27 October 2016

Why Britain is right to be deploying troops to the Baltic

By Henry Williams

Today’s confirmation that the UK is to deploy a battalion to Estonia has reawoken concerns that, far from having a new Cold War with Russia, things are beginning to look decidedly hot.

Yet with 330,000 Russian troops deployed across the border, the 800 British soldiers might feel rather like their counterparts who served in Germany during the 1980s. Back then, their potential survival was measured in the minutes they would buy Western leaders to formulate their response to Russian tanks storming across the horizon. The odds, if the firing starts, look little better now.

“Estonia has its own defence forces and together with the Nato battalion this is a serious combat group,” insists Tomas Jermalavicius of the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn. “What we now have is a strong tripwire in case of Russian aggression.”

Tripwire being the operative word. Vladimir Putin’s previous foreign adventures in Georgia and Ukraine were gambles, based on the calculation that the West would not respond to Russian incursions. The same equation appears to apply now in Aleppo.

So what Nato agreed in Brussels yesterday is, in essence, that it will not allow a similar situation to develop in the Baltic States. “The threat level remains at Serious,” Jermalavicius says. “The scenario that Russia could make a very real military provocation is now accepted across the alliance.”

For all the allegations that the West is engaged in dangerous sabre-rattling against Russia, Nato’s response actually appears to be both proportionate and necessary. In fact, the movement of 800 troops is pretty small fry when weighed up against recent Russian militarism.

Today, for example, we learned of the deployment of warships, each capable of carrying long-range nuclear missiles, to Russia’s European enclave of Kaliningrad. A few years back, a Russian military exercise simulated not just an amphibious invasion of Poland, but the use of tactical nuclear strikes there.

While there is a strand of British public opinion which admires Putin’s decisiveness, it’s hard not to see that he is playing with fire here.

The concern in the Baltic states is that Putin wants to use these tiny countries on Nato’s periphery to show up the West as a paper tiger. Article 5 of Nato’s founding treaty provides for a collective defence for any member. Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich have already suggested this might not be the case any longer. That means the Baltic provides an ideal testing ground for Russia to probe – and ideally end – Nato’s commitment to collective response.

This is where the tiny battalion of British troops comes in. “Nato is sending a message that they are willing to defend the Baltic States,” Jermalavicius says. “Also, the group is so small that there is no chance it could mount a serious offensive against Russian territory, so it could hardly be described as a provocation.”

The size of the Nato deployment, in other words, is set at Goldilocks levels: big enough to make a dent in any Russian invasion, but too weak to be legitimately described as a threat and provocation (although one imagines Sputnik News will have a good try).

It also means that before any potential attack – whether in a staged move to protect Russian nationalists, as happened in Ukraine, or on the back of a manufactured provocation – Putin will have to weigh up whether he really wants to fire on British troops.

While there will inevitably be talk of Nato encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence, this does rather ignore the point of view in the countries themselves. The Baltic states were unwillingly occupied by Russia after the Second World War and suffered under the Soviet Union accordingly.

While they have large Russian minorities left behind from these times, the majority of the population are much more Scandinavian than Russian in their outlook – hence their decisions to join the EU and Nato. These were certainly not part of a wider US plot to encircle Russia.

For all the concerns people may have that Nato is sabre-rattling, the accident of geography should not prevent Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia choosing how they are governed and the alliances they make. They have chosen Nato, and Nato is honouring their pledge.

“What Nato is showing by this deployment is that there are no second-class members,” says Jermalavicius. That can only be good thing.

Henry Williams is Acting Assistant Editor of CapX.