National Security & Defense

Baltic Journal, Part III

Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite arrives at a NATO summit in Warsaw, July 9, 2016. (Reuters photo: Kacper Pempel)
Museums, street singers, cool kids, NATO, and more

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger spent the week of September 12 in the Baltic states — or rather, in two of them, Latvia and Estonia. A piece of his will soon appear in National Review magazine: about the Baltics, Russia, NATO, and America, particularly in light of our presidential campaign. This journal supplements the piece, and concerns matters weighty and light. For Parts I and II, go here and here.

I began yesterday’s installment with a note on a museum: the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, 1940-1991. I am now looking at the art museum: the Latvian National Museum of Art. This is a beautiful building — a work of art itself. Art museums ought to be like that, right?

No, I don’t go inside this one. Sometimes, I prefer to gaze at them from the outside.

‐On the street in Old Town, an old lady is singing a song, accompanying herself with a tambourine. The song may be a nursery rhyme, which she learned long ago. The scene is disturbing, to me — like something out of an opera. Wozzeck?

‐Across from her is a Circle K — as in “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K” (an immortal line from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). The store has a mixture of items you could find anywhere — Boise, Bordeaux — and local items: Latvian items. A fine enterprise.

‐An old man is singing a song on the street — probably a Latvian folk song. I’m thinking, “Should I be recording this, like a modern-day Bartok or Kodaly?” After a few seconds, it becomes clear that he is singing a Neapolitan song: “Torna a Surriento,” by De Curtis (who also wrote “Non ti scordar di me”).

Oh, well.

‐There is a group of cool kids, with dyed hair, and they’re going into a restaurant — McDonald’s.

‐Hours after I first saw and heard her, I pass that old lady again. She is sitting at an electronic keyboard. She’s not doing anything to it. It is playing on its own. It is playing — get this — a pop version of Bach’s Air on the G String.

I give the lady a coin — a euro or two. She is very, pitiably grateful. Which gives me a jolt.

‐When the Baltic countries were held captive by Moscow, they were the Soviet West. They were the western part of the Soviet Union. Other people in the USSR liked to come here; it gave them a taste of the West, a taste of Europe. Today, of course, and properly, the Baltics are the European East, or Northeast.

The East-West thing is interesting, isn’t it? All depends on where you’re coming from.

‐In 2004, the Baltic states joined NATO, and the European Union as well.

‐Jump a decade — to 2014. NATO held a summit in Wales, and decided to beef up. This was in response to Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, and its threats to the Baltics. Members set a goal on defense spending: Each country would spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024.

NATO has 28 members. At present, only five meet the 2 percent threshold: the United States, Britain, Poland, Greece (which is surprising, at least to me), and one of the three Baltic states: Estonia. The other two, Latvia and Lithuania, are on track to reach 2 percent by 2018.

The Balts have also fought and died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan was — is — an Article 5 war. What do I mean by that? Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty says, in effect, “An attack on one is an attack on all.” This article has been invoked only once: after the jihadist strikes against America on 9/11.

‐Since 2004, when the Baltics joined the alliance, NATO has been engaged in a mission called “Baltic Air Policing.” NATO planes have no lack of work: They continually escort Russian planes from Baltic airspace. Putin’s pilots buzz and buzz, and they like to turn their transponders off.

This year, at its summit in Warsaw, NATO decided to do more. It will send three battalions to the Baltic states next year. Germans will go to Lithuania. Canadians will go to Latvia. And Brits will go to Estonia.

It is remarkable for Germany to be militarily engaged like this. Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite, said, “A breakthrough is occurring in the German mindset. Time for self-doubt, fear, reluctance to take responsibility, and dread of what Putin might think, is over.”

For now.

And how about Canada? Under Stephen Harper, the recently ousted premier, I could understand. But under Pierre Trudeau’s son? Trudeau père, of course, was an enthusiast for the Soviet Union. But Trudeau fils, people here in the Baltics say, is cut from a different cloth. He is enthusiastic about NATO and this Baltic mission.

Huh.

In addition to Germans, Canadians, and Brits, there will be an American footprint — American boots on the ground in the Baltics. Those boots are here now. And this is extremely important, psychologically, to Baltic people. Because without America — what is NATO? (Nothing.)

