By Jack Burnham
Four years after the initial deployment of the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) model to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland, the security and defence architecture of Eastern Europe and NATO has shifted dramatically. The illegal Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, along with the conflicts in Georgia, Libya and Afghanistan, can be seen as the result of a process that began after the fall of the Soviet Union—a fracturing of the post-war consensus in which global security would entail responding to isolated crises on the edges of the rules-based international order. In response to this reversion to a latter-twentieth century norm, NATO launched the eFP, which partnered the Baltics and Poland with Canada, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom to host and operate a deployment of battalion-sized battle groups. These battle groups included personnel from other member states and were designed to provide a stronger deterrent on NATO’s Eastern flank and reinforce the extension of Article Five to NATO’s more recent member states.
This paper will argue that the eFP is well-designed for the contemporary threat environment due to its emphasis on ensuring transatlantic solidarity; altering the perception of security among the civilian population; offering a reset from NATO’s focus on out-of-area operations; and, borrowing from securitization theory, securitizing the free exchange of information. The eFP model also offers crucial lessons for NATO as it struggles to promote itself among political elites across North America and Western Europe amidst the changing nature of security and defence.
The multinational battle groups deployed to the Baltic states and Poland contribute to NATO’s deterrence through ensuring Allies’ credibility and solidarity in the post-Crimea era of growing Great Power competition and Russian-supported historical revisionism. In positioning the battle groups along the furthest Eastern flank to respond to Russian aggression, NATO seeks not only to counter kinetic military activity as demonstrated by preparing for such an engagement through joint exercises, but also to build relationships across the Alliance and re-develop a focus on collective defence. This combination of credibility and solidarity forms the basis of NATO’s approach to the eFP model and prepares the Alliance to effectively combat potential threats in a strategically sensitive region.
While the threat of Russian aggression towards the Baltic states did not fully dissipate after the end of the Cold War, the strategic landscape of the region was significantly altered in 2004 due to their accession to NATO. After the events of 2014 and the illegal seizure of Crimea by Russia, however, the possibility of Russian aggression involving conventional arms and resulting in annexation became a focal point for both NATO and the Baltics.[i] These interventions would compel NATO to respond to either a fait accompli or subversion, forcing the Alliance to contemplate a generational crisis: a conventional war within continental Europe.[ii] It is this test, involving an invocation of Article Five, that the Baltics recognize as a worst-case scenario as it may tax NATO’s political cohesion, already weakened by the events in Ukraine that tested the limits of the rules-based international order.[iii] The crisis in Ukraine also implicitly affected the credibility of the transatlantic alliance and its claims to support a peaceful post-war European order by creating a precedent of illegal annexation on the European continent.[iv] Even though the country was not a NATO member, Ukraine’s politics had favoured entrance into NATO and the European Union.[v] The enhanced Forward Presence offers the Alliance a more significant form of credibility through its deployment to the region, which in turn cements the solidarity of the Allies.
The deployment to the Baltic states offers NATO the opportunity to develop interoperable forces already deployed to a potential conflict region and strengthen the relationships between the Baltics and other member states of the Alliance. In contrast to the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which was presented as a “mobile” tripwire that could be rapidly deployed before reinforcements arrived, the eFP model was designed to be supported by individual member states while remaining in this theatre.[vi] This shift also represented a solution to persistent concerns about the ability of the VJTF to rapidly deploy due to its nature as a solely expeditionary force.[vii] Further, the eFP model also allowed for both the host and framework nations to develop highly interoperable forces, a process that implicitly builds solidarity between the Allies. The exercises conducted by the battle groups not only allow for the perfection of technical and strategic expertise, they also realistically simulate combat conditions under which service members from different nationalities must operate, engendering a sense of unity between them.[viii] In practicing for crisis response operations that require the solidarity of the Allies, the contributing member states produce a sense of actual solidarity that leads to the effective deterrence of Russian aggression.
