A Fortified Eastern Flank to Face Down Putin

Franco-German efforts to seek a ceasefire in Ukraine have obscured an emerging consensus among NATO’s frontline states — there can be no deal with the Russian aggressor.


Unseen and largely unremarked, work is already underway on a new forward-defence bulwark, NATO’s reimagined Eastern Flank extending from new alliance candidates Sweden and Finland in the Arctic to partner nations on the Black Sea, together with insulating the West from Russian expansionism.

Discussions on this new geopolitical reality, created by the understanding of Russian military adventurism, are already underway though not always in public; one such closed-door gathering was organized in Riga last week. Nordic and other Eastern Flank policymakers argued that bringing Russia to justice is not only a matter of morality, but also of strategy: otherwise, the West is exposing itself to existential risk.

One expert vocalized a widespread understanding in the room: “With the war, the geopolitical dynamics changed. The Baltic Sea region has become very visible. This is the moment to deepen Eastern Flank cooperation: to speak one voice, plus take Ukraine on board.” There were multiple discussions about military preparations.

This approach contrasts with that of France, Germany, and Italy, the European Union’s (EU’s) three biggest members, which have led efforts to negotiate an end to Russia’s shooting war, often without consulting Ukraine’s leaders. The Eastern Flank states are not yet a fully formed counterweight to this west European grouping, but they have the potential to recognize their significance and to develop an alternative voice.

The region’s thinking meshes with NATO’s strategic shift to forward defence and active deterrence, which may be formally agreed upon at the Madrid summit this month or the Vilnius summit next year. The Baltic gathering simply recognized a new reality: at one end, Sweden and Finland are significantly reinforcing their transatlantic commitment (military interoperability is already established), and on the other, Ukraine is becoming a de facto member of that same Western security architecture.

But if the Baltic states’ accession to NATO and the EU can serve as an example, Ukraine’s de jure acceptance within this architecture might take a while, requiring years-long testing in policy reform, governance, and battlefield commitment to repeatedly prove oneself as both an active and responsible ally over the long term. The only thing likely to accelerate this is an unexpectedly swift end to the war opening the way to entry by acclamation.


NATO JTAC trainings in Lithuania / NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Lithuania photo

We remain far from that point. The latest EU sanctions package is the latest example of members’ continuing differences in how to counter Russia. While some of the larger EU member states are keen to maintain the status quo, smaller states in closer proximity to the war prefer a total victory and reunification of all of Ukraine. The continuing US goal to strategically weaken Russia, while executing its “pivot to Asia” adds yet another layer.

Some European policymakers aim to bridge the gap. One is Viola Von Cramon, a prominent German MEP and a cautious geopolitical realist, whose parliamentary responsibilities include membership of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Special Committee on Foreign Interference and Disinformation, as well as vice-chairmanship of the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary delegation.

“Only a military defeat can be achieved. There is no room for negotiation,” she says, when asked about a united vision for the war’s end. “We are more united than ever before. But that doesn’t mean we have a longer-term strategic goal . . . In the beginning, some in Germany hoped that a few billion euros could bring us back to the status quo. Not anymore; people [have started] recognizing this tectonic shift, and the need to make sacrifices in our way of life so that Ukrainians can survive.”

Viola von Cramon does not currently see a strong European leader emerging to formulate a single vision for the war’s end, but suggests this gives smaller members greater influence in the debate: “Smaller states have a great vision and fear that history will come back. Some claim that the Balts are Russophobic. No; they have a clear sense of the situation, the best possible antenna.”

The recommendations coming from the Baltics are crystal clear. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda is unequivocal about war aims: “The West’s vacillation, indecision and tendency to pander to Russia may bring a forced peace, but it will not bring sustainable peace. It is puzzling and shocking to hear proposals for Ukraine to make territorial concessions to Russia.”

Russo-realism might be deployed to unite others around a few essential building blocks: continuing to provide military equipment to Ukraine; ensuring checks and balances for Ukraine to help it remain a democratic partner enjoying the rule of law, and limiting fearmongering over Russian nuclear weapons use.

Experts at the Baltic meeting also considered regional history, and the so-called Primakov doctrine: a Russian effort to build a multipolar world, managed by a concert of major Eurasian powers to counterbalance the US. The doctrine, named after a former Russian premier and head of the Soviet/Russian Intelligence service, is used to explain the Kremlin’s perspective on the Transatlantic security architecture, as well as the talk of mutual great power respect which emanates from some European capitals.

The doctrine is also used to justify Kremlin’s expansionism by arguing that the West rejected Russia’s friendly post-Cold War overtures to co-manage the geopolitical neighbourhood.

“When the West does not know what to do with a particular issue, for instance, neighbours on the Eastern Flank — Russia knows,” said one senior politico-military representative from the region, describing Kremlin’s long-ingrained strategic opportunism and propensity to stress-test vulnerabilities as part of its strategic goal of undermining Western alliances.

That is a constant fear in the minds of Eastern Flank nations. A few days ago Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis urged caution after French President Emmanuel Macron’s telephone call to Putin: “Talking of reintegrating Putinist Russia into the European security architecture poses significant risks to European security and unity,” he said.

Viola von Cramon also recognizes this risk. “We’re already there in terms of interference; information war is ongoing,” she said, noting the lack of preparation. “The EU’s current task force is not sufficient. We need strategic communications in all languages through all member states. Novel institutions need to be developed, with an advanced level of understanding of how the Russians work. For example, food supply disruptions will be used as a weapon — we will see horrible stories. I wish we had a department which anticipated what [games] the Russians would play . . . We should kick back with a rapid response.”

Responding to continuing Franco-German communications with Putin — apparently, without consulting Ukraine — some delegates within the Baltic-Nordic gathering noted the recent appeal from Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas for the two west European states to ask themselves the purpose of such communications: “Why talk to [Putin]? He’s a war criminal.”

Ukrainians should hope that the positions discussed on these calls differ sharply from the times of the last major European remaking.

In a private call in 1991 prompted by a last-ditch Soviet effort to storm Lithuania’s capital that killed 14 civilians, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that, “everyone must also be open to detours. The important thing is that you don’t lose sight of the goal.”

Today’s Europe would be wise to heed the essence of his words, and build a united Europe with fortified frontiers. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda spoke for the emerging Eastern Flank alliance with its clear understanding of the risks the continent now faces. “There can be no dialogue or cooperation, no pandering or appeasement to this terrorist Russia,” he said. “The West must seek a strong response from the democratic world in the form of sanctions, accountability for war crimes, and complete isolation.”

Von Cramon offered a more practical vision: “If Ukrainians are not only brave but also well equipped, it could all go better.”

 

Article prepared and published by CEPA:


Dalia Bankauskaite  is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis with CEPA's Democratic Resilience Program, Professor at Vilnius University, and an Expert at the Swedish Defence University. An interdisciplinary expert in security policy, strategic communication, and political advisory, she focuses on advancing the understanding of total defence and stratcomms campaigns for high-visibility issues.

Dominykas Milasius  is a geopolitical risk expert and an entrepreneur. He is the founder of Unit 370, a boutique consultancy, specializing in strategic and geopolitical risk advisory. He has previously counselled top-tier decision-makers across the EMEA region, facilitating the development of strategic international programs. He is also a co-founder of Delta biosciences, an interdisciplinary deep-tech startup.

 

Cover photo: Polish soldiers peer downrange during a live-fire exercise in Cincu, Romania on 28 April 2022. French and Polish forces deployed to Romania as part of the new NATO multinational battlegroup held a live-fire exercise alongside their Romanian counterparts at Cincu Training Area, Romania. Credit: NATO via Flickr.

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