An invitation to the Snow Meeting is one of the most coveted tickets on Europe’s security calendar. The Lithuanian lakeside venue is intimate and the guest-list restricted. The few dozen regular guests—politicians, officials, academics—have mostly known each other for years. There are few formal speeches, and a level of honesty and humour which other conferences would struggle to match.
One of the first jokes was about Russia. When Vladimir Putin turned 63, the oil price and rouble-dollar exchange rate loyally converged on the same number. Now Mr Putin is still 63, and the oil price is at an agonising $30 and the rouble is at 77. But will a weaker Russia be more amenable? Some Americans argue that the Syrian adventure has been a disaster, just like the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin realises it is bogged down, and is now looking for a way out: the West should provide one.
I suspect that is wishful thinking—though as the Snow Meeting was ending, news broke that our American friends had been meeting a Kremlin representative on the Lithuanian-Russian border. My view (and I suspect that of most of the participants) is that a cash-strapped, declining Russia is likely to be more reckless, and therefore more dangerous. We should be checking our locks, not opening doors.
The other big discussion was about NATO. The alliance has commendably stepped up its activities in the Baltic region (“assurance” in defence jargon), ending the idea that the most vulnerable members are somehow “NATO-lite”. There is plenty more to do on that—for example giving more decision-making power to military commanders to deploy their forces instantly in the event of any trouble.
But nothing NATO does locally will be enough to stop a determined Russian attack on this thin, flat strip of land, particularly given that Sweden and Finland are not in NATO, and that Russia has advanced weapons that make reinforcement difficult. The most important way to protect the Baltics is to match assurance with deterrence: ie to treat them like West Berlin during the Cold War, as the West’s symbolic bastion, defended by our willingness to obliterate anyone unwise to attack it.
In other words, NATO’s policy must be to make Russia believe that an attack on the frontline states will lead to a devastating counter-strike from all of the alliance, all over Russia. Ensuring that is fully credible is the big task for the Warsaw summit. It will need tough decisions on nuclear weapons and plans.
Even in an ideal world, that would be difficult. In the frazzled world of 2016 it looks daunting. There are so many other calls on the limited attention and energy of our leaders, and on the limited public appetite for risk and pain. The Snow Meeting scarcely touched on the strains placed on Europe by the migration crisis, or on the looming international isolation of Poland. But I did hear a worrying rumour that the White House is threatening privately that Barack Obama might stay away from the Warsaw summit if the Polish government does not calm down.
I doubt that threat (if it has been made) will deter the Polish leadership, which has a remarkable belief that its difficulties with foreign governments are the result merely of misunderstandings or clever plots. But in any case it would be a mistake. If Mr Obama wants to signal disapproval, he should not make NATO pay the price: better to turn up in Warsaw and tell the Poles in person.
I am already looking forward to next January’s Snow Meeting. But not to its agenda.