In 2014, NATO member states agreed to target defense expenditures of two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2024. After this commitment, and following Russian aggression in Ukraine, NATO turned the corner on its declining defense expenditures. Facing a new challenge in a revisionist Russia, many allies to the east felt a new sense of urgency about funding their defense, aiming to build a credible deterrent against aggression on their own territory.
Belarus seldom registers in the international press during normal times, but while years like 2020 are not so unprecedented, this certainly is not a normal year. Since President Aleksandr Lukashenko was declared the winner of the fraudulent presidential elections on August 9, the country has spiraled into civil unrest and authoritarian repression, and the headlines keep coming like a stampede. While no one was surprised by the announced outcome of the election, most analysts would not have predicted that Belarus would be launched headlong into a persistent crisis.
In August, Latvia marked the 100th anniversary of the Latvian-Soviet Peace Treaty, otherwise known as the Treaty of Rīga, which ended Latvia’s War for Independence and marked the beginning of the interwar period for the new Latvian Republic. The treaty established Latvia’s sovereignty and Soviet Russia recognized Latvia’s independence as “inviolable” for all time. But the Soviet Union did not honor this treaty, nor its treaties with Estonia and Lithuania. Between these treaties and other, more modern treaties such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, we can see that Russia only abides by the treaties it signs for as long as it is convenient, then breaks them when it seems it can get away with doing so.
The Belarusian elections occurred last Sunday, August 9th, and pitted incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko against political outsider Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. For what was supposed to be another easy campaign in Lukashenko’s winning streak, the protests leading up, and following the elections have sparked internal turmoil in Belarus. The Belarusian government now faces its biggest crisis in 26 years, as protests and police violence sweep the capital and the opposition increases their demands.
In June the Trump administration announced its decision to pull 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany. The move was lambasted by those on the left and right alike, and indeed, at face value, it appeared counterintuitive. Any return to the Obama and Bush-era troop drawdown in Europe would be foolish facing a revisionist Russia. But if there is anything the keen and impartial observer should know by now about this administration, it is that it keeps its cards close to the chest, absorbing the criticism that inevitably comes and only revealing its end game down the line.
Each year, Estonia hosts Spring Storm (Kevadtorm), bringing together forces from all across NATO to conduct field and live-fire exercises. Though smaller in scale and participation due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s exercises concluded successfully last week. Spring Storm demonstrates Estonia and its allies’ commitment to ensuring readiness in case of attack, contributing to the credibility of NATO’s deterrence posture on the Eastern Flank. Military exercises are crucial for training and readiness purposes, as new conscripts/recruits and reservists have an opportunity to train alongside active duty personnel.
At the beginning of this month, the U.S. delivered 128 javelin anti-tank missiles to Estonia, part of ongoing cooperation between the two countries. This will provide another moderate boost to the credibility of Estonia’s deterrent posture. These kinds of smaller procurements are an important part of the broader effort to build up a credible defense in case of Russian aggression and to signal that the risk outweighs the reward for attacking the Baltic States.
Last week, Finland and Sweden conducted naval cooperation exercises in the Baltic Sea. Given that these two countries have a long tradition of close cooperation in military affairs, this seems fairly mundane. But these exercises were highly unusual, as Finland’s FNS Uusimaa took orders from Swedish naval command, and Sweden’s HMS Helsingborg received orders from Finland’s command center in Turku. This was the first time in the history of Finnish-Swedish naval cooperation that ships took orders from the opposite country’s command.
At the end of last month, Lithuania and Poland announced that the two countries would each assign a brigade to NATO Headquarters in Poland to “train and act together” for the defense of the Suwałki Gap. According to the signed act of affiliation, Lithuania’s Iron Wolf Mechanized Brigade and Poland’s 15th Mechanized Brigade will train jointly to prepare for operations in the Gap, though they will remain under their own national command.
Winston Churchill once famously quipped that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. A keen observer will notice that Alyaksandar Lukashenka’s Belarus is much the same. All too often, Western analysts have made the mistake of grossly oversimplifying Belarus’ relationship with Russia, as well as its domestic political affairs and broader foreign policy. This has led the West to neglect relations with Minsk, where despite a less than ideal government, great strategic opportunity lies, and where there is also significant strategic risk.