A geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor published on its site an article analyzing the role of Poland and Baltic states in today’s regional political system. The author admits the limited opportunities of these countries to influence the current situation.
As the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine continues into 2015, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will try to play an active role to support Ukraine. Even before the crisis, the three Baltic states — as well as neighboring Poland — were among the most active EU member states attempting to bring Ukraine closer to the West and to challenge Russia’s role in the former Soviet republic. Their efforts along these lines will intensify this year. Ultimately, however, more powerful players in the standoff will limit the impacts of their efforts, particularly Germany and the United States.
As the standoff between Russia and the West evolved, the Baltic countries and Poland threw their full support behind Ukraine. From the start they have called for a strong Western response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, especially by exerting pressure on Russia through sanctions. Since a Sept. 5 cease-fire between Kiev and militants the conflict inside of Ukraine has de-escalated and nations such as Germany and France have discussed a potential drawdown of sanctions. Poland and the Baltics, however, have remained resolute in calls to maintain these sanctions.
Poland and the Baltic nations have sought to decrease Russian leverage on the security front, especially because of their geographic proximity and longstanding animosity. In 2014, all of these states requested that NATO make a greater commitment to their collective defense in order to prevent them from becoming the frontlines of potential Russian military aggression. While NATO did not agree to establish a permanent military base on their territories, the United States and NATO countries have increased the size and intensity of military exercises in the region and have agreed to a semi-permanent rotation of forces, now extended into 2015. The Baltics in particular also have a commitment from NATO on air policing, which enhances air operations and functions as a tripwire in case of conflict.
Poland and the Baltics hope that this enhanced NATO presence will entice Ukraine to bring itself closer to the security bloc. To some extent, Ukraine has already done so. NATO and the United States in particular have provided limited logistical assistance and military equipment to Ukrainian security forces in their fight against separatists. Ukraine, in turn, has repealed a law that required it to remain non-aligned, opening the possibility of future NATO membership. NATO membership is still a distant prospect for Ukraine and the nation’s leaders have said that the country will require five more years of reforms before even applying to NATO.
Meanwhile, the Baltic states have markedly increased their military cooperation with Ukraine. Lithuania has already supplied the Ukrainian military with munitions. Poland has also discussed weapons sales to Ukraine. From the start of 2015, Lithuania’s Kiev embassy became Ukraine’s NATO contact point. In 2014, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine formed a joint military brigade, the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade or LITPOLUKRBRIG, which will stage exercises in the three countries in 2015. Latvia, which holds the rotating EU presidency in the first six months of 2015, has made its top priority to strengthen ties between the European Union and Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Belarus.
Limitations on influence
Poland and the Baltic States have placed a strong focus on challenging Russia and bringing Ukraine closer to the West, but they face a number of limitations. Even within the context of the European Union, they are still relatively small players and simply cannot drive the bloc’s policy on such strategic issues as relations with Russia. EU sanctions on Russia are set to expire in April, May and July of various phases starting in mid-2015. Renewal would require a unanimous vote — an unlikely outcome with many European nations worried about the spillover effect of Russia’s current economic crisis.
Russia itself has substantial leverage in the Baltics and in Poland. The Baltic nations are all home to sizable Russian minority populations. Moscow also has a military presence in neighboring Kaliningrad and Belarus — although an actual Russian military incursion into Poland and the Baltic states is highly unlikely. In the end, the major Western powers such as the United States and Germany will determine the evolution of the West’s standoff with Russia.