No. 5 - Sep 1995
Vol. 43 - pp.27-31


Vidmantas Purlys and Gintautas Vilkelis
Lithuanian Youth Atlantic Organization

Cooperation between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the field of security and defence is still in its early stages, with the creation of trilateral security arrangements under discussion. This article analyses the prospects for the further evolution of this process in the short and medium-term, and concludes that trilateral cooperation is unlikely to become so intense that it limits bilateral relations with other Western European countries or indeed with the EU, WEU and NATO, membership of which is the foreign policy priority of all three states.

In relative terms, it is possible to single out three stages in the potential development of security cooperation within the trilateral relationship between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The primary stage consists of the exchange of security and defence related information; a joint declaration on security or defence related issues; and joint military exercises. The second stage is characterized by common airspace control and maritime surveillance systems; close coordination of defence and security policies; and the establishment of joint military (peacekeeping) units. The final stage culminates in the creation of a defence union.

Although defence and security cooperation between the Baltic States is in its initial stages, some forms of cooperation can already be attributed to the second stage of development, i.e., the establishment of the Baltic Peacekeeping Battalion (BALTBAT).

The historical perspective

The first attempts by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to start up military cooperation between them began during the interwar period. Until a geo-political break between the years 1918-1920, the three countries had more differences than similarities between them. Latvians and Estonians did not have any tradition as states and it was not until modern times, that is, in the second decade of the 20th century, that they created nation states. Lithuania, however, did have a tradition of statehood going back many centuries, indeed from the 14th to the 16th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was one of the most influential powers in Eastern Europe. These differences aside, however, the situation of all three countries was much alike.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were forced to look for closer forms of cooperation by geographical, political, economic and military factors. Moreover, they were recognized as a veritable region by the international community, as demonstrated by the admission of the three states to the League of Nations on 22 September 1921. Lithuania was admitted together with its Baltic neighbours, but, unlike Estonia and Latvia, it did not have international recognition and its borders were not yet settled. For the Baltic States, the League of Nations amounted to the only permanent collective security system during the interwar period.

Negotiations to establish a defence union (the so-called Baltic Entente) were held intermittently during the 1920s and mid-1930s but this endeavour proved unsuccessful. The main reason behind the failure was Lithuania's unsettled border with Poland (Poland had occupied and then annexedLithuania's capital, Vilnius, on 9 October 1920). Lithuania was among those European states which demanded that their borders be reviewed after finding the Treaty of Versailles unacceptable. After the judgement of 15 March 1923, from the Conference of Ambassadors concerning the eastern borders of Poland, attempts by Lithuania to get Vilnius back were regarded as attempts to break the Versailles system and, thus, to destroy peace in Europe. The Soviet Union, which did not want to see the creation of a defence union of the Baltic States, played a role in this affair.

In the 1940s, when the crisis in the League of Nations began, the three Baltic States in fact lost even those fragile security guarantees which were granted by Article 16 of the statute of the League of Nations. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, and the threat to the Klaipeda area of Lithuania increased, Lithuania faced the prospect of total isolation. In the wake of the Assembly of the League of Nations, these factors predetermined the signing of a trilateral Baltic Entente on 12 September 1934. The parties were obliged to coordinate foreign policy activities and to undertake permanent consultations. However, significant limitations were foreseen in the agreement: it did not apply to specific issues of foreign policy (the most important of which was Lithuania's dispute with Poland over Vilnius). These reservations, coupled with the rapidly changing geopolitical environment, accounted for the weakness of the Baltic security arrangement. The Baltic Entente was not invoked in March 1938, when Poland submitted an ultimatum to Lithuania, nor when, in the same year, Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and seized the Klaipeda area. The only positive outcome from the Baltic Entente was when Latvia, as a representative of the three states, became a member of the League of Nations' Council in 1936. But, when Lithuania tried to repeat Latvia's achievement in 1939, it was unsuccessful.

The weakness of the Baltic Entente was especially evident in 1939. The signing of agreements with the Soviet Union was not coordinated, with each Baltic country naïvely believing that it would be more advantageous to pursue a unilateral policy. The adoption of laws on neutrality in the Baltic States in 1939 finally buried any hope of pursuing common security policies. The consequence of these uncoordinated efforts was the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States in 1939.

