Next month, my wife and leave on a trip to Europe. First, we will visit Lithuania, my wife’s home country, for two weeks to catch up with her family and old friends. This is my second visit to Lithuania, and I hope to gain further insights to the hopes and fears of the local people, ranging from 90-year-olds, who lived under both Nazi and Soviet occupation, to young adults, born after independence.
For Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, geopolitical vulnerability is a permanent fact of life. Historical experience has taught harsh lessons. The enforced incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union back in 1940, notwithstanding their declared neutrality, has impelled them to choose a side.
As soon as accession to NATO was offered, they jumped at the chance to shore up their security. After all, Article 5 of this mutual defence pact reads:
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.
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.
But does anybody seriously believe that either Germany or France, or for that matter, any other European country would have either the capacity or willingness to come to the aid of the Baltic States, if a resurgent Russia decided to put the treaty to the test? Consider the historical record. The Baltic states have long been expendable pawns. Remember Germany’s seizure of Klaipeda (Memel) from neutral Lithuania in March, 1939, and the secret clauses of the Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact of August, 1939, which doomed the Baltic States to Soviet occupation.
Lest we imagine that the denial of freedom and independence for the Baltic states was merely a totalitarian exercise, we read in, The President, The Pope and The Prime Minister, by Quadrant Editor John O’Sullivan, that independence for the Baltic States was very nearly thwarted, not merely by the still existent Soviet Union but also by Jacques Delors, chairman of the European Commission, Francois Mitterand of France, Helmut Kohl of Germany and the Bush Administration. Only Margaret Thatcher’s heroic intervention at the Rome summit of the European Community in October, 1990, saved the day for Baltic freedom. Remember, this was after the fall of the Berlin wall. As O’Sullivan records on pages 322-323 :
The United States was already applying pressure on the Baltic states against independence. Secretary of State James Baker had told the Lithuanians in May 1990 that they should “freeze” their declaration of independence – and the United States continued to exert such public and private pressure throughout that summer. At Rome, European Commission chairman Jacques Delors further proposed that the EC issue a declaration in favour of preserving the existing external borders of the USSR. That would have meant formal European approval for imprisoning the Baltics indefinitely, and would have damaged their morale, which was already depressed by the lack of Western support.
Thatcher alone objected. She pointed out that the West had consistently refused to recognize the incorporation of the Baltic republics into the USSR since 1940. The Soviets themselves had just admitted that it was based on the “secret protocols” of the Nazi-Soviet pact. Why would we change now? Delors replied that he had Gorbachev’s private assurance that the Baltics would eventually be free to leave. Thatcher objected that such Soviet guarantees had not been worth a great deal. Embarrassed by the debate, Mitterand and Kohl withdrew their support for Delors. The proposal was dropped.
So, most in the West went missing in action when the issue of Baltic freedom was put to the test. It was indeed that remarkable trio, President Reagan, Pope JohnPaul II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who were left to plan and execute the demise of the Soviet Empire. Other Western leaders were little better than spectators. In military terms, the United States has always done, and been expected to do, the heavy lifting. Article 5 of NATO is just fine, apparently, provided that it is never invoked to defend the Baltic states.
I suspect that in the not unlikely event of conflict between an increasingly Islamist Turkey (still a NATO member) and Russia, Article 5 will prove to be a dead letter. Once rendered null in relation to an albeit highly problematic member of the alliance, it is hard to see Western Europeans feeling any obligation to defend small states with little perceived strategic significance.
Only a direct US commitment, outside the confines of NATO, can truly reassure the peoples of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that their recent grim histories will not be repeated. It should be more than an American and allied rotating military presence. Russia’s recent and provocative actions against US naval vessels in the Baltic, countered only by feeble diplomatic protests, underscore the utter contempt in which Putin holds the Obama administration.
There must be no room for miscalculation by Russia. The best hope for peace and freedom in Europe is by an unambiguous American declaration that an attack on the Baltic states and the other East European states is an attack on the United States. This declaration would succeed the increasingly nominal provisions in the NATO alliance. It would have the other great benefit of freeing the Baltic states and other Eastern Europeans from making a choice between Russia and the anti-democratic European Union. We can only hope.