Forever bound: Global Britain and the Wider Baltic

In recent weeks, rumours have swirled that the United Kingdom’s (UK) Integrated Review will undermine the defence of Europe. Critics allege that Britain’s coming ‘tilt’ towards Indo-Pacific will inevitably come at the expense of the UK’s European commitments, not least to the Baltic states. These claims continue irrespective of Prime Minister Boris Johnson telling the Munich Security Conference in February that ‘the success of Global Britain depends on the security of our homeland and the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area’. 

On Thursday, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, visited Tallinn in Estonia for consultations with the foreign ministers of the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – which, due to their geography, are potentially the most exposed to Russia’s revisionist action. 

Ahead of the visit, the Foreign Secretary explicitly acknowledged the challenge from Russia:

The security threat posed by Russia is felt most keenly by its neighbours. The UK is committed to standing with our close friends in the Nordic and Baltic regions, both militarily as well as in tackling Russia’s disinformation and destabilising regional activity.

The Foreign Secretary and the three foreign ministers then issued a joint statement declaring that ‘Ministers discussed Russia, China, Ukraine, and Belarus, as well as the wider issues of regional security and mutual defence.’ That China and Russia were mentioned simultaneously reveals the extent to which the British and their Baltic allies have realised that the two regions – the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific – are increasingly interconnected. Last month, Estonia and Lithuania partially disengaged from China’s 17+1 talks with Eastern European countries, sending only a junior minister instead of their national leaders.

With this visit, coming just a few days before the publication of the Integrated Review, the UK is signalling that it will not overlook its obligations to its Euro-Atlantic allies. It is reconfirming its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Baltic states in particular. Given that the three countries sit on the eastern frontier of the alliance, they are part of Britain’s broader geographic defence system. Their insecurity would render NATO obsolete.

Likewise, by partaking in a 1+3 format – a new ‘Quadrilateral’ – the Baltic states are signalling how important they consider British engagement in the Baltic region. The UK was one of the first to embrace their accession to NATO, which they view as paramount in the current European security architecture. It is for this reason that they embraced the UK’s leading role in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence and participation in the Baltic Air Policing Mission, with Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon interceptors deployed regularly to Amari Air Station in Estonia or Siauliai Air Station in Lithuania. They understand that the extension of the UK’s conventional combat power into the Baltic – at their invitation – ‘actualises’ NATO’s deterrent value and underlines the extent of the British commitment.

Not only do the Baltic states appreciate Britain’s crucial role in enhancing regional security by deploying its military forces, but they also appreciate its efforts in tackling unconventional threats, such as disinformation and cyber attacks – explicitly mentioned by Raab. The UK was one of the founding countries of NATO’s Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence in Latvia in 2014 and its experts were also actively involved in the establishment of the National Cyber Security Centre in Lithuania in 2018. Finally, Britain has long been considered by the Baltic states as one of the strongest advocates of democracy and human rights in Eastern Europe, particularly in Ukraine and other East European countries. 

The Baltic states also look to the UK for more than deterring Russia. As the three ministers declared in the joint statement, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania share much in common with the British position on China – more even than they share with the EU position, which is dominated by a Germany often keener to engage with Beijing and Moscow than it is to uphold its allies’ interests.

So, given its geographic proximity, Britain will retain a keen interest in the Baltic, despite its Indo-Pacific tilt. It is in this sense that a new ‘Quadrilateral’ between the four countries, itself part of a wider ‘Octilateral’ including Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden (Raab followed his visit to Tallinn with a trip to Oslo for consultations with the Nordic states), makes sense. Efforts to bind this ‘Wider Baltic’ region together are vital; if regional cohesion breaks down, Baltic security will fray – and with it, Global Britain will falter.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy. Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė is Co-founder and Director of Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy.

Image credit: Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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