Beyond the military aspects of deterrence provided by the enhanced Forward Presence, the battle groups have also altered the perception of security and defence issues within the host nations. In addition to the role that rational actors play in deterrence theory, deterrence is also a social phenomenon that relies on the context of both the deterrer and the actor being deterred. This phenomenon is further complicated in a democracy as the state ultimately addresses the needs articulated by its citizens, which may differ from the threats perceived by political elites. As such, the battle groups offer a reset for the Baltic states and Poland by demonstrating the connection between internal and external security, particularly regarding the benefits of membership in multilateral organizations such as the EU and NATO.
After the end of the Cold War, governments across NATO began to express concerns related to the human security agenda that emerged from a shifting strategic culture in the post-war aftermath. These concerns were also addressed in the Baltics as the range of security issues recognized by these new governments often dovetailed with pressing social topics regarding human well-being and ethnic divisions.[ix] For Lithuania, issues such as alcoholism, increasing inequality, an aging society, and immigration have become significant concerns, while pan-EU issues such as populist movements and integration continue to affect the region.[x] Ethnic tensions also remain a source of concern for the Baltic states as each government has expressed a distrust of Russian speakers, particularly in Latvia and Estonia, leading to a deepening of societal polarization.[xi] Combined with low levels of trust in government, these crises heighten the possibility of both Russian interference and the decline of a liberal society and a democratic culture.[xii] The deployment of the eFP battle groups recognize this context by conducting outreach into local communities to bolster social cohesion and strengthen the Baltics’ ties to multilateral organizations that promote democratic values.
Deployed to the Baltic states and Poland, the eFP is a significant investment into a region that is recognized as strategically sensitive for both NATO and Russia. Engaged in training exercises with their host nations’ armed forces, the multinational eFPs also conduct community outreach on a regular basis, allowing for the public to interact with the battle groups in social settings. These include donations to charities, demonstrations of military hardware such as weapons and vehicles for interested members of the public, and an active presence on social media.[xiii] Further, as certain Baltic states such as Estonia have military conscription, the eFP model ensures that the service members that operate alongside NATO soldiers are also dispersed throughout Estonian society.[xiv] Societal connections are also essential to the success of the eFP model, which has altered the perception of the public towards international institutions that continue to support democratic values, such as NATO. In all the host nations, the eFPs and NATO as an organization are deeply popular, infusing domestic politics with a positive image about the commitments of the Alliance towards its members.[xv] With certain member states involved in the eFP such as Poland remaining in a state of democratic backsliding, NATO’s involvement allows for the values embedded within the Alliance to remain in the public consciousness and offers a potential reset of the value of the international rules-based order to public safety and security.
Over the past two decades, beginning in the former Yugoslavia and more prominently in Libya and Afghanistan, NATO has focused on out-of-area operations to ensure the security of its member states, whether it be from the inherently unstable Qaddafi regime after the Arab Spring protests or the threat of international terrorism. Now entering a renewal of Great Power competition, the enhanced Forward Presence deployments return the primary focus of the Alliance towards its Eastern flank within continental Europe. However, this transition does not come without the challenges raised by previous interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia, presenting future issues for the eFP model as an effective strategy for the security of the Baltic region.
NATO’s interventions in Libya and Afghanistan began nearly a decade apart from one another and despite both being out-of-area operations were markedly different in scope, member states’ involvement, and strategy. However, both missions bear the hallmarks of a similar conclusion of non-state actors seizing control of the government and the roll-back of nascent democratic cultures. As such, Libya and Afghanistan provide lessons for the Alliance in combating both conventional and unconventional threats and protecting young democracies. In Libya, NATO undertook a mission that began under a coalition of the willing led by a United States that was wary of further interventions in the Middle East.[xvi] Explicitly seeking to protect civilians from mass atrocities perpetrated by the Qaddafi regime, NATO instead implicitly used its airpower to give an armed rebellion a decisive advantage over regime forces.[xvii] Only half of NATO member states participated in the operation, raising concerns over the solidarity of the Allies.[xviii] This also followed the caveats placed by member states on their deployments to Afghanistan within the scope of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), even as the war was constituted by an Article Five operation, raising further concerns about interoperability and the political will of the Allies.[xix] These were a contributing factor to the “entrance and exit” strategy of surges followed by drawdowns, ensuring a shifting level of commitment that undermined the success of the operation.[xx] Though there is no kinetic conflict occurring in the Baltics and Poland, the eFP model attempts to balance the challenges raised during the Libyan and Afghan interventions through its design and its continued political support.
