The Breakaways: A Retrospective on the Baltic Road to NATO
Fifteen years ago, NATO opened its doors to the Baltic states. In the United States this momentous historical decision is commonly framed either as one of the greatest U.S. foreign policy achievements or an ill-advised move that diluted the alliance by taking on indefensible nations. Meanwhile, Russian contemporary discourse on this matter revolves around broken Western promises not to expand the alliance towards its borders. Either way, the story of Baltic NATO membership is almost exclusively told through the lens of major powers, leaving the impression that Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were mere spectators caught in a geopolitical tussle between the United States and Russia.
To be clear, great power relations have shaped and constrained the realm of possibilities for Eastern Europeans. For good reason, scholars have meticulously detailed interactions between “Bill and Boris” and how these conditioned Europe’s security arrangements. But to assume that the fate of Baltic nations hinged only upon developments in Washington or Moscow is to unduly ignore the role played by the Baltic peoples themselves. As one commentator cautions in his War on the Rocks essay, “Americans tend to forget other actors (even the smallest states) have agency.”
The Baltic countries played their hand expertly in first binding themselves closer to NATO and then seizing on the opportunity given to them. Daniel Fried, a U.S. diplomat for four decades, noted in a speech in 2017 that the real credit for getting the Baltics into NATO belongs to the governments of the Baltic states. He stressed:
Don’t thank us, us Americans who were involved in the policy. Because if the Baltic states had failed in their democratic free market transition, I wouldn’t accept the blame… The Baltic states did what they had to do. And in doing so, they generated the political capital for themselves, which then their friends in the West would use.
Indeed, their commitment to reforms, relentless insistence to join the alliance, attempts to cajole, pressure and at times even stalk international political figures is part and parcel of the anatomy of this event. The following tells the story of just that.
Haven’t These Peoples Always Belonged to Russia Anyway?
Today it may seem like a foregone conclusion that the Baltics were destined to become full-fledged members of the world’s strongest military bloc. In reality, this was never a preordained outcome. Before the turn of the century, the idea that NATO would absorb small nations located at significant geopolitical crossroads appeared unlikely. While the Clinton administration did commit to “keep the membership door open” for the Baltics, speculation on the subject remained cautious and reserved. In 1996, internal policy documents recognized that getting the necessary votes in the Senate for Baltic NATO membership would be “no cakewalk”. Robert Nurick, someone who is credited to have spearheaded public debate on this topic by putting out an influential RAND Corporation paper, recalls that among the policy-making establishment in Washington, potential Baltic accession to NATO was treated as a “very strange idea”.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry and grand strategist George Kennan had made their case against Baltic entrance into NATO, the latter by underlining that historically these nations had been “part of Russia longer than they were part of anything else.” Sharp objections were also raised on the Senate floor. In 1997, Sen. Bernie Sanders intimated that wrapping the American security blanket around these countries was categorically unjustifiable. He went on to quote former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who once said that “if we ever think of bringing the Baltic countries into NATO we ought to have our heads examined.”
Europeans also harbored deep reservations. Lithuania’s Minister of Defense reconstructed past conversations among fellow Europeans as follows: “You are nice, your freedom fight is also very impressive, but you will never be a member of NATO.” When a high ranking Scandinavian diplomat had raised the prospect of Baltic membership with another distinguished NATO foreign minister, the minister dismissed it immediately, adding, “Haven’t these peoples always belonged to Russia anyway?” Needless to say, the Russian Federation categorically opposed the idea from the beginning. Arguably though, in the mental geography of most Russians, the Baltics were always more “European” or “Western” and somewhat easier to let go than countries like Ukraine, which Russia viewed as an extension of itself. However, given the realities of the time, Kremlin ideologue Sergey Karaganov had prognosticated that the likelihood of Baltics ever reaching NATO was less than zero. In sum, the above evidence bears out the fact that initially the odds were against them.
Time Will Not Wait for Small Nations
What set the breakaway Baltics apart from other former Soviet republics is that, shortly after regaining independence, they were clear-eyed regarding their geopolitical predicament. They accurately assessed that the 1990s constituted a rare historical irregularity, a window of opportunity that would not last forever. An internal Estonian foreign ministry memo in 1993 crystallized the strategic mindset of the newly independent republic: “the most important lesson is simple: time is short and time will not wait for small nations.” Former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who shepherded Latvia through the membership process, likewise attests that one of the principal lessons for small nations is that they always ought to stay vigilant and, when “cracks in the march of history” occur, immediately try to seize such moments. Baltic leaders recognized that because of the relative weakness of Russia and the high-water mark moment of American power, they were granted an unusual degree of political maneuvering. They acted without hesitation, before Moscow clawed its way back into a stronger position.
