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Stability but for how long

The Eastern flank of the NATO alliance might well be safer than ever before in a physical sense. However, warfare through information means, social and economic matters internally and geopolitical shifts externally could eventually lead to more troubling changes down the line.

June 22, 2021 - Jurgis Vedrickas - All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?Issue 4 2021Magazine

Illustration by Andrzej Zaręba

The entire NATO Eastern flank is currently faced with a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the international context is more unstable than it has been for decades, with the Kremlin continuing to assertively pursue its dreams of a Russkiy Mir (Russian World) and superpower status, while China exercises its increasing powers in order to pursue its own goals. On the other hand, at least in the short term, NATO states in the region are perhaps as safe as they have ever been – securing NATO membership provides a safeguard against direct hostilities of the sort we witnessed against Ukraine and Georgia, which means that, for the time being, efforts against NATO’s Eastern flank are essentially limited to information operations and posturing.

Bar the gradual increase of tensions with the East over the past 20 years, these are circumstances that have remained essentially unchanged, which could allow us to say business goes on as usual in the region: be prepared, as best as you can, to defend against hard military incursion, while concurrently combatting more pertinent information assaults. Even while there are numerous discussions over the potential risks of the Baltics being cut off by a quick assault on or over the Suwałki Gap (an 80 kilometre strip of land in Poland which could become a bridge for ground troop transport between Belarus and Kaliningrad – editor’s note), the real dangers lie in efforts that emanate from the East to mislead, destabilise and antagonise societies in the region. However, the past year has brought about several changes which, while not immediate, could significantly change the security and political landscape of the region.

From COVID-19 to information warfare

The coronavirus has been discussed to exhaustion over the past year and yet, so long as it continues to shape our everyday reality, we cannot avoid examining its impact. In a more direct sense, the virus’s emergence has led to the loss of lives and livelihood around the world, concurrently locking down societies and economies. There have even been murmurs of a backsliding in democracy due to the measures implemented to combat the virus. The initial confusion and chaos, where we witnessed some disappointing displays of lacking solidarity between countries in the western bloc, did little to help.

While recovery is gradually underway, the fact that in the second quarter of 2020, we witnessed the largest decrease in GDP for the euro zone on record and that unemployment, particularly among younger generations, has greatly increased, speaks volumes. What does this mean for NATO’s Eastern flank? Firstly, it puts a strain on any plans to increase spending on defence, an issue for the NATO alliance as a whole, given how numerous states have only recently been moving towards the NATO guideline of two per cent. This trend might not have been reversed as of yet, but as countries grapple with the fallout of the coronavirus crisis and as governments have to justify continued increases to defence expenditures, one can wonder if the most recent scandals involving Russian operations in NATO member states will be enough to convince Western European NATO states (some of which have been underperforming in terms of defence spending already). Any backsliding on compliance with NATO commitments is, at a time of increasing tensions with the East, a concerning element and states along the NATO periphery are likely to be the first to sample the consequences of failure in this respect.

Nevertheless, so long as NATO membership and commitments do not come into question, even a lack of funds might be a moot point – NATO still maintains the capacity to mobilise resources if push comes to shove (not to mention the simple fact of a nuclear umbrella). The question here lies with societies. The impact of COVID-19 came together to form a potent cocktail. With societies under strain from the impact of the coronavirus, concurrently the circumstances are exploited to spread disinformation and manipulate perceptions. A perfect example is how, recently, the Lithuanian military reported a 32 per cent increase in “disinformation incidents”.

There are already significant numbers refusing western vaccines or vaccines in general (likely, in no small part, due to disinformation spread through the Russian info-sphere), and while this may not directly impact security conditions today, it is another example of efforts to erode public trust in the state and its institutions. Such erosion could lead to unpredictable outcomes with potential security repercussions. Indeed, while NATO’s Eastern flank can, for the short to intermediate term, rest easy in terms of its physical security thanks to NATO’s Article 5 and at least adequate public support for the organisation both in the region and in the West, the real threat stems from the battle being waged over hearts and minds. This is particularly important in countries like Estonia and Latvia, which have large Russian ethnic minority populations, but also maintains relevance in states that do not such as Lithuania. While Russia is pouring vast sums into its media effort (Russia’s budget for state media support exceeds a billion dollars a year), attempts to offer adequate alternatives to the Kremlin’s mouthpieces remain insufficient or even non-existent in NATO member states. Admittedly though, at least at the domestic level in Russia, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine might be losing some of its grip.

