New Strategic Challenges in the Baltic Region for Germany, NATO and the EU

Second Strategy Conference on 22 January 2019

The second GIDS conference entitled “New Strategic Challenges in the Baltic Region for Germany, NATO and the EU” took place at the Bundeswehr Command and Staff College in Hamburg on 22 January 2019. During the conference, political and military experts and scientists discussed a range of topics concerning the Baltic region as a security hotspot, including the conflict potential of the region and possible future alliance obligations for Germany.

The illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 has severely shaken the security architecture of Eastern Europe and demonstrated Russia’s hegemonic claims in Eastern Ukraine. Since then, concerns have grown in the Baltic states that Russia might want to reach for the Baltics, too. “The crisis has shifted from one marginal sea to another, that is from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea”, Colonel Prof. Dr. Matthias Rogg, Head of the German Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies (GIDS), explained in his welcome address to the 350 guests who had come to attend the conference. “The Baltic region has become a security hotspot.” And indeed, the situation at NATO’s eastern border is much more fragile today than it was in the 1990s.

In Germany, this has led to a reassessment of national and collective defence that is also reflected in the 2016 White Paper on German Security Policy. Colonel Rogg elaborated on the geostrategic importance of the Baltic region, the prosperity of which is determined by factors such as pronounced urbanity, extensive trade activities and successful energy policy. With a view to the White Paper, he pointed out that its use of the term ‘strategy’ is vague. “There is no exact definition of the term ‘strategy’”, he said. However, from his point of view almost every security strategy is characterized by an “ambition to play an active and substantial role” in order to be able to take purposeful, synchronized and networked action. In this context, a variety of variables come into play, among them the factors of space and time, which are particularly decisive.

Between logic and grammar

Historian Prof. Dr. Stig Förster focused on the concept of strategy as well. In his keynote speech entitled “No Strategy? – Strategic Thinking in Germany from a Historical Perspective”, he went back to the 19th century. “At that time, strategic thinking was limited to war and the preparation for war,” he explained. Back then, Carl von Clausewitz and Helmut von Moltke were the first to attempt a concrete definition of the term ‘strategy’. However, they were still far away from the idea of a whole-of-government strategy. Strategy has always been caught between the sometimes conflicting demands of politics and the military, and this will be the case in the future, too. “War follows no logic, but it has its own grammar,” Prof. Förster said. This means: The purpose of war has always been determined by politics – the political logic. However, politics has had to take into consideration the nature of war and the way it develops – its grammar. Prof. Rogg put it in a nutshell: “Throughout the 19th and 20th century, Germany did not experience one single phase of successful political strategy. This is actually a sad summary.”

The strategic dimension of the seas

The next speaker, Vice Admiral Rainer Brinkmann, Vice Chief of the German Navy, directed the audience’s attention to the seas. Giving a refreshing presentation on the German Navy, he focused on the Norwegian Sea, Scandinavia and the Baltic region. According to Adm. Brinkmann, the seas have “a significant strategic dimension”. Germany’s geographic location in the centre of Europe is not only important for Germany’s role within the European Union, but also in the maritime context. Germany and many other European countries are coastal countries, which means that the seas play a most fundamental role for their economy and trade.

“German ship owners still operate the largest merchant fleet in the world,” Adm. Brinkmann explained. Consequently, Germany’s prosperity depends essentially on the oceans. “The German Navy protects trade routes,” he said. “The Baltic Sea is part of NATO’s northern flank and forms a strategic unit with the Norwegian Sea, which is why the presence of the Alliance in the Baltic states is indispensable.” He went on to explain that from a security perspective, maritime challenges will increase. One day, the German Navy might even be required to support the United States in East Asia. For the moment, however, the task is to ensure the protection of maritime trade routes and sea lines of communication in the Baltic region, that is: on our doorstep. In order to do so, maritime capabilities must be strengthened in a “regionally committed and globally oriented” manner.

Democratic values and the challenge of disinformation

In the subsequent first panel session, political and military experts discussed the topic “The Baltic Region in the 21st Century – A Strategic Challenge”. Inga Skujina, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Latvia, gave a short overview of Latvia’s recent history and pointed out that national defence is no longer an issue of the past: “We have drawn our conclusions from the latest developments in Ukraine. We have to defend our democratic values.”

