s NATO, hollowed out by years of European military cuts and deployed mostly to help fight far-off battles in places like Afghanistan and Libya, is no longer as prepared to counter a newly assertive Kremlin, its own leaders acknowledge.

Western European members of NATO may regard the conflict over Ukraine as remote, an annoying threat to their business ties to Moscow, said Artis Pabriks, who was Latvia’s defense minister until he stepped down in late January. “But for us, it’s not about money, it’s existential,” he said. “You guys may remain with your freedoms, but we may not, so it’s different. . . .”

The reluctance is particularly strong among some NATO members, like Spain, Italy, France and Germany, with major business and energy ties to Russia. They would like to see a quick return to the status quo ante.

But in a division reminiscent of the debate over “New Europe” and “Old Europe” during the Bush years, NATO members near the Russian border say that era is over.

“The fundamental understanding of security in Europe has now collapsed,” said President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia. “Everything that has happened since 1989 has been predicated on the fundamental assumption that you don’t change borders by force, and that’s now out the window. Political leaders need to recognize that the old rules no longer apply. . . .”

NATO has refrained from deploying substantial numbers of troops in member states bordering Russia, in accordance with a unilateral promise made to Moscow in 1997, when Russia was behaving more cooperatively. . . .

But pleas for more spending may fall, as usual, on ears otherwise occupied with domestic budget constraints. . . .

What countries like the Baltic States, Poland and Romania need are “boots on the ground, a presence in the region,” Mr. Ilves said, as well as air defenses, not just air policing.

Despite the recent statements from NATO, Mr. Pabriks, the former Latvian defense minister, said, “the Polish and Baltic publics are not certain.”

“Compared to what Russia has been building up on our borders,” he added, “we are a demilitarized zone, and that will have to change.”

No one doubts NATO’s capacity to stand up to Russia militarily. But if Mr. Putin sees opinion in NATO as “divided or undecided about whether Latvia’s security has the same value as Germany’s, then he may challenge it,” Mr. Pabriks said.

“If he does, and NATO doesn’t respond in force, NATO is dead,” he added. “We have to give a clear signal that this is a red line, not a red line as in Syria, but that if you cross this line we will shoot.”

Mr. Pabriks noted that five minesweepers — two from Norway and one each from the Netherlands, Belgium and Estonia — would conduct an exercise in the Baltic Sea until the end of May. “They’re not battleships, of course. It’s clearly a signal, but obviously not enough.”

Image: President of Estonia Toomas Henrik Ilves and Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Dec. 9, 2010 (photo: NATO)