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After 5 years in the Alliance: periphery or front of NATO?


On the eve of obtaining membership in NATO five years ago there was an opinion prevailing among Lithuania's people that membership in the Alliance would be a chance to live in a secure country free of the need to take care of our own security. That is, Lithuania's was supposed to become a peaceful ”periphery of NATO”. The given arguments would be used by leaders of political parties and public organisations when arguing in political debates, and the society sympathised with them. It was no surprise: NATO membership came across as a shelter from all troubles –Lithuania's persistent companion in the latter centuries. Therefore NATO as well as the EU membership was seen as a strategic Lithuania's goal since the restoration of independence.

Meanwhile, critics of the Baltic States' membership in the Alliance trumpeted all across Europe, across the Atlantic and in the Eastern neighbourhood that NATO accession of the Baltic States would only spur Russia's aggression towards NATO and aggravate security situation in the region. To put it in other words, critics of our membership in the Alliance were heralding days of unrest for the Baltic States in case they were accepted into NATO. That is, the Baltic States would have become a new and difficult to defend ”front of NATO”.

Now that 5 years have passed, we may ask which position was correct to support? Where those right who thought that NATO membership is the ultimate goal removing bothers related to national security? Or those who warned about new security problems in the vicinity of NATO?

Lithuania and another six Middle and Eastern Europe countries were invited to join the Alliance in NATO Summit in Prague 2002. Lithuania implemented its strategic goals and acquired the most reliable security assurance throughout the history of a millennium as it became a member of Euro-Atlantic society in March 2004. A need arose to set new strategic goals for defence policy.

Conception prevailed in strategic documents of defence policy that Lithuanian troops will be deployed to operations within the territory of Lithuania and abroad jointly with allied forces. First of all, Lithuania had to be prepared for both - to carry out the host country's responsibilities in case of aggression, and to provide military support for other nations. Secondly, Lithuania is committed to develop capabilities able to counter common threats outside the Alliance's boundaries. To summarize, from the perspective of defence policy, Lithuania's membership in the Alliance is a shield securing Lithuania and an extra challenge for the Armed Forces of Lithuania.

Lithuania entered NATO on full-fledged rights immediately after the procedures of joining the North Atlantic Treaty were completed and Lithuania was able to participate in the political decision-making process of the Alliance. In comparison, integration into the military structures of NATO is a long-term task of Lithuanian Armed Forces. Motorised Infantry Brigade ”Iron Wolf” was affiliated to the Danish Division on the basis of agreements signed by Denmark and Lithuania in August 2006. The mentioned long-term engagement is perhaps the central cooperation project of Lithuanian Armed Forces boosting ability of the Brigade to work hand-in-hand with forces of NATO.

NATO enlargement wiped out the lines dividing Europe and provided equal security assurance for all the member states. Fighter-jets of NATO members deployed in Zokniai as soon as Lithuania acquired membership in the Alliance provide safety for the Baltic airspace – and inseparable part of NATO airspace. Lithuania is capacitated to use existing national resources for developing its armed forces without the need to waste them on buying fighter-jets that other NATO members have. During five years of membership 13 allies, i.e. more than of the Alliance's members in position of relevant capabilities - deployed fighters on the Baltic Air-policing mission. NATO Baltic Air-policing mission is perfect example of collective solidarity ensuring efficient distribution of resources and unanimous standards in NATO space.

Some companies of Lithuania were positively influenced by NATO membership too. To begin with, they were granted the right to appear in NATO procurement contests. E.g., NATO made an investment of nearly 100 m Litas into infrastructure of Siauliai Airfield alone. The majority of orders were addressed to Lithuanian companies ”Siauliu plentas” and ”Fima”. Press of Lithuania covered quite extensively the apparent effect of NATO air-policing on the economy in Siauliai, especially the service-sector.

A wave of unease rolled through the Alliance, especially the new members, after the war in Georgia. NATO's reaction was increased attention to collective defence and initiatives of strengthening NATO: policy of exercise and better ”visibility” of NATO in the member states. Discussion arose on creating multinational solidarity forces of the Alliance tailored for deployment in NATO periphery in case of crisis to demonstrate determination and political will of the Alliance to protect NATO's territory.

However, NATO membership entails not only strong security assurance and economic profit for Lithuanian enterprises but also responsibility for security concerns of the Alliance. Engagement in NATO operations is a keystone contribution to security of the entire international community. The contribution is becoming more and more important as defence budget is shrinking along with the capacities of Lithuania to have effective armed forces capable of countering any sort of challenge to Lithuania's security. Participation in NATO operations is a way of protecting joint security concerns of the Alliance, enforcing NATO's and own national security, and defending itself.