Efforts to dominate the information sphere manifest in more sophisticated ways as well. Recently, members of Baltic parliaments were faced with a technologically sophisticated provocation where individuals pretended to be Leonid Volkov, a prominent figure in the Russian opposition and supporter of Alexei Navalny. The attempt included the use of deepfake technologies, which made the perpetrators visually indistinguishable from Volkov, and it was the rather suspect content of inquiries and requests made that tipped off some parliamentarians that things were not as they had seemed.

2020. The year of Belarus

2020 was not only the year of COVID-19, but also, as a Lithuanian official put it during a recent webinar, the year of Belarus. The protests and civil resistance sparked by yet another fraudulent election on August 9th may have diminished due to the cold winter and severe repressions of the regime, but the intensity of the protests across the entire country was a very significant moment. Alyaksandr Lukashenka may still be in power, but he now finds himself racing against the clock. While the peaceful protests have no military element to them whatsoever, the situation is even potentially more significant in a security sense than the recent deployment of Russian troops to the Ukrainian border. The situation in Belarus is still developing and it is unclear what direction it will take. Yet, one thing is clear – whatever the outcome, it will have a massive impact on the region’s security. Depending on what direction events go in, there are a number of likely scenarios.

First, is a situation where Belarus is integrated into the Russian Federation, which could result in the potential deployment of more Russian mainland (compared to those isolated in Kaliningrad) troops closer to NATO’s borders and, perhaps even more significantly, extending the Russian-Ukrainian border and placing Kyiv in more danger due to its newfound proximity to the Russian border. It would, unsurprisingly, be a source of further tension or even escalation. This scenario, just like all others, is not particularly straightforward, however. Russia has lost significant amounts of support among the Belarusian public through its backing of Lukashenka and its involvement in events in Belarus. It is unclear how such integration would actually work out and if it would even be attempted.

Second, we cannot entirely rule out the Belarusian public forging its own path with Lukashenka gone. This can branch out as well – support for Russia may have declined in Belarus, but it is still viewed rather positively there and so, the fact of Lukashenka being dethroned might not guarantee the emergence of a friendly, pro-western neighbour. If a pro-western path is taken, this would touch upon the Kremlin’s baseline and the response would probably be even more severe than in Ukraine’s case and would further deteriorate the regional security complex, perhaps even more than the first scenario.

If the Belarusian public leans more towards Russia (without being outright integrated) or keeps a more neutral stance, however, it will become difficult to make any prediction. Would the Belarusian people return to something of a slumber again? Would a pro-Russian leadership manage to keep the people content and how would it navigate its relationship with Russia? Similarly, how would a more neutrally-inclined leadership fare when positioned between the Kremlin and the West? These are just a few questions to ask for scenarios like this, and each one could have very different implications for Belarus, the region and its security circumstances. There are a multitude of other possible scenarios, but they would clearly have a massive influence on the region’s security.

All in all, there is little to say about the direct military component of regional security in the Eastern flank of NATO. As long as the course towards adequate defence spending is sustained and member states do not become overly complacent, the alliance will be able to take on all comers. That said, while the belligerence of Russia and China may open the eyes of some, the pandemic crisis and influx of money from the East may close the eyes of others – the problem is not military capacities per se, but the ability to maintain awareness while changes, both positive and negative, are ongoing in our neighbourhood and beyond. The recent European Parliament resolution on Russia, the case of Alexei Navalny, the military build-up on Ukraine’s border and Russian attacks in the Czech Republic seems to indicate that we might actually be sufficiently awake for the time being.

Jurgis Vedrickas is a policy analyst with the Eastern European Studies Centre in Vilnius Lithuania. He is also the managing editor of The Lithuania Tribune news portal.

This article is part of a wider project called “All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?” which is conducted by New Eastern Europe and supported by a grant from NATO Public Diplomacy.

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