The Baltic States' failure to create a viable security arrangement during the interwar period was due to both domestic and foreign policy factors. The three states, whose economies were predominantly agricultural, did not establish a common economic space and, in the 1920s and 1930s, democratic governments were replaced by autocratic regimes. Thus, the policies of the three Baltic States were decided and carried out by limited groups of people, and traditions of trilateral cooperation were almost non-existent at that time.

The international community perceived the Baltic States as only ephemeral creatures. The influence of the Soviet "divide and rule" policy was very strong, Lithuania, which wanted Soviet support in its dispute with Poland, being the main tool for this policy. As there was no close political cooperation among the Baltic States, military cooperation was insignificant and the potential possibilities were not realized.

Positive and negative factors

Before considering factors that stimulate and that limit development of security cooperation between the Baltic States, it is important to bear in mind that there are factors which, while favouring integration, do not necessarily stimulate it. For example, from a geographical standpoint, these states constitute a natural subregional unit. Furthermore, all three fall into the category of small states. Their socio-historical evolution since the 1920s is very similar and at present they do not have any significant disagreements among themselves.

The main factors which stimulate cooperation in the field of security and defence are a common perception of the security risks and a common aim for an external security policy. The Baltic States perceive the main risks and challenges to their external security as emanating from instability in the East, which may increasingly manifest itself in such forms as illegal migration and illegal military transits, to mention just a few. For the three states, which do not have any real security guarantees, efforts at trilateral political and security cooperation may be regarded as a collective endeavour, aiming to reduce risks and provide security and stability in the Baltic sub-region and beyond. To this end, trilateral cooperation has taken various forms. Although Lithuania, if compared to its Baltic neighbours, is making greater advances in building up its defence structures, regular trilateral consultations are being held on planning and implementation of common airspace control and maritime surveillance systems compatible with those of NATO countries.

Cooperation has proved especially fruitful in the field of peacekeeping. In late 1993, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania decided to combine their efforts and create a tri-national peacekeeping battalion that could be put at the disposal of the UN and, with Nordic and Western assistance, they were able to achieve this goal.

The consideration of the Baltic States as a sub-regional unit is largely based on factors which are favourable for integration although economically, they are more competitors than partners. Their cooperative efforts in the field of security and defence have arisen, firstly, because of a perception of external security risks, that is, risks associated with instability and possible conflicts in the East, and, secondly, by their aspirations to become members of NATO, that is, by the planning for a common NATO-compatible airspace control system and joint training to prepare for exercises with NATO countries. Geographic proximity and similar socio-historical elements are also positive, though secondary, factors in establishing the Baltic States as a sub-regional unit.

While analysing the prospects for security and defence cooperation, it is necessary to consider factors that impede development. Trilateral cooperation is not the only or even the main instrument of security policy for the Baltic countries. Bilateral relations with Western European and other (potential EU and NATO) countries as well as with the EU, WEU and NATO, are no less important.

The Estonian relationship with the Nordic countries, especially Finland, whereby Estonia looks to these countries for support in its relationship with the EU and NATO, is one example. Another, is the Lithuanian-Polish relationship which is gaining a new impetus. Although Poland was the main barrier for Lithuanian integration into the process of European cooperation during the interwar period, this barrier is now becoming a bridge linking Lithuania with the EU and NATO. In 1993, a Polish-Lithuanian Agreement on Cooperation and Good Neighbourly Relations was signed, opening new possibilities for cooperation in the field of military relations and defence. Lithuania put forward, and Poland supported, common projects on airspace control, peacekeeping (the establishment of a joint Lithuanian-Polish peacekeeping unit, LITPOLBAT, is under consideration), and joint military exercises. In June 1995, the first Partnership for Peace Danish-Lithuanian-Polish military exercises were held in Lithuania to prepare for joint peacekeeping operations. Developments in the Lithuanian-Polish relationship are beneficial both for Poland, as an aspiring role leader in Central and Eastern Europe, and for Lithuania, in bringing it closer to integration with Western Europe.