NATO operation in Afghanistan was Lithuania's key priority during the last five years and it still is. It is a priority NATO's operation and it is no secret that course of events in Afghanistan is a decisive factor of NATO's fate. A failure would undermine reliability of NATO and thus negatively affect Lithuania's security, whereas successful conclusion of the operation would impel a major NATO's role in international arena.

The contribution Lithuania is making in Afghanistan are the contingent of special operations forces tasked with typical special force assignments in southern Afghanistan, and – certainly – Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ghowr province. The decision to take up and bestow such responsibilities proved determination of Lithuania to be an active member of NATO and the Alliance's trust in Lithuania. In the fifth year of membership in NATO Lithuania has the eighth rotation of PRT deployed to Ghowr.

Close cooperation between civilian and military elements is crucial to achieve better results in contemporary operations. Ghowr province of Afghanistan does not make an exception. There is a Special Lithuanian Mission led by a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs deployed to Ghowr along with the PRT. Its main goal is diplomatic representation of Lithuania and implementation of development projects. Activities developed by Lithuania in Ghowr are the most demanding and one of the most complicated Lithuania's initiatives sometimes claiming an intolerable price. On 22 May 2008 Sgt. Sarunas Jarmalavicius got killed in an unrest making the first Lithuania's casualty after joining the Alliance.

It should be noted, that Lithuania would find it too difficult to conduct activities in Ghowr on its own. Our national forces are accompanied by Danish, Georgian, Croatian, American, Ukrainian, and Romanian troops. Financial resources used in the province have been fund-raised by Lithuania from the European Commission and other international donors.

Soldiers of Lithuania are also sent to NATO operations in Kosovo and Iraq, perform duty in the NATO Response Force. In Iraq Lithuania's instructors assist in preparing Armed Forces of Iraq, whereas a unit of Lithuanians deployed near Pristine with the joint Polish-Ukrainian Battalion help maintain order and security in Kosovo. In autumn 2005 Lithuania deployed a water-clearing unit with the NATO Response Force humanitarian mission in Pakistan providing assistance for the victims of earthquake.

To summarize, Lithuania has made quite a considerable contribution to NATO operations during the five years of membership. Lithuania's activity in Ghowr is a major operational input and efforts boosting security of the entire Alliance hard to estimate from quantitative perspective. Lithuanian troops brought invaluable experience from NATO operations they have been participating in in the latter years; it turned Lithuanian Armed Forces into a force better readied to defend allied and national security interests.

Intensive Lithuania's activity in the Eastern neighbourhood of the Alliance is another contribution of our country into NATO's security. Lithuania has always strongly advocated Euro-Atlantic integration of Georgia and Ukraine by assisting the countries in security reform implementation and advocating their position in institutions of NATO. Lithuania expressed political support for Georgia during the Russian aggression period and promoted efforts of the EU and NATO to settle the conflict and urge Russia to implement its commitments.

Embassy of Lithuania in Minsk was the NATO Contact Point Embassy in Belarus almost from Lithuania's accession in NATO. Lithuanian diplomats help maintaining bonds of cooperation between NATO and Belarus, arrange visits of NATO officials, and develop information projects introducing NATO activities to society of Belarus.

Quite a few NATO events have been organised in Lithuania since 2004, the most extensive of them – NATO Defence Ministers' Meeting held in Vilnius in February 2008. 50 delegations of the countries of the world gathered to address security issues making Vilnius ”the capital of NATO” even if just for while. Hosting NATO events draws attention of the Euro-Atlantic community to security issues important to Lithuania.

Review of the five years' experience reveals that NATO membership gave Lithuania firm assurance of security and a weightier role in international politics. A great example of that is NATO Baltic Air-policing mission conducted in Lithuania from the first days of membership. Pessimistic prognoses did not come true – Lithuania did not become a ”front of NATO”. However, five year in the Alliance did not bring to Lithuania the status of a peaceful ”periphery of NATO”. Security issues of the Alliance were passed down to Lithuania as well. Our country had to revise the key principles of defence policy, transform and integrate national armed forces into the allied military institutions, engage in NATO operations, and support proliferation of democratic values and security in the vicinity of the Alliance.

Both pessimists and optimists got it wrong regarding NATO membership as the ultimate goal. After five years in the Alliance we can clearly state that NATO membership is a means to strengthen our country's security along with responsibility for all the security problems common in the Alliance.


Rimas Alisauskas,

Deputy Head of the Commitments Division of the Department of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation of MoND

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