Two years ago, just before the NATO summit in Wales, President Obama gave a speech in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. He could not have been more ringing:

Countries like Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania are not “post-Soviet territory.” You are sovereign and independent nations with the right to make your own decisions. No other nation gets to veto your security decisions. …

… we will defend our NATO allies, and that means every ally. In this alliance, there are no old members or new members, no junior partners or senior partners — there are just allies, pure and simple. And we will defend the territorial integrity of every single ally. …

… the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.

This year, in August, Vice President Biden was here in Riga, reinforcing Obama’s point. “I want to make it absolutely clear to all the people in the Baltic states: We have pledged our sacred honor, the United States of America, to the NATO treaty and Article 5.”

He was here on August 23 — the most important, and most infamous, date in Baltic history: the date on which the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed. The timing of Biden’s visit was, needless to say, intentional.

Biden further told the Balts that they should not listen to Donald Trump — whose comments about the Baltics and NATO are “nothing that should be taken seriously.”

And yet Balts do take them seriously, as who wouldn’t? Trump is one of the two people who could be the next president.

In my magazine piece — forthcoming — I go into detail about what Trump has said. I will not record the details here, in this journal. But I will note a couple of things.

At a rally in Florida, Trump said, “I don’t want to get rid of NATO — but you always have to be prepared to walk. It’s possible. Okay?” He then did a comical reenactment of an interview he’d had with the New York Times: “They said, ‘What happens if one of these countries’ — take a smaller one that nobody in this room’s ever heard of — ‘gets attacked by Russia? Are you saying you’re not gonna protect ’em?’ I say, ‘Well, let me ask you: Have they paid? Have they paid?’ Right? ‘Have they paid?’”

Trump has been saying that NATO countries are delinquent on payments owed to the United States. This has left a lot of people scratching their heads. There is no general bill due, for which governments have failed to pay up. It is true, however, that the U.S. has been pressing its NATO allies to spend more on defense — as seen in the 2 percent goal, established at the Wales summit in 2014.

At the Florida rally, Trump continued, “So, we’re gonna save a fortune. They’re gonna pay. And if they don’t — sorry.”

The candidate spoke of smaller countries that “nobody in this room’s ever heard of.” He was surely alluding to the Baltic states (about which he had been asked, by the Times). He may have been underestimating his room. But it’s true that the Baltics are not very well-known in America.

More than a few people — in this region and elsewhere — thought of Neville Chamberlain, that good but misguided man. In September 1938, he spoke of “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” He was talking about Czechoslovakia. The Baltic states are very keen not to be served up as the next Czechoslovakia — which is one reason they were intent on joining NATO, and are intent on pulling their oars, and then some.

‐I would like to say something in Trump’s defense, or in understanding of the Trumpite point of view. Article 5 is the most famous part of the North Atlantic Treaty, probably. But Article 3 is not to be overlooked:

“In order more effectively to achieve the objectives of this Treaty, the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

‐A couple of days before that Florida rally, Trump made a comment on Crimea — a comment that raised eyebrows, certainly here in the Baltics. He seemed to rationalize Putin’s annexation of Crimea. He said, “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

Only eight states have recognized the Russian annexation. If you thought about it, you could probably name them: Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

Actually, I would have thought Iran.

In his speech in Tallinn, President Obama said, “Just as we never accepted the occupation and illegal annexation of the Baltic nations, we will not accept Russia’s occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea or any part of Ukraine.”

‐I talk to many people here in the Baltics, and they all say the same thing: They stress how grateful they are for the U.S. non-recognition, during those long years. Washington never accepted the occupation and annexation of the Baltic states as legitimate. America always withheld recognition.

Some experts counseled against this — “realistic” ones, “pragmatic” ones, Kissingerian ones. But they did not prevail. And Balts are very, very grateful.

I always thought that Captive Nations Day, or Captive Nations Week, was sort of pathetic — such a weak gesture, when Balts were enduring such hell. I thought it was almost insulting: better nothing than a special “day,” or even a “week.”

But I was wrong. This gesture was very meaningful to the Balts. And non-recognition was key. I will say more about this later. In the meantime, better knock off for today, and I’ll see you tomorrow. Thanks.

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