As they began elbowing their way through international politics, formidable hurdles lay ahead. In the summer of 1992, when the United States sent its first military advisory “contact team” to Latvia, an unconventional scene could be observed in the art nouveau streets of Riga: uniformed Americans and Russians passed each other daily. In the early 1990s, all three Baltic republics still hosted thousands of former Red Army troops, together with various Soviet-era military installations ranging from a nuclear submarine training facility in Estonia to a massive anti-ballistic missile radar in Latvia. This Soviet-era carcass was the key issue hanging over the newly-freed Baltics. Moscow wanted to hold on to its strategic bases until 2002. The Baltics vehemently objected.
Severely lacking in diplomatic representation abroad, Baltic policymakers would use every opportunity to argue their case internationally. When in 1992 world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro to discuss environmental politics and sign the Kyoto Protocol, Baltic representatives used the venue to “hunt down” European heads of state in order to sway them on the importance of getting the Soviet troops out. The Clinton administration played an instrumental role in mediating and accelerating this official divorce. In retrospect, this was a crucial inflection point which, if unresolved, could have taken the Baltics in a different strategic direction. According to long-time Estonian diplomat Jüri Luik, keeping Russian troops on Baltic soil was Moscow’s “strongest card to play” if it were to destabilize this region. Even a minimal Russian presence for a longer time, in his view, would have ended Baltic dreams of a transatlantic alliance.
NATO as the ultimate strategic objective had been weighing on the minds of Baltic statesman as soon as independence was achieved. Officially, however, the desire to move towards this goal was played down in order not to jeopardize ongoing Russian troop withdrawal. In 1995, with the Russian army finally gone, it was now also on their lips. Already, the Lithuanian President had unconventionally applied for alliance membership via an open letter. It became clear, however, that the Baltic states movement towards the transatlantic alliance would not be possible through individual efforts. As a former Latvian ambassador to the United States explained, “It was very clear to us in Washington that if one country pursued something and wanted to get Congress to approve it, they wouldn’t get it unless all three agreed.” In pursuit of the principal geopolitical goal, the Baltics banded together.
But at the time, it was palpable that these nations were not yet ready to assume full member status. Early on there were a number of stumbles, diplomatic embarrassments, and instances of mistrust in the U.S.-Baltic relationship. In one such mishap, the Latvian Defense Minister had shocked the U.S. side with his desire to acquire from the United States thousands of F-16 fighter jets. It later turned out that what he had in mind was M-16 rifles.
According to Strobe Talbott, a key figure in the Clinton administration, when it was clear that the Baltics were not going to be among the first wave of NATO invitees, the Estonian president started to show up in various cities where the negotiations were taking place and stalked Talbott just to make sure he understood that there would be consequences if his country were to be ‘sold out’ as during the 1945 Yalta Conference. A senior Estonian representative summarizes those years as full of “ups and downs of false expectations, false perceptions, and political nightmares.”
Yet, despite initial setbacks, the Baltics plunged into the membership process enthusiastically and with an ironclad conviction regarding their Western orientation. In 1997, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin dangled unilateral Russian security guarantees in exchange for giving up on the Baltics’ NATO hopes, the offer was promptly rejected. Gravitating back into the Russian sphere of influence was deemed intolerable. Instead, the Baltic consensus was to be fully cemented into the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. Simply put, NATO was viewed as an existential necessity. As much as Russia has attempted to rewrite history and portray the eastward enlargement as primarily driven by Washington’s willingness to expand its hegemonic reach, in reality the process was pushed by organic and democratic demands growing out of the Baltic states.
The West is Not Catholic but Lutheran
A recurrent criticism leveled against NATO’s decision to take on the Baltics is that it was done somewhat “casually” or even “emotionally” without judicious processes in place. Others have maintained that it was a feeling of collective historical guilt that drove the West to “rewrite the geopolitical landscape in favor of the Central and Eastern European countries.” While one can indeed find language of moral obligation steeped into speeches of U.S. officials, past tragedies were not the reason why these countries were let into NATO. Above all, they were judged by their ability to implement sound policy reforms and shoulder international military burdens. In short, this was a performance-based process. According to a senior Estonian diplomat, the Baltics quickly realized that the argument “you owe this to us” did not take them far. They learned that the West was “not Catholic but Lutheran. God helps those who help themselves and confession does not really make things better, but behaving differently does.”
