Latvian troops stand at attention beside a NATO radar installation.
BRUSSELS -- NATO's highest military commander has asked the allies for the authority to draw up full defense plans for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
The move -- just two months after Russia's invasion of Georgia -- could lead to a serious rift in the alliance, as Russia constitutes the only conceivable military threat for the three Baltic members of the alliance.
When Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the alliance in 2004, Afghanistan and terrorism were NATO's top concerns, whereas Russia was seen as an aspiring strategic partner. The alliance therefore did not draw up "contingency plans," or full defense strategies, for the three Baltic states.
That shortcoming now looks like an anachronism since the events in Georgia changed exposed the alliance's soft underbelly. Recognizing this, NATO's top commander, General James Craddock, has written to the allies for approval to draw up the necessary plans.
Getting the go-ahead may prove less than straightforward, however. NATO sources say Germany and France have informally opposed Craddock's request.
The issue of contingency planning is extremely sensitive within NATO, not least because the plans are classified. NATO spokesman James Appathurai told RFE/RL on October 7 he is not allowed to publicly discuss contingency plans, and reiterated the alliance's standard pledge to defend all of its members from all threats.
“What I can say is that NATO has had an extremely robust, flexible system in place for 59 years, with hundreds of planners at [NATO headquarters] and elsewhere to develop the necessary plans for the defense of this alliance in any type of situation,” Appathurai said. Most Exposed Allies
Since their accession, the Baltic countries have made no secret of their disappointment at the absence of concrete NATO plans to defend them against the Russian threat.
NATO officials privately concede that the three Baltic nations are the most exposed among all 26 allies. Although none of the eastern European allies have full contingency plans drawn up for their defense, some amount of planning has been done for all -- except for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
In the "Wall Street Journal Europe" on August 18, Ronald D. Asmus, a former senior U.S. diplomat closely involved in NATO's post-Cold War expansion, noted that the alliance “unilaterally refrained from such steps partly as a confidence-building step toward Russia.” Asmus now says NATO should reconsider.
All formal defense planning -- “for a specific area against a specific threat,” as one NATO official put it -- requires the unanimous backing of all allies. In the parlance of the alliance, it is a political decision.
The United States and Britain strongly back contingency plans for the Baltic countries. A senior U.S. official said in Brussels on October 7 that NATO must carry on with its “day-to-day” activities -- including contingency planning.
The British "Daily Telegraph," which first broke the story, says Craddock recommends that Estonia, with its large Russian-speaking minority and increasingly fraught relationship with Moscow, be the first Baltic beneficiary of a NATO military risk-assessment study.
But many continental European allies, led by France and Germany, feel any such move would threaten open confrontation with Russia.
This divergence of views threatens the alliance with a serious rift. After the conflict in Georgia, many analysts see U.S. and European interests parting ways when it comes to Russia, and Germany in particular seems to conclude it cannot afford to alienate Moscow.
Berlin's reasons are complex, stretching from Germany's dependence on Russian energy to strategic balance-of-power calculations. Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 3 publicly ruled out quick NATO Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for Georgia and Ukraine, saying at a joint press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg that the two countries' integration with NATO “as soon as possible” is not in German interests. NATO foreign ministers are scheduled to debate the issue in December.
Baltic countries meanwhile fear that the trend toward accommodating Russia could materially affect their security, and that political considerations could begin to erode NATO's commitment to mutual defense.