From Nezavisimaya gazeta, Dec. 11, 2023, p. 9. Complete text:

The Baltic states have always been keenly aware of tensions between the East and the West. And today, as never before, security in this region hinges on the state of relations between Russia and the West, which have gone through several stages over the past 30 years – from high expectations to missed opportunities and an unprecedented crisis.

Right now, it is difficult to imagine the joint Russian-European cooperation initiatives that used to exist in the not-so-distant past, such as the Northern Dimension, the European Union’s Baltic Sea Region neighborhood policy programs, etc. These projects were focused on fostering cross-border cooperation for joint economic, innovative, scientific and technical development of the region; and the strengthening of cultural ties between the coastal nations. It is also hard to believe today that in 2002, Russia and the EU managed to reach an agreement on transit to and from Kaliningrad Province [i.e., the Facilitated Transit Document – Trans.], an issue that was very important to Russia.

Clearly, the confrontation between Russia and the West, which has been gaining momentum since the start of the [Russian] special military operation in Ukraine, would project a negative influence on the Baltic region. However, there is also a reverse process. In the context of the Ukraine crisis, the growing rivalry in and around the Baltic Sea fosters the threat of incidents, and it could provoke an armed conflict between Russia and NATO. In recent years, the region, which is one of the central fault lines of friction between the West and Moscow, has been seeing increased [risks of] collisions between Russian and NATO warships and planes, as well as acts of sabotage on sea pipelines [see, for example, Vol. 74, No. 39, pp. 7‑9].

Finland’s accession to NATO and Sweden’s impending accession are changing the geostrategic situation in the Baltic region, expanding the North Atlantic alliance’s zone of responsibility and doubling the length of its border with Russia – to 2,600 kilometers. In the event of a major armed conflict between Russia and NATO, this common border would turn into a front line with all the ensuing consequences. As for the Baltic Sea, it is de facto becoming a NATO sea, except for two districts around Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg.

Western experts point out that today the Baltic and North Seas are part of a greater geostrategic Arctic-North Atlantic space that extends all the way to the Black Sea as a zone of possible operations. The admission of the two Scandinavian countries to NATO makes it easier for the allied forces to monitor and control the most important sea lines [of communication] in the Baltic Sea. Three states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – as well as the islands of Bornholm and Gotland, are becoming increasingly important to NATO from a strategic standpoint. In the event of a conflict with Russia, the alliance would have greater capabilities to deny Russia access to Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg via blockades and military operations. At the same time, even though NATO has effective control over the Baltic region, the littoral countries are accusing Russia of [hatching] aggressive plans and disrupting the status quo in a post-bipolar Europe.

Readers are reminded that, paradoxical as it may sound, the first partition of Europe took place during the most favorable period in international relations, after the end of the cold war. At the time, the post-Communist space was divided between two militarily unequal institutions – the NATO military bloc and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). NATO assumed responsibility for the Central and Eastern European countries, while the OSCE [took charge of] the countries east of Vienna.

This division of Europe was bound to marginalize the OSCE, whose role in ensuring European security, according to leading Western experts, could only be subordinate. Christoph Bertram, a German political analyst and journalist, wrote that “as walls were coming down all over Europe, many hoped that cold war-era alliances would now be replaced by a pan-European security architecture and only a few foresaw that this new architecture would ultimately be represented by NATO.” This approach was certain to change Russia’s initially favorable attitude toward the OSCE, since it created the impression that [the OSCE] was a second-tier organization for second-tier countries.

The admission of the three Baltic countries to NATO in 2004 opened a new chapter in the alliance’s expansionist policy. Although the West never recognized Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as part of the USSR, their accession to NATO de facto became the first division of the post-Soviet space. This made the Russian leadership concerned over the alliance’s further expansion to include [other] countries neighboring Russia. Meanwhile, it should be recognized that despite all concerns about the building of a NATO-centric European security system, the Russian leadership did not offer an alternative vision of that system until 2010, in a draft European security treaty. That step, which came almost 20 years too late, was not well received by the West, which viewed the Russian proposal as an attempt to “stab NATO in the back.”

In response to the former [Soviet] Baltic republics’ accession to NATO, Russia without much ado took measures to reinforce its Western Military District. That triggered a campaign in NATO’s Baltic member states against Russia’s alarming military buildup. To a large extent, those fears and mutual recriminations became self-fulfilling prophecies, creating an unfavorable environment and causing new problems in relations between Russia and the West.

Despite the fact that almost all Baltic countries are an inalienable part of the Western security alliance, which is subject to Art. 5 of [the] NATO [Charter] on collective defense, they continue to feel vulnerable and uncertain about their future. This shows through in numerous statements and articles by leading Baltic politicians. For example, stressing the region’s importance in the new geostrategic situation, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis recalled US president John Kennedy’s remark, “Ich bin ein Berliner” [I am a Berliner], made during his visit to West Berlin in 1963, adding that “the Baltic countries could easily become the West Berlin of the 21st century.”

To all appearances, this was Landsbergis’s attempt to send a message to his [country’s] main ally, the US, about the need for firm support for the Baltic countries during this period of international tensions. However, as such, this analogy evokes diametrically opposite associations, since history knows both the model of Europe characterized by the Berlin crises of 1948-1949 and 1961, as well as the model of the 1970-1972 Berlin agreements. Essentially, these are two different scenarios for a post-conflict Europe, and the role of the Baltic region varies with each one.

The “Europe of the Berlin crises” means a new division of Europe, as was the case during the bipolarity era, symbolized by a divided Berlin.

It should not be forgotten that in 1961, one of the Berlin crises put Europe on the verge of a global conflict. Of course, in terms of those days, this comparison should not be taken literally; it is just a figure of speech reflecting the highest possible level of international tensions and extreme instability.

This model could become a reality if a ceasefire does not lead to a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine, and it cuts Europe along the frozen line of conflict. In this scenario, both the arms control regime and the role of international organizations such as the OSCE will be reduced to zero.

Another extreme scenario that cannot be ruled out is the deployment of US nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory and in the Baltic countries. The danger of a nuclear apocalypse would be greater than during the cold war crises. In the context of this scenario, the Baltic countries, which looked to the North Atlantic alliance for security and refused to remain a buffer zone between Russia and NATO, would end up on the front line of a possible conflict.

The second model – the “Europe of the 1970s Berlin agreements” – is more optimistic, since it is reminiscent of the window of opportunity that opened after the signing of several important international treaties regulating the Federal Republic of Germany’s relations with its neighbors and the status of West Berlin. [Then-FRG chancellor] Willy Brandt’s Eastern policy in the 1970s became part of the policy of international détente that eventually led to the 1975 Helsinki Act [on European security].

In the present unfavorable situation, a key requirement for overcoming a new division of Europe would be the signing of a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine (after a ceasefire agreement). This is the only way to return to multifaceted cooperation between Russia and its neighbors, including in the Baltic region, as well as to revitalize the arms control process and an inclusive format such as the OSCE. Ultimately, this would drive the need for an international forum on a new order in Europe that would determine mutually acceptable foundations of European security and help put the mistakes of the past behind us, if not put them right.