While the Baltics and Poland are distant from NATO’s previous out-of-area operations, the lessons from the Alliance’s experiences in Libya and Afghanistan remain applicable to the eFP deployment in the region. These lessons include clarity of purpose for the mission informed by the political will of member states, sufficient involvement from across the Alliance, and a unified effort once operating in the theatre. Further, the current form of the eFP model should be altered to reflect these lessons in order to continue to offer an effective deterrent to Russian aggression. While the eFP deployments offer a standing force located in a strategically significant region, each battle group would be overwhelmed by a conventional Russian force determined to annex one or all of the Baltic states.[xxi] This reality presents a challenge to the purpose of the eFP in NATO’s overall military-based deterrence strategy. Even as a tripwire force, the speed of a Russian assault and its A2/AD bubble could render any reinforcements to the region moot and leave NATO only with the option to punish rather than deny Russian encroachment.[xxii] Further, persistent gaps remain in the willingness of all Allies to contribute to eFP deployments, once more creating a “coalition of the willing” approach towards essential NATO-based activities.[xxiii] Despite an expressed purpose to build interoperable forces, there is also the possibility for divisions between eFP member states while operating in the theatre, even during times of active conflict, introducing ISAF-style caveats into a battlespace in the heart of the Eastern flank. As such, the eFP must be focused first on its own willingness to act before it can prevent others’ actions.
Securitization Theory and Information Warfare
Beyond the threat of kinetic military action that Russia poses to the Baltics and Poland, the region’s security is still compromised by Russia’s tactics under the New Generation War doctrine, which relies on information and cyber operations along with other tools of hybrid warfare. These include both disinformation campaigns as well as hacking, seen in Estonia in 2007. In response, the Baltic states and Poland as well as NATO, have developed capabilities to counter Russian efforts, including establishing Cyber and Strategic Communication Centres of Excellence in Estonia and Latvia, respectively. Further, these developments can also be seen as an attempt to “securitize” the free flow of information within a democracy, a prescient challenge across the Alliance as information becomes an emerging battlespace.
Rather than a focus on an objective state to be attained, securitization theory posits that “security” is achieved through a social process of constructing a “threat” using language. Through the process of securitization, an issue is presented as an existential threat to society and once accepted as such, becomes “securitized”.[xxiv] This process then allows for the political community to undertake measures beyond routine politics to counter a securitized threat, placing it above debate. Securitization theory also relies on an understanding of the social context within which the speech occurs and can be analyzed through three methods. These are the analysis of securitizing speech-acts within different sectors; developing an understanding of the facilitating conditions such as institutional or developmental contexts; and acknowledging the role of audience interpretation.[xxv] Securitization theory also posits that security is essentially a political process, relying on the decisions of the political community to “securitize” a particular issue.[xxvi] As applied to the Baltic states and Poland, along with the eFP, securitization theory accounts for their desires to “securitize” the free exchange of information while confronting Russian hybrid operations.
The Baltic states have been targeted by Russian information operations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, though the sophistication of these efforts has increased as cyber technologies have become more widely adopted. Information manipulation and disinformation campaigns are also an essential tactic in Russian hybrid warfare, along with economic and political influence and clandestine measures.[xxvii] The Baltic states and Poland have increasingly addressed these actions through militarized terms and military-style rhetoric, particularly information security and societal polarization regarding the Russian-speaking minority population. This includes claims about countering “Russian propaganda” and reducing “societal vulnerabilities” by “building a buffer from within”, all of which can be considered “securitizing speech-acts”.[xxviii] These speech-acts have been followed by specific policy actions, including both Latvia and Lithuania issuing temporary bans on Russian television broadcasts and Estonia launching its own Russian-language television network to undercut Russian-based messaging.[xxix] These policy decisions represent an attempt by the host nations to “securitize” both the societal identity of Russian speakers and their primary source of information, Russian media. The eFP has also contributed to this securitization by focusing on “combatting disinformation” amongst its other functions, echoing the comments made by Baltic governments.[xxx] The implications of these securitizing moves radiate beyond the eFP and into NATO’s future as placing decisions around the free access to information and the rights of minorities beyond the reach of politics raises significant concerns about the democratic values of the Alliance.
