The Baltic States: The Return To The West And The Search For Security

By Ariel Cohen, PH.D. | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

The rebirth of Baltic independence in the wake of the Soviet collapse is one of the miracles of our time. It is a demonstration of how the free spirit can survive even in the darkest of prisons. The three Baltic countries--Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania--were the last to join the USSR. An agreement between two of the most horrendous tyrants of this century, Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin (the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact, signed in Moscow in August 1939), supported by all the might of the Red Army, forced them into the Soviet Union. They were also the first to leave.

Analysts and officials of The Heritage Foundation have supported Baltic independence and led the fight against diplomatic recognition of the Soviet occupation during the Cold War. Today, it is our great pleasure to host the foreign ministers of the three Baltic states. We recall fondly the speeches delivered in this building by President Vytautas Landsbergis of Lithuania and by several foreign ministers and defense ministers from the region, including Ministers Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia and Valdis Birkavs of Latvia, who are with us again today.

The challenge of Baltic security is of great importance for assuring peace in Europe during the coming century. The Baltic countries are strategically located at the intersection of the three major tectonic plates of Europe: the Nordic countries, Central and Eastern Europe, and Russia. Historically speaking, the influences of Scandinavia and Germany, as well as of Poland and Catholicism, have been stronger in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania than the tsarist Russian and Soviet influences that followed. Today, the Baltic countries are oriented toward the Euro-Atlantic community, and are successfully pursuing integration into its political and security structures.

The challenges facing U.S. policy toward the Baltic states are, first, to enhance their security without aggravating relations with Russia and to include Russia in cooperative arrangements in Northeastern Europe. America has to promote a stable economic and political environment in the region as a whole.

Second, the United States has to pay careful attention to the region in order to manage the security of the Baltics while addressing their aspirations to reintegrate into the West, including the Euro-Atlantic frameworks.

Third, because security issues in Northeastern Europe affect U.S. ties with Norway, Finland, and Sweden, the United States should encourage these countries to be fully engaged in bilateral and multilateral military relations with the countries in the region. The U.S. and the Nordic states do not want to see the Baltics become the scene of a conflict.

Fourth, the security of the Baltics affects the debate about the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The conflict with Serbia over Kosovo undoubtedly will raise new questions about the composition, goals, and roles of the alliance. The Kosovo conflict has greatly aggravated U.S.-Russian relations. It will not make the debate over any possible future enlargement of NATO any easier or simpler. Nor has the integration of the three new members into NATO (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) gone far enough for us to be able to draw lessons for the future. No doubt, the question of potential Baltic participation in NATO needs to be addressed in a deliberate and careful fashion, with the U.S. government and public clearly understanding what is at stake.

In the meantime, the United States can take effective steps to enhance Baltic security. A recent study, 1 for example, in which I participated, has suggested that the United States can:

the Partnership for Peace (PFP) to increase inter-operability and to help prepare the Baltic states for NATO membership.

the European Union (EU) to put Latvia and Lithuania on the fast track to EU membership along with Estonia.

regional cooperation with Russia, including military cooperation.

the Baltic states to integrate their Russian minorities more completely into Baltic political and social life.

the Baltic states to address their past more forthrightly, including the role of their populations in the Holocaust.

the Baltic states to implement the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)-compliant legislation that was recently passed in Latvia and Estonia.

The three Baltic foreign ministers, our honored guests at The Heritage Foundation, will present their views on the future of Baltic security and Euro-Atlantic integration. Although focused on NATO, they can rightfully boast achievements on other fronts, such as improving relations with Russia, as is the case with Lithuania, or being on the fast track to European Union membership, as is the case for Estonia.

As the Baltic states continue their successful return to the Euro-Atlantic world, our cooperative dialogue on Baltic security must continue.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


1. Zbigniew Brzezinski and F. Steven Larabee, "U.S. Policy Toward Northeastern Europe," Council on Foreign Relations Task Force Report, Washington, D.C., 1999, pp. 6-7.