Open Europe Blog

Soon to be a regular sight over Baltic skies?

The Ukrainian crisis has shown up the short-term limitations of the EU’s ‘soft power’ in the face of a determined Russian regime not afraid of wielding its ‘hard power’. Though we would argue that in the long-term, the odds still favour the EU due to Russia’s disastrous demographic trends and relatively undiversified economy – and there are things the EU can do without resorting to Kremlin tactics – it’s not a secret that Vladimir Putin responds better to the stick than the carrot.

Put differently, Putin doesn’t exactly run for cover when Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy put out a joint statement. As this stand-off is now about hard economic and political power, enter London.

 As Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced in the Commons yesterday:

“I am able to advise the House this afternoon that we have taken the decision this morning to offer NATO UK Typhoon aircraft from late April to augment the Polish contribution to the NATO Baltic air policing mission. I hope that will provide reassurance to our NATO allies in the east.”

The UK is therefore the first and so far only NATO or EU member to commit troops to strengthening the EU-Russian border. TVN cites the Estonian PM Andrus Ansip describing the UK’s decision as “an important step” while Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu noted that it constitutes a “clear and unambiguous” response to Estonia’s desire to strengthen NATO’s presence in the Baltic.

However, other politicians who have been been very hawkish over Ukraine – but also the most vocal critics of David Cameron in Europe more broadly – have been quiet by their usual standards. We don’t want to name names, but yes, Radoslaw Sikorski and Carl Bildt we’re looking at you. (Although to be fair, while they have not commenting on the jet deployment specifically, both of them have praised the UK’s stance on Ukraine more generally).

This is significant because some – not least Sikorski himself – have warned that if Russia is not stopped in the Crimea, the Baltic states which have significant Russian minorities could be next on Putin’s hit list. It’s easy to whine about the UK being Europe’s grumpy, old man complaining in the corner. However, when it comes to dealing with thugs, all of a sudden, London becomes strangely popular.

This again goes to show that without the UK, the EU’s geopolitical credibility would be sorely diminished. Perhaps one for certain foreign ministers to keep in mind when the waters are calmer.

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