Four years from its inception, the eFP still remains mouldable, a critical asset for deterrence. By virtue of its geographic position, its basis in the cooperation between the host and framework nations, as well as its significant level of support from key Allies, the eFP is positioned to remain a foundational architecture for future NATO deployments. However, as seen in NATO’s previous engagements involving unconventional tactics, the Alliance must remain vigilant about similar issues derailing these deployments. In the four years since the inception of the eFP, information warfare has continued to grow in importance to the allies, and the eFP must understand the information space of both allies and adversaries while also recognizing the battle groups’ own impact on Russian strategy. Further, the political will of the Allies will influence the sensitivity of the tripwire force, as below-threshold activity will inevitably lead to disagreements about an appropriate response. This will require a proactive approach to operational planning to limit the effect of potential caveats on eFP battle group personnel.
With the rise of information warfare both in Eastern Europe and across all member states, NATO will also have to balance concerns about security and the freedom of information, a critical aspect of a liberal democracy. Historically, member states have been uneasy discussing one another’s democracies and domestic politics due to NATO’s focus on ensuring consensus among the allies. However, as actors such as China and Russia seek to export their versions of aggressive censorship and societal control, NATO should become the primary forum for debates on freedom of information policies in order to develop best practices and take on a leadership role that will resonate with the public.[xxxi] By failing to act, NATO risks the formation of a vacuum in which authoritarian tendencies regarding the public flow of information will become the dominant norm.
Looking into the future, the strategic landscape of the Eastern Flank may appear radically altered from its current form. Emerging technologies, climate change, democratic upheaval, migration, and Sino-Russian cooperation continue to present rising trends that will inevitably affect the Baltics and Poland, as well as Germany, Canada, the US, and the UK. Managing this transition, while remaining committed to the values that underpin the Alliance, will be the role of the eFP. Through ensuring the solidarity of the Allies, interacting with local communities, learning the lessons of the past, and engaging in the information space, the battle groups remain up to the task.
About the Author
Jack Burnham is a fourth-year politics student at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. His interests include Canadian foreign policy, Middle Eastern security, and American politics. Jack's work has appeared in the NATO Association of Canada and the Atlantic Forum, covering the Canadian Armed Forces and NATO Headquarters. When not writing about security and defense, Jack is also a staff writer for the Queen's Journal and has written about NFL football and ice hockey. A current resident of Vermont, Jack enjoys biking over the Green Mountains and fishing on the Connecticut River.
[i] Dovile Jakniunaite, “Changes in Security Policy and Perceptions of the Baltic States 2014 – 2016,” Journal on Baltic Security 2, no. 2 (2016): 17.
[ii] Martin Zafe, “Deterrence from the Ground Up: Understanding NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence,” Survival 59, no. 3 (2017): 149.
[iii] Dovile Jakniunaite, “Changes in Security Policy and Perceptions of the Baltic States 2014 – 2016,” Journal on Baltic Security 2, no. 2 (2016): 14.
[iv] David Patrikarakos, “The West’s ‘Ukraine fatigue’,” Politico, September 29, 2015.
[v] Steven Pifer, “Crimea: Six Years After Illegal Annexation,” The Brookings Institute, March 17, 2020.
[vi] Martin Zafe, “Deterrence from the Ground Up: Understanding NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence,” Survival 59, no. 3 (2017): 148.
[viii] Maria Mälksoo, “A Ritual Approach to Deterrence: I Am, Therefore I Deter,” European Journal of International Relations 27, no. 1 (2021): 62.
[ix] Neringa Bladaitė, Margarita Šešelgytė, “Building a Multiple ‘Security Shelter’ in the Baltic States after EU and NATO Accession,” Europe-Asia Studies 72, no. 6 (2020): 1013; John R. Deni, “Is NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence Fit for Purpose?” Orbis 63, no. 1 (2019): 101.
