One of the most volatile security crises in post-Cold War Europe unfolds, just as I write this article, on NATO’s and the European Union’s eastern borders with Belarus. The crisis, fabricated by dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, no doubt with the Kremlin’s knowledge and support, could have long-term consequences for Europe’s security.
In fact, Russia and Belarus have created a new threatening “normality” on Europe’s eastern rims that is intended to mirror, albeit artificially, Europe’s south. Misled migrants are used as weapons in inhumane hybrid attacks aimed at destabilizing neighbors, creating cracks between allies and gaining political profit. Russia pretends to be only part of the solution that would arrive as soon as President Vladimir Putin tells Lukashenko to stop.
Ukraine is under Russia’s permanent political, military and economic pressure. The Kremlin has deployed large contingents repeatedly toward Ukraine’s eastern and northeastern borders, and has increased its military posture in occupied Crimea.
The deployment of more Russian forces to Belarus, on Ukraine’s northern border, and the launch of a decisive operation against Ukraine could be just a matter of time.
The allies need to demonstrate unity and solidarity — not to submit to threats and blackmail — and ensure that Lukashenko’s regime fails to achieve its goal of destabilizing the Baltic countries and Poland. The escalating tensions at Ukraine’s borders and NATO’s and the EU’s eastern borders could degenerate into wider conflict. Moscow and Minsk demonstrated, so far, their willingness to escalate. NATO allies should demonstrate a firm commitment and a readiness to deter and defend. The exchange of information between allies and appropriate strategic communication are of paramount importance.
NATO’s strength, endurance and success is based on shared democratic values and on the unity, determination and ability of allies to focus, adapt and respond jointly to an increasing variety of risks and dangers. The conventional and hybrid threats and challenges that the alliance must withstand in all domains (land, maritime, air, cyber and space) have become largely global.
NATO needs to focus, in a 2030 perspective and beyond, on three main areas:
- The threat posed by Russia and Belarus to the alliance’s eastern flank from the Arctic to the Black and Mediterranean seas, particularly at the eastern borders of Poland and the Baltic states, but also in the North Atlantic.
- Conflicts as sources of instability, irregular migration and the export of terrorism in Europe’s south and southeast.
- The global expansion of China’s political, economic and military influence.
The European and North American allies have vested interests and should promote a balanced approach in all these areas. NATO’s policy papers and communiques reflect this endeavor that should be further implemented. Both Russia’s and China’s influence is now felt not only in the Indo-Pacific region or in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in Africa and South America.
The second main task of NATO allies is to define clearly the essence and level of threats in each area. The threat from Russia is plain and probably enduring unless sudden positive changes occur and persist in that country, which we could hardly expect in the present condition. NATO’s deterrence and defense in Europe should be therefore strengthened and adapted in response to Russia’s policy and military posture.
The enhanced forward presence of allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland; the United States’ military presence in Europe; NATO battlegroups in the Baltic countries and Poland; NATO’s air-policing mission; and the United States’ European Deterrence Initiative in the eastern flank, among other forms of regional presence and joint exercises, are critical and should be maintained and bolstered.
We, the allies, do not mirror Russia’s provocative and escalatory behavior, but we need to reinforce further our air, maritime and missile capabilities as well as adapt our exercises and intelligence. The readiness and effectiveness of the alliance’s nuclear deterrent also should be improved. Strategic messaging on NATO’s nuclear umbrella is key to the credibility of our joint deterrence and defense.
Estonia raised its defense budget for 2022 by €104 million (U.S. $118 million), up to €749 million (U.S. $847 million), or 2.31% of the country’s gross domestic product. It gives a positive example to other allies by improving individual and collective capabilities.
Estonia’s acquisition plans are aimed at filling important gaps — from firepower, self-propelled howitzers and different types of ammunition to anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, sea mines and the upgrade of defense infrastructure. In addition, Estonia contributes actively to anti-terrorism and peacekeeping efforts — together with key allies such as the United States, the U.K. and France — in a wide region stretching from the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa.
Finally, the alliance is at the doorstep of a new Strategic Concept that would guide its development during the next decade, or perhaps longer. The concept must not only reflect a proper political mindset and resolve by the allies but should also set ambitious tasks for strengthening their individual and collective military capabilities by making effective use of technological progress. The allies would be continuously safe, and their interests would be safeguarded if they cooperate and keep to the highest standards.
Kalle Laanet is Estonia’s defense minister.