Edward Lucas: Ukraine is buying us time. Use it wisely

The honeymoon lasted about a month. That is the bleak assessment of the Lithuanian foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis. In the early weeks of Russia’s war on Ukraine, it seemed briefly possible that the complacent, arrogant, ignorant, greedy countries of the “Old West” had truly woken up to the danger from Russia, and were ready to make the decisions and sacrifices necessary to meet it.

Not anymore. One sign of this is the increasing number of voices demanding that Ukraine make concessions to stop the war. Italy’s “peace plan” will not be the last such effort (“why not give Russia Lake Como,” says Odesa-based Hanna Shelest). Another is the scramble among some European countries (Italy again, also Austria, and notoriously Hungary) to secure Russian energy supplies. Don’t forget Germany’s solipsistic, sophomoric “can violence be fought with violence?” philosophizing.

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Most troubling, however, is growing squishiness in the run-up to next month’s Nato summit in Madrid. Only a few weeks ago it seemed clear that the alliance was going to change its stance on its Baltic frontline. The old tripwire strategy, backed up by reinforcement plans and the ambition to liberate any territory temporarily seized by Russian aggressors, was clearly out of date. Vladimir Putin has shown himself willing to make militarily reckless decisions. Russia’s treatment of occupied territories and population mean that the Baltic states are not willing to concede a single inch, or a single soul, to that fate.

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Real defense of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is a big deal. Its backbone would be large numbers of military personnel from other Nato countries, who would be based there, either permanently or (preferably) on persistent rotation. They would need big stockpiles of fuel, munitions, and spare parts. The current air policing regime would be replaced by real air defense, involving costly weapons that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania cannot pay for alone.

This is quite doable. But it requires money and political will. Someone must provide the troops. Someone must pay. Someone must push through the decision. That someone, usually, is the United States. For decades Europeans have relied on this. But freeloading is dangerous. It taxes American patience in the short term, and risks disaster if political priorities shift in Washington.

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Another worry in the Baltic states comes from the opposite: not too much of a role for the US, but too little. With Sweden and Finland in Nato, why not leave the regional defense to these countries? With Poland’s size, and the Nordic countries’ wealth, the US (and the UK) role could surely become far less.

The less you know about the region, the more attractive that seems. True, Sweden and Finland have capable air forces. They will be a vital part of any new maritime strategy for the Baltic Sea region. But the most vulnerable point in the region is the Suwałki-Alytus corridor: the thin neck of land that connects Poland and Lithuania. It is bordered by heavily militarized Kaliningrad on one side, and the Kremlin’s proxy state of Belarus on the other. Cut that neck, and the Baltic states are in serious trouble. Defending it is tricky: a job for a superpower with mastery of the escalation ladder. The US may lead a “minilateral” coalition of like-minded countries in this endeavor, but it cannot outsource responsibility to them.

The end game in Ukraine is still unclear. But it is already clear (I fear) that the next round of the contest between imperial Russia and its reluctant Western adversaries will take place in the Baltics. The rule book for that tussle is being written now. Bold letters, in thick black ink, please.

Edward Lucas is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He was formerly a senior editor at The Economist. Lucas has covered Central and Eastern European affairs since 1986, writing, broadcasting, and speaking on the politics, economics, and security of the region.

Original publication here.

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