[x] Jana Wrange, Rikard Bengtsson, “Internal and External Perceptions of Small State Security: The Case of Estonia,” European Security 28, no. 4 (2019): 457.
[xi] Dovile Jakniunaite, “Changes in Security Policy and Perceptions of the Baltic States 2014 – 2016,” Journal on Baltic Security 2, no. 2 (2016): 24.
[xii] Neringa Bladaitė, Margarita Šešelgytė, “Building a Multiple ‘Security Shelter’ in the Baltic States after EU and NATO Accession,” Europe-Asia Studies 72, no. 6 (2020): 1011.
[xiii] Theresa Bubbear, Kevin Rex, Matthias Sonn et al., “Lessons from the Enhanced Forward Presence, 2017-2020,” NDC Research Paper, no. 14 (2020): 13, 41, 82.
[xiv] Māris Andžāns, Viljar Veebel, “Deterrence Dilemma in Latvia and Estonia: Finding the Balance between External Military Solidarity and Territorial Defence,” Journal on Baltic Security 3, no. 2 (2017): 34.
[xv] Theresa Bubbear, Kevin Rex, Matthias Sonn et al., “Lessons from the Enhanced Forward Presence, 2017-2020,” NDC Research Paper, no. 14 (2020): 12, 41, 53.
[xvi] Jeffrey H Michaels, “NATO After Libya,” The RUSI Journal 156, no. 6 (2011): 56.
[xix] Ibid., 57; Stephen M. Saideman and David P. Auerswald, “Comparing Caveats: Understanding the Sources of National Restrictions upon NATO's Mission in Afghanistan,” International Studies Quarterly 56, no. 1 (2012): 68.
[xx] Rahman Ullah and Asghar Khan, “US-NATO Exit from Afghanistan: Challenges and Options,” Pakistan Journal of Peace and Conflict Studies 3, no. 2 (2018): 61.
[xxi] Maria Mälksoo, “A Ritual Approach to Deterrence: I Am, Therefore I Deter,” European Journal of International Relations 27, no. 1 (2021): 68.
[xxii] Robert M. Klein, Stefan Lundqvist, Ed Sumangil, and Ulrica Pettersson, “Baltics Left of Bang: The Role
of NATO with Partners in Denial-Based Deterrence,” Strategic Forum 301 (2019): 6.
[xxiii] Martin Zafe, “Deterrence from the Ground Up: Understanding NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence,” Survival 59, no. 3 (2017): 155.
[xxiv] Michael C. Williams, “Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics,” International Studies Quarterly 47, no. 4 (2003): 514.
[xxv] Matt McDonald, “Securitization and the Construction of Security,” European Journal of International Relations 14, no. 4 (2008): 571.
[xxvi] Michael C. Williams, “Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics,” International Studies Quarterly 47, no. 4 (2003): 520.
[xxvii] Neringa Bladaitė and Margarita Šešelgytė, “Building a Multiple ‘Security Shelter’ in the Baltic States after EU and NATO Accession,” Europe-Asia Studies 72, no. 6 (2020): 1014.
[xxviii] Dovile Jakniunaite, “Changes in Security Policy and Perceptions of the Baltic States 2014 – 2016,” Journal on Baltic Security 2, no. 2 (2016): 22; Neringa Bladaitė and Margarita Šešelgytė, “Building a Multiple ‘Security Shelter’ in the Baltic States after EU and NATO Accession,” Europe-Asia Studies 72, no. 6 (2020): 1021, 1024; Michael C. Williams, “Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics,” International Studies Quarterly 47, no. 4 (2003): 518.
[xxix] Matthew Thomas, “Defeating Disinformation Threats,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 19, 2020; “Countering Russian Disinformation,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 23, 2020.
[xxx] Marta Kepe, “NATO: Prepared for Countering Disinformation Operations in the Baltic States?” The Rand Corporation, June 7, 2017.
[xxxi] Paresh Dave, “China Exports its Restrictive Internet Policies to Dozens of Countries: Report,” Reuters, November 1, 2018.
This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.