The Baltic Sea region has always been
important for the preservation of peace in Europe. During the Cold War, the iron curtain dividing
Europe ran through the region's western part. Then, after tensions were temporarily defused, the
line of contact between the often divergent interests of Russia and the West shifted to the eastern
part of the Baltic region.
This geographical shift—linked to many countries from the former
Soviet bloc joining NATO—is not the only difference between the two eras, however. Compared with the
Cold War period, the role of small states in the Baltic region has grown considerably, giving them
new opportunities to influence regional affairs, sometimes defusing tensions, at other times ramping
The new role of the small Baltic region states became especially noticeable after
2014, when events in Crimea and Donbas rocked the European security system. Since then, two opposing
models of behavior have been in evidence, as demonstrated by Belarus on the one hand, and NATO
members Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the other.
The NATO countries' course of
action has been to increase the stakes by focusing on and often exaggerating the threat posed, in
their opinion, by Russia. The theory was put forward that these countries could become Russia's next
military target after Ukraine. Any action or statement by Moscow concerning foreign and defense
policy was interpreted as nefarious or even downright hostile, and Russia responded in kind.
Take, for example, the reaction of the Baltic states and Poland to the joint Zapad-2017
military exercises conducted by Russia and Belarus. Official comments and leading media outlets in
those countries suggested that the Russian troops taking part would either remain on Belarusian
territory forever more, or would use the war games as a cover for a full-scale invasion of the
Baltics or Ukraine.
These fears turned out to be unfounded, and the Russian troops returned
home as planned. But the experience left a bitter taste on both sides, and added to tension in the
Poland and the Baltic countries chose this approach for both emotional and rational
reasons. On an emotional level, the historical narrative of an aggressive Russia that inflicted pain
and deprivation on their parents and grandparents forces people in these countries to look at modern
Russian policy through the prism of the past.
The rational aspect of this approach is that
by sustaining regional tension, the leaders of these countries count on getting an additional
guarantee of their security in the form of increasing military aid and the physical presence on
their soil of NATO troops. And indeed, following their 2014 and 2016 summits, NATO members decided
to deploy four multinational armed contingents to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on a
rotating basis to act as a deterrent against Russia in the region.
Minsk, on the other
hand, opted to go in a different direction back in 2014. As an ally of Russia both within the
Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Union State, it took its responsibilities seriously.
The Belarusian authorities and society saw an increase in military and political tensions in the
region not as an advantage, but as a risk, and so chose the approach of trying to reduce those
tensions. Minsk called on the other Baltic region nations to join it in this approach.
Minsk's logic also has both an emotional and rational foundation. Deeply engrained in Belarusian
society is the historical memory of the destruction and enormous loss of life caused by war in the
region. Then there is the rational understanding that a further growth in tension between Russia and
the West will inevitably turn Belarusian territory into a frontline restricted area, which will only
add to the country's security problems and lead to new restrictions on economic cooperation with the
In an attempt to defuse tension in the region, Belarus has tried to be very open on
security matters, inviting observers from NATO and most of the Baltic region countries to the
Belarusian part of the Zapad-2017 exercises. When the United States withdrew from the
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, the Belarusian leadership announced it was prepared
to continue to abide by the treaty, and called on other countries in the region to introduce a
moratorium on the production and deployment of corresponding missiles.
biggest-scale and most ambitious initiative is Helsinki 2: a plan for a broad dialogue on issues of
international security amid derailed strategic stability. These initiatives have elicited interest
in Berlin, Paris, and Washington, which would love to see the electrified region as less of a
The crisis that has developed in Belarus following the contested August
presidential election has complicated the state of affairs in the Baltic region even further. Poland
and—in particular—Lithuania have become the European vanguard in the fight against Belarusian
President Alexander Lukashenko. His regime, meanwhile, has accused Vilnius and Warsaw (and with
them, all of the EU and NATO) of being behind the protests that have rocked the country since the
vote. Several weeks after the election, Lukashenko said he had moved half of the Belarusian army to
the border with Poland and Lithuania due to the "increased concentration of NATO troops" on the
country's western borders.
Clearly, there can be no talk of increased trust or security on
Minsk's part in these conditions, and it looks like a line will soon be drawn under Belarus's
initiatives to increase transparency and minimize military risks. In this respect, the Belarusian
crisis has undoubtedly significantly worsened security in the Baltic region.
speaking, however, little has been lost. Minsk still has an interest in, at the very least,
preventing any further escalation of tension in the region, since if the geopolitical confrontation
leads to an armed conflict, it's highly likely to involve Belarusian territory. Ideally, it would
still like to find a stable model for regional security that could offset the tense standoff between
Russia and NATO.
Russia and the West would also like to avoid an armed conflict in the
Baltic region, though they have shown little real readiness to stop the buildup of their
confrontation or the militarization of the region.
Of course, there are always unpleasant
surprises in international relations, even when they are in nobody's interests. Either by mistake,
or through lack of communications, missiles get fired, planes are shot down, and other military
incidents occur. Their consequences are unpredictable, so the main task for the Baltic region as a
whole is to avoid such surprises, and not to cross the point of no return and prompt the
uncontrolled escalation of the confrontation.
As the situation in Belarus stabilizes—as
violence decreases and the spiral of Western sanctions and countersanctions by Minsk comes to an
end—it's important to return to Belarusian initiatives aimed at reducing tension in the region. One
example could be finding an opportunity to apply existing bilateral agreements between Minsk and its
neighbors on additional confidence-building and security measures in the interests of the Baltic Sea
region as a whole.