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Ex-US Ambassador Calls American Military Commitment to Baltics a 'Joke'

VICE News spoke to analyst and former diplomat John Herbst, who thinks former Soviet states with Russian-speaking populations are right to be nervous — and NATO needs to do more.

by Katie Engelhart
Jun 11 2015, 5:35pm

Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti/EPA

This week, NATO readies itself. On Tuesday the alliance launched the final part of NOBLE JUMP, a 10-day military exercise mostly in Poland that is meant to test the association's new rapid reaction force.

Last September, some six months after Russian forces illegally seized the Crimean peninsula, NATO allies held a summit in Wales. There, they agreed to double their high-impact "NATO Response Force" to 30,000 troops — and to create a 5,000-strong "Very High Readiness Joint Task Force" (VJTF). Exercise NOBLE JUMP will be the VJTF's first deployment.

The drill is also seen as an effort to assuage the fears of NATO allies in the East. In recent months, some have expressed concern that, should they fall pray to a Ukraine-style incursion by Moscow, NATO would fail to come to their defense — or, at least, would fail to do so swiftly enough.

But would Russia be so rash as to invade a NATO country and, thus, risk an Alliance-backed response? If an incursion happened, would it look like a conventional act of aggression, or like Crimea — where so-called "little green men" (Russian soldiers in green army uniforms without insignia) began appearing, quietly, in February 2014?

We asked John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, whether Moscow is likely to pursue targets beyond Kiev. Herbst, who is now director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, has been a vocal critic of NATO's response to the Ukraine crisis to date. 

VICE News: In the last year, Russia has run a number of snap military drills — and poured a great deal of personnel and weaponry into the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which sits between Lithuania and Poland. This has obviously fueled fear in the region. But are former Soviet states actually at risk of Russian aggression?
John Herbst: We just don't know. But it is true that that no one expected Putin to move into Eastern Ukraine.

Many commentators on this subject, especially those who are more timid, say: "Well, I don't think Putin will move further."

But if you look at what Mr. Putin and other senior Russian officials have actually been saying, from their own mouths, then you shouldn't be surprised if Russia moves into the Baltic countries — or Kazakhstan, or Moldova, or Georgia.

Russian officials have said multiple times that there needs to be a change in the post-Cold War order. They have proclaimed a right and a duty to protect not just ethnic Russians but Russian speakers wherever they live. We know that lots of Russian speakers live in Estonia and Latvia. And a good 6.6 percent of the Lithuanian population is ethnic Russian.

Of course, Mr. Putin has already conducted two wars, one against Georgia and one against Ukraine — changing boundaries by military force, by invasion. Russia also kidnapped an Estonian counter-intelligence official when the last NATO summit ended. And last September, it seized a Lithuanian ship in international waters. So Russia has already committed serious provocations against other countries. As far as I know, NATO has not done anything serious about either incident. So what does Russia learn from this?

I'm not predicting that Russia is going to invade Estonia. But I wouldn't be astonished if it happened. And no one should be astonished.

But Ukraine was never part of NATO — and it would obviously be much more significant for Russia to involve itself in a NATO country. Putin is not an irrational actor. Do you really think he would chance it?
I think that we would be foolish to assume otherwise. You know, some time ago I saw an article in Russian that asked the question, "Who is ready to die for Narva [the third largest city in Estonia]?" Well, back in the fall, I asked a senior Western European diplomat: "What would NATO do if little green men appeared in Narva?" And the senior official said, "That's a good question."

Is that a good answer? Does that suggest that we would fight for the Baltic states?

Some in the Baltic States and Poland have expressed doubt that NATO would actually adhere to its treaty obligations, in the event of a Russian incursion — especially if that incursion were somewhat ambiguous at the start, as it was in Ukraine. Is that a valid fear?
NATO officials will say: "Yes of course we will come to their aid." But I'm not certain.

I think if America had a stronger presence in the Baltics right now, that would suggest a seriousness of purpose. What have we put there? A company of Americans. That's a joke of a number. If we put a fully armored brigade there, that would be serious.

I mean, I don't want to be overly critical. We have been willing to send our Air Force there for temporary periods, as shows of strength. So it's not as if we've done nothing, And NATO's decision last September to establish the [VJTF] was not insignificant. It's just too small.

Have you spoken with officials in the Baltics, in Poland? Do they have confidence in NATO?
I've had some former prime ministers come through here and I've seen an acting foreign minister or two. By and large, they are skeptical. They don't believe that the West's commitment is as clear as it needs to be.

People say the Ukraine crisis has inspired a kind of re-vamped Cold War. But the situation seems, to me, more World WarII than Cold War — because we're talking about countries building up conventional forces that can move quickly across the continent.
Well, you know, we wound up putting a substantial conventional force in Europe early in the Cold War, precisely to deter a Soviet invasion. Today, we don't quite have the clarity necessary to establish a serious deterrent capacity.

Is it possible that NATO military exercises might themselves be perceived as provocative — and thus feed into a loop of mutual provocation and suspicion?
I have real impatience with that argument. This may be too provocative for a country that has, in the space of six years, invaded two countries?

I strongly suspect that if we made aggression really painful for Putin, he would stop — because he is not foolish. That means: deterring him in the Baltic states with major deployments, major pre-positioning of equipment in Poland and maybe in Romania too, arming Ukraine and increasing sanctions.

My own theory is that, if anything were to come to a head, it would result from an accident. So, it wouldn't be Russian forces suddenly appearing on the border. Rather, say, a Russian jet would collide with a civilian plane. There would be casualties. And that would spiral into a regional conflict.
There have very dangerous incidents lately, where Russian planes fly close to American planes and European planes after turning off their transponders.

In some ways, what you have just said is possible — just as it was possible during the Cold War. One thing that is a bit scarier now is that the lines of communication that existed during the Cold War are not as close or active.

There has been much less communication, over the last year or two, between the Kremlin and the White House. Principally, because of Kremlin preferences.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengehart