Spotlight on Geopolitics

During the 90’s, the uncontested dean of American diplomacy, the late George Kennan, fulminated against NATO’s expansion eastwards, which he considered both unnecessary and potentially dangerous for the security of the United States. The Clinton and Bush administrations did not heed sound professional advice and now the Baltics’ inclusion into NATO is creating major headaches for the alliance’s military planners.

The planned deployment of a few NATO battalions in the Baltics has already irked the Russian military, who decided to deploy three divisions in order to counter the perceived danger on their northwestern border. Most Western military analysts have recently highlighted the fact that NATO is in no position to really protect Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in case the Russians do decide to attack, which they obviously do not intend to at this point in time.

Objectively speaking, small coastal states – like the Baltics – cannot be defended indefinitely against a much more powerful neighbour in search of access to the sea. Here is what the founder of American geopolitics, Nicholas Spykman, had to say in 1938 about it :

“The fate of the newly-created coastal states (…), the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia is still to be determined, but to the geographer they appear as distinct anachronisms in the evolution of geographic state types, and it is hard for any student of history to study a map of Europe without a strong conviction that Russia will some day force her way to the Baltic and swallow them a second time” (“Geography and Foreign Policy II”, pp.219-220)

The size and geographical location of the Baltics, therefore, will render their defense against Russia useless in the long run. This does not mean that Vladimir Putin – or even his successor in the Kremlin – has any current invasion plans concerning these three republics. NATO military planners, however, are duty-bound to take these geopolitical realities into consideration and avoid the risk of exposing the alliance to military conflict with Russia.

Granted, over the past few decades Western politicians have chosen to ignore solid geopolitical advice and to act in the name of certain ideals that are at odds with geography and sound foreign policy principles. This ignorance of geopolitics has been the source of many a policy error in Europe and the Middle East, to mention but two geographical regions currently in turmoil.

The upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa and the shaky internal situation in Turkey, on the other hand, mean that the United States – and the West generally – needs Russia’s cooperation more than it ever did in the past. Accordingly, by making an unnecessary troop deployment decision in the Baltics, NATO risks being embroiled in facing alone the Islamist threat in the Middle East and possibly even the unraveling of the political order in Turkey. As matters currently stand, the president of Turkey has already proven his willingness to stoke up an open military conflict with Russia, which of course his country cannot hope to win.

Both the small Baltic republics and Turkey, therefore, have the potential to drag the other NATO members into direct confrontation with the Russian army, a development that no NATO commander seriously contemplates though. Still, the ugly European experience during WWI illustrates the fact that small countries, like the Baltic republics, or desperate political leaders like Erdogan are quite able to ignite a generalized military conflict, paid for with the lives of their much larger and peaceful neighbours that can be induced to sleepwalk their way into such a conflict.

Consequently, the political leaders of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania should be well advised by NATO’s major military powers to tone down their anti-Russian rhetoric and try to find ways to cohabitate peacefully with their neighbour. ( Incidentally, this is the same type of advice I have given in 2008 to the Estonian Ambassador to France during a seminar on these matters that took place at Sciences po in Toulouse).

As for Turkey, the NATO high command should make it clear to the country’s military that shooting down Russian aircraft for minor violations of the country’s airspace will not constitute the casus belli that could automatically trigger the full involvement of NATO into conflict, as stipulated by Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty. To be sure, this provision in the treaty is activated only when one of NATO’s member states is subject to fully fledged armed intervention by a hostile power.

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