In an introductory presentation on “Disinformation as a Military Strategic Challenge”, the former Commander of the 1 German/Netherlands Corps, Lieutenant General (ret.) Ton van Loon, explained that we are witnessing a return to power politics, not only in Russia, but worldwide. The tools applied in this context are manifold and also include hybrid methods such as hybrid warfare. “If elections can be won by exerting influence via social media, then disinformation has reached a new dimension.” According to Lt. Gen. van Loon, the aim of disinformation is to take influence on people’s beliefs of what they think is happening. Facts are being largely ignored. He compared the relations between different social groups with seams joining pieces of fabric: “If you put pressure on them, they can tear,” he said. And now? “We need to strengthen our resilience,” he emphasized, and he was not the only conference participant to come to this conclusion.

Creating trust and focusing on strategy

Colonel (GS) Dr. Norbert Eitelhuber from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) spoke about possible development scenarios for the relationship between NATO and Russia. He recommended to conduct a strategic analysis and added: “Observation alone is not sufficient.” Since the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed in 1997, there has been a spiral of mutual loss of trust and confidence. “As long as Russia feels insecure about itself, it will be a source of unrest,” Col. Eitelhuber said. Therefore, every step that helps to rebuild trust is important and right. “No security without trust.”

In the open discussion that followed, ambassador Skujina said: “In Latvia, we are in a hybrid war. It is a constant of our everyday life.” In the end, all agreed that given the present tensions, taking a strategic approach is the only way to succeed. “It is of great strategic importance for us that U.S. forces will continue to stay in Europe,” Lt. Gen. van Loon emphasized. With a smile to Adm. Brinkmann, he added: “Although I don’t like to admit it, we also need strong naval forces.” With regard to the Baltic states, Col. Eitelhuber pointed out: “We must make Russia understand that the costs of invading the Baltic states would be too high.”

Germany needs a courageous and strategic vision”

Prof. Dr. James Bindenagel

The second panel dealt with the topic “From Frontier State to Supporting Partner: Germany’s Importance for the Baltic Region”. In the discussion, the panellists focused particularly on Germany’s role in an insecure world order. Prof. Dr. Carlo Masala, Professor for International Policy at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, gave a presentation entitled “Junior Partner, Major Power, Unpopular Middle Power: Is Deepening European Integration Still a Viable Course of Action for Germany?”, and he did not mince words. According to him, the situation is clear: On the one side there is Russia; in the middle of Europe, we are witnessing the return of nationalism, and when we look westward, the question arises as to whether or not the United States will want to stay involved in Europe. “Germany is too small to be a global player,” Professor Masala said. Nevertheless, Germany is expected to be a leader in Europe, but a sensitive one. “German hegemony in a positive sense can be observed in the Baltic region,” he emphasized.

Subsequently, Prof. Dr. James Bindenagel, Director of the Center for International Security and Governance at the University of Bonn and former U.S. Ambassador, shared insights on the transatlantic partnership from an independent U.S. perspective. “Trump has visions and a strong will, but he does not have a strategy,” Prof. Bindenagel told the audience in the full lecture hall of the Manfred Wörner Centre. He believes that the more the United States as an international actor withdraws from security issues, the more important Germany’s role will become. “However, Germany as well as Europe need to devise strategic plans,” he said, complemented by a “courageous and strategic vision”.

The resilience of society

Lieutenant General Hans-Werner Wiermann, German Military Representative to the Military Committees of NATO and the EU, concluded the panel session by sharing his thoughts on “NATO and the EU and their Role for Europe’s Security”. “Without the European Union, there would be no security in Europe,” he said and added that “there would be no security in Europe without NATO either”. According to him, the dilemma is obvious: “The EU can accomplish certain things better than national states could. And other things can be better accomplished by national states than by the European Union. Such decisions must be taken by Brussels,” Lt. Gen. Wiermann said, emphasizing that those decisions should be taken wisely. In addition, Masala demanded that “security debates be held openly, and not because we anticipate a certain reaction from society or because we don’t want to touch on problems or, even worse, because we want to avoid making important decisions…” Adm. Brinkmann agreed: “It is important to be honest.” Eventually, the topic of resilience came up once again. After all, strengthening the resilience of our society and preparing it for radical changes in the security environment with all possible consequences – this is strategy, too.
German version written by:

Fotos: Lene Bartel