The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 207-219
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The Baltic States:
Andrew C. Winner
In December 1991, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania regained their independence. In the autumn of 2002, NATO will ask itself whether these countries are truly independent and therefore worthy of an invitation to join the alliance. Since 1991, the three Baltic states have been running as hard as they can toward Europe and away from Russia. 1 The Baltics have begun accession negotiations with the European Union (EU) and will likely achieve EU membership between 2003 and 2005. An invitation to join NATO in 2002 is less certain, primarily because of the three countries' ties to Russia.
Although the Baltic states have admission to both NATO and the EU as goals, they see the Atlantic Alliance as the more critical in guaranteeing their security. Finland viewed the benefits of EU membership when it joined as much in security terms as in economic terms. Helsinki reasoned that any future bilateral disputes with Russia would become disputes with the EU writ large, balancing out Moscow's geopolitical weight. The Baltics have a much different history with Moscow than Finland has, however, and they seek firmer and clearer security guarantees from an organization explicitly designed to provide for collective defense. They also crave this tie to the United States, the one state that can face Russia down in a crisis, something that the EU simply cannot do.
As much as the notion galls leaders in Tallinn, Estonia; Riga, Latvia; and Vilnius, Lithuania, some in NATO still think of the Baltic states as former Soviet republics first and as independent states with their own identities second. Some NATO members worry that, if they extend a membership invitation [End Page 207] to the three states, NATO would cross the geographic line into former Soviet space and recreate the enemy that the alliance shed a decade ago. They worry that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania still carry too much baggage from their years of thralldom under Moscow and would be too easy a target for a possibly malicious Kremlin leadership at some point. Therefore, some see the risk as too great and want to postpone any decision on the Baltic states joining NATO until the risk of again turning Moscow against the West is clearly lower. Supporters of the Baltic states argue that, despite much bluster, Russia accepted the first round of NATO enlargement without any significant problem. They point out that the second enlargement is no different from the first, except for the crossing of an imaginary, historic line that NATO's leaders have all declared no longer exists (and others say never did). That point deserves serious consideration as NATO members begin their deliberations about who they will ask to join the alliance when they meet in Prague in the autumn of 2002.
What is different about Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania? For NATO, the question must be asked in two ways. First, how differently will Moscow react to an invitation to the Baltic states than it did to an invitation to three former members of the Warsaw Pact? Will the Kremlin bluster but ultimately acquiesce, or will it take dangerous steps that could rekindle a cold war in Europe? The answer to that question lies in an analysis of Russia's future foreign policy, a topic beyond the scope of this paper. Second, and the focus of this article, how different are the Baltic states now from their days as reluctant parts of the Soviet Union? How much are Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania still tied to their unwanted legacy of Soviet occupation? If few ties to Russia remain, is there a significant difference, other than political psychology and unwanted history, that would affect an invitation to become NATO members? If ties do remain, are they of a type that could bind the Baltic states in ways that would be detrimental to the alliance if they were to become members? Would their inclusion in NATO give Moscow a ready-made button to push any time it wished to make trouble for NATO?