Would NATO Defend Estonia? I Am Not So Sure

WASHINGTON – The governments of the vulnerable Baltic States feel uneasy these days. They look at Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, followed by American and European protests, a few token economic sanctions and….little else. They look at large numbers of Russian troops and other military assets now close to the Ukraine border, and they see no tangible Western reaction.

Russian minorities

Given all this, some of them wonder: Are we next?” Just like Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania used to be part of the old Soviet Union. Just like Ukraine, the Baltic countries include significant Russian minorities. Would Putin try to absorb them into the Russian sphere, exploiting bogus excuses about the need to protect Russians who are sadly forced to live outside the borders of the Motherland?

Impossible scenario?

Any security expert would tell you that this scenario is close to impossible. Ukraine is not covered by NATO security commitments. Whereas the three Baltic states are full members of NATO. And Putin knows this as well as we do. Grabbing a piece of Ukraine (that used to be historically Russian) was a bit of gamble that went well for Putin.

But attacking a NATO member is altogether a different story. By doing so Putin would unleash an American military reaction, with incalculable consequences. We all know this. Putin also knows this, and so –unless he has gone completely mad– he would never dare attacking a NATO country.

NATO military reaction

Indeed, we do know. All NATO countries are committed to defending any Alliance member that has been attacked. Which is to say that any Russian military move against Estonia would invite an immediate NATO military response.

Fine. But then why is it that the Baltic states are asking other NATO members to station NATO forces on their territories, arguing that ground troops represent a truly tangible commitment to their defense, while a few combat airplanes already dispatched there are not as credible? (Airplanes can quickly fly away, you see).

In other words, given the fact that NATO membership includes an explicit guarantee to be defended by a 28 member strong military alliance led by the United States, still the most powerful country on earth, why do small states potentially exposed to security threats coming from Russia need reassurance? Isn’t the iron clad commitment included in the NATO Treaty enough?

NATO Article 5

Well, apparently it is not enough. In part this is because, contrary to the established interpretation, a NATO counter attack in case of a Russian attack against any alliance member (Estonia in our hypothetical case) is not at all automatic. Let’s see what the NATO Treaty says in its most critical Article 5:

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. [bold added]

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security”.

Well, if I were sitting in Tallinn or Riga I would not find this commitment totally reassuring. In fact, Article 5 does not mandate NATO members to respond militarily against an armed attack. It commits each member to take such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic Area”.

Wiggle room

What this means is that the Treaty created wiggle room for NATO members. Various counter measures may be contemplated, “including the use military force”. In other words, a NATO-led military response is just one of the possible tools –not a sure thing. I am sure that the Estonians can read and understand the letter of Article 5 just as well as I can.

Obviously, in the bad old days of the Cold War, when the most probable target of a Red Army-led Warsaw Pact invasion was West Germany, there was little doubt that NATO would respond militarily. Germany was way too important.

America going to war for Estonia?

But today we have a totally different scenario. Estonia, assuming that it will be Putin’s next target, is a small and rather inconsequential country with a small population (1.3 million) and a negligible economy.

And it is clear that the letter of Article 5 does not commit NATO members to an automatic military response. It commits them to do their utmost to restore security. From this perspective, NATO could choose to respond to a Russian invasion of Estonia with economic sanctions and no military force, without technically breaking any Treaty obligations.

What I am getting at is that, while in principle the integrity of all NATO members is important to Washington, I doubt that President Barack Obama, (or any other US President, for that matter), would engage in a direct military confrontation with Russia –something that could potentially escalate to an all out war– for the sake of Estonia. This is theoretically possible; but politically unlikely.

Estonia is not that safe

Taking all this into consideration, Estonia is only a bit more secure than Eastern Ukraine. The fact is that NATO is a militarily weak alliance whose residual credibility rests on the guarantee of an American military response to Russian aggression. If this guarantee is questioned, then NATO’s ability to deter is also questioned.

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