They called it "the CNN defense." In the early 1990s, just after the Baltic states won independence from Moscow, the region's strategy in the event of a Russian attack was to hold out just long enough for a camera crew to arrive and then pray for help from the West. This week in Prague the prayers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will be answered, as all three countries receive formal invitations to join NATO. But given the weakness of the countries' militaries, why is NATO admitting them? And in the absence of any obvious Russian threat, why do the Balts still want to join?
Unlike other former Warsaw Pact countries, such as Poland and Hungary, the Balts didn't have national armies during the Soviet era, so they had nothing to build on as they regained independence. And in contrast to Ukraine, which inherited warships and planes from the Red Army, departing Russian troops completely stripped their Baltic bases. Given these disadvantages, Baltic militaries have improved dramatically over the past decade. But their real strategic importance to NATO doesn't lie in military might the three countries combined have just over 20,000 troops but from the new pan-Baltic radar network known as BaltNet. U.S. General Joseph W. Ralston, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, calls the system "one of the best I've ever seen. We'd love to have it at NORAD in Alaska."
With its central monitoring station in Karmelava, Lithuania, 100 km west of Vilnius, BaltNet can track any aircraft in Baltic airspace. The $100 million system funded by the U.S. and Norway enables the mixed Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian crews to monitor planes flying over Russia's nearby, heavily militarized, enclave of Kaliningrad. "The Russians probably don't like that," shrugs Second Lieut. Rimantas Rudnickas, a Lithuanian member of the BaltNet team.
That's probably an understatement. Last month, the Russian daily Vremya Novostei described the network as the "Pentagon's eye," implying that BaltNet would be used for espionage. Though the radar system isn't hooked up to NATO's grid yet, it could be very soon.
Another reason for admitting the Balts to NATO is financial: Western weapons manufacturers win a few more clients as the new members upgrade their systems to NATO standards. Last week Lithuania signed an agreement to buy a Stinger anti-aircraft missile system from the U.S., thus becoming the first Baltic state to purchase the high-tech weaponry. Under the agreement, the Lithuanians will acquire 60 missiles at a cost of $31 million over three years. Lithuanian officials say the Stingers will reinforce the country's airborne defenses and help protect the Ignalina nuclear power plant from attack. But from whom?
With the exception of terrorists, Baltic officials are careful to sidestep questions about just who they are defending themselves against. The Baltic states say they have been told NATO won't accept members who import new security risks into the alliance, so governments figure the less talk about enemies the better. But there's not much doubt about whom the Balts fear: their old enemy, Russia. Asked whom he regarded as a potential threat, Second Lieut. Rudnickas studied his shoes and fidgeted. "Who's the enemy?" he muttered after a long pause. "Same as always."
The Baltic's real strategic importance to NATO doesn't lie in military might ... but in the new pan-Baltic radar network known as BaltNet