Security concerns occupy a privileged position in the national politics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – sometimes, indeed, it seems to be the one question that truly unites the three Baltic states. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, this seems hardly surprising: Vladimir Putin’s aggressive foreign policy bring back the Baltics’ shared trauma of Soviet occupation and make the already complicated geopolitical situation of the region look even worse. The ongoing modernization of the Russian military has revitalized the long-established fear of a conventional military attack; the newly-emerged strategy of hybrid warfare has introduced new threats and has exposed new vulnerabilities.
In this environment, the Baltic states have, unilaterally and within multilateral frameworks, launched a wide-ranging effort to improve their security infrastructure and defensive capabilities. However, despite the intense interest in the goal, the Baltic strategy has been only a qualified success. On the one hand, the Baltics have successfully revitalized their militaries and have successfully acquired some assurance from NATO. On the other, building security capacities in the Baltics has attracted criticism from the Kremlin and has enabled further Russian military build-up, while hybrid attacks continue to occur in all three states. Perhaps most importantly, while they enjoy relatively broad support, the recent efforts of the Baltic governments have failed to significantly improve the security perceptions in their populations.
There are multiple explanations for the limited success of the Baltic security strategy. In part, any decisive improvement in the security situation in the Baltics is hard to expect because the region is trapped in a security dilemma. The complex geopolitics mean that any defensive upgrades on the one side are interpreted as a potential offensive build up from the other side – and with the existing power asymmetries, the Baltics always end up on the more vulnerable side.
However, structural conditions do not explain the full extent of the problems with the current security policy in the Baltics. The current effort is incapable of significantly enhancing security, as it severely underutilizes multilateral tools available for increasing regional security through technical cooperation with Russia. At a broader level, the current effort is even incapable of enhancing security perceptions, as it employs a restricted narrative on security concerns in the Baltics and largely ignores the human and economic dimensions of security.
Thus, any analysis of the Baltic security strategy has to discuss not only the identified threats and the actions taken, but also the threats that do not receive the required attention and the policy routes not entertained. In this overview, I attempt to comment both on the existing security narrative and to propose some new avenues for exploring what it means to build up security in the Baltics; a short list of policy recommendations is included.
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