Thus trilateral security cooperation between the Baltic States is unlikely to become so intense that it limits their possibilities for bilateral relations with third countries. In fact, bilateral relations with other countries help shore up support for membership in the EU and NATO, which are the foreign policy priorities of all three states.

At the same time, each Baltic State has its own specific security concerns. Estonia has certain territorial claims towards an adjacent area of the Russian Federation and problems with national minorities. Latvia faces serious problems over the question of granting full citizenship rights to non-Latvians who constitute an enormous national minority. Lithuania's particular concern is with Russian military transit to and from the Kaliningrad region. These specific security concerns are factors which limit the development of strong cooperation among the Baltic States.

While security risks arising from some neighbouring countries are factors which stimulate security and defence cooperation between the Baltic States, their prevailing economic dependence on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and especially on the Russian Federation, has the opposite effect. Governments of the Baltic countries have repeatedly announced that their security policies aim to exclude any provocative elements and promote regional and European stability and security.

Future implications

Security and defence cooperation between the Baltic States is unlikely to strengthen greatly, or, to put it another way, move to the second or final stage in the short or medium-term. Forms of cooperation which correspond to the initial stage will therefore continue to prevail, though the appearance of joint actions attributed to the second stage may also be expected. On the whole, defence and security cooperation will be an evolutionary process that will not get significant impetus in the near term.

Certainly, as far as Lithuania is concerned, there are clear indications that its foreign policy makers will adhere to a policy line on trilateral security cooperation consistent with this analysis. Lithuanian officials have stated on various occasions in NATO countries that the creation of a Baltic defence union is by no means a priority on the foreign policy agenda. The advantages of Baltic cooperation remaining short of a defence union are threefold: first, the Baltic States will maintain the image of a sub-regional unit; second, they will have enough leeway to pursue bilateral relations with countries to their west, the EU and NATO; and finally, the trilateral efforts will be an important element of non-provocative policies directed at providing security and stability in the region.

The tendency to minimize the trilateral aspects of cooperation, however, will only endure if there are no radical changes in the security environment of the Baltic States, that is, if expansionist, nationalist and/or neo-imperialist policies do not strengthen in neighbouring countries, and provided definite prospects remain for a close relationship with, and eventual membership of, the EU (WEU) and NATO.

In so far as security and defence cooperation between the Baltic States is likely to intensify, this will not be in pursuance of an isolated trilateral arrangement, but rather as part of an expanded framework of cooperation which might include Visegrad and Nordic countries. Such a cooperative framework would be helpful given the limited economic and military resources of the Baltic States, which, in itself, is a factor impeding cooperation. Indeed, it is unlikely that the Baltic countries would be capable of undertaking significant defence projects without the support of Central and Western European countries. In addition, since the Baltic States give preference to the neighbouring countries of the Baltic Sea region in their foreign policies, expansion of a cooperative framework to include these countries would enhance their political weight and security, linking them closer to the European security space.


To regard the Baltic Sates as a "regional unit"is only partially correct and may in fact be misleading. Certainly, there are constant factors such as geographical proximity or a common historical experience during this century, which favour cooperation, although, as we have seen, they do not necessarily stimulate it. On the other hand, divergent foreign policy priorities and subjective security concerns check the development of a trilateral security and defence alliance.

An evaluation of all these limiting and stimulating factors indicates that the development of security and defence cooperation in the Baltic States will be evolutionary and will not have significant momentum in the medium-term: that is, a Baltic defence union will not be created within this time frame. Nonetheless, security and defence cooperation between the Baltic States can be expected to intensify if one of two very different sets of conditions is fulfilled. The first of these embraces such unfavourable developments as the escalation of anti-democratic and expansionist trends in neighbouring countries to the East. The Baltic States would not be able to prevent or control these developments which would not only have a negative impact on the security of the Baltic States but on European security as a whole. Closer cooperation could also be expected to develop if the framework expanded to encompass Poland and, possibly, other Visegrad or Nordic countries. And ultimately, NATO's Partnership for Peace initiative might be considered a suitable environment for expanded cooperation in the field of security and defence.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1995.