The Baltics needed to reinvent themselves, and fast. The state of their armed forces was grim. A retired U.S. military officer noted that at first these nations were at “1 on a 1–10 scale of military capabilities.” Initially, the West had even refused to sell them arms; the United States only lifted the ban in 1994. In order to inject Western-style thinking and doctrine into their military forces, Estonia and Lithuania deliberately appointed retired U.S. Army colonels of Baltic descent to serve as commanders of their defense forces. The Baltics were also eager to send their troops on U.N. missions as well as contribute to costly NATO operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Estonia, for instance, participated in the Afghanistan mission without any national caveats, suffering one of the highest ratios of deaths-per-capita of any of the allied countries. Involvement in American-led interventions was seen as an effective way to edge closer to NATO membership.
Throughout the membership process, U.S. officials continuously monitored and assessed candidate states’ internal governance: health of democratic institutions, transition to market economies, treatment of minorities, and corruption laws. Heather Conley, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, recalls visiting the region countless times in one year. She describes the process as highly intrusive, with U.S. officials trying to determine if these democracies are “worth a U.S. soldier’s life.” Defying the odds, the Baltics nurtured their democracies from the ashes in an impressively short time. A former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, admits that these nations turned out to be “the best democratic and economic reformers, the ones most committed to build fresh new militaries, and the ones willing to support the U.S. in other fora.” It would take years, but the reform seeds planted would eventually bear fruit.
9-11 and the Muted “No”
Admittedly, unforeseen sudden events also had an effect on the Baltic membership process. In fact, some believe that it was the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that tipped the scales in favor of bringing the Baltics under the NATO security umbrella. Upon closer inspection, however, it is apparent that the process was well in motion prior to that. A major clue that the Baltics were on the membership path was George Bush’s address in Poland in the summer of 2001, during which he had declared that all of Europe’s democracies, “from the Baltic to the Black Sea” ought to have the same opportunity to join NATO. Robert Kagan reacted to the speech by suggesting that “champagne corks were popping in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius.” Soon after, influential U.S. lawmakers John McCain and Richard Lugar pledged their support. Arch-realist Henry Kissinger, in an August 2001 op-ed in the Washington Post, concurred by pointing out that it had become “impossible to ignore or postpone the appeals of the Baltic democracies”.
Behind the scenes, even Moscow had apparently accepted the inevitability of the alliance’s enlargement. In an exclusive interview with Latvian journalists, diplomat Ron Asmus, who played a major role in enlargement discussions, revealed that on Sept. 10, 2001 he held a dinner with the Russian ambassador to the United States. During the meeting, the ambassador informed Asmus that the Kremlin had accepted the fact that NATO would expand to the Baltic states and the only question left on the table was what Russia would get in return for accepting it. This supports the idea that the process of admitting the Baltics into NATO had already matured prior to 9/11.
Today, Russia assertively claims that NATO’s second wave enlargement violated its red lines. It is important to recall, however, that at the time Moscow reacted in a measured way, tempering its criticism vis-à-vis NATO enlargement. In 2001, during a radio interview with National Public Radio, when asked if he opposed the admission of the three Baltic Republics into NATO Russian President Vladimir Putin responded that the issue could not be summed up in “a yes or a no.” He later added that “we cannot forbid people to make certain choices if they want to increase the security of their nations in a particular way.” In another appearance, Putin declared that Baltic membership was “no tragedy” for Russia. These statements clearly were not a ringing endorsement. However, by historical standards, this was the least public resistance put up by the head of the Russian state. Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow at a time of NATO enlargement, insists that he heard few complaints from the Russian side when the Baltics formally joined the alliance.
Previously reluctant European leaders, such as French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, in a remarkable shift from their earlier positions, also pledged their support. According to Robert Nurick, in a short period of time reaction to Baltic NATO accession had “changed from ‘are you kidding’ to ‘well, of course.'” In April 2004, Baltic flags went up at the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
A Geopolitical Breakthrough
A number of things had to go right in order for the Baltic states to join NATO. Deep structural forces worked in their favor. In the post-Cold War era, the global distribution of power had shifted away from Russia, putting Moscow in too weak a position to challenge the enlargement process in a meaningful way. The Clinton and later Bush administrations were sympathetic towards the plight of Baltic nations and kept the membership door open. Regionally, the Baltics benefited immensely from their Nordic neighbors who were keen to invest in modernization of Baltic armed forces, transfer knowledge, and lobby on the Baltics’ behalf internationally. But that alone did not guarantee the outcome we have today. Events on the ground in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, namely local actors’ persistence in pushing to join the Euro-Atlantic community, their diligent efforts, and their dedication to reforms, is what finally got them over the alliance’s doorstep. For the Baltics, reaching NATO membership was nothing short of a geopolitical breakthrough.
Andris Banka is a postdoctoral researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Baltic Sea Region Research (IFZO) in Greifswald, Germany. He earned his doctorate at the University of Birmingham, U.K.