It goes without saying that Russia’s disputed military actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have given Europe’s eastern states something of a scare. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been especially uneasy about Moscow’s intentions and fear that they might be next. The Baltic States are in a sensitive geographical position, and the history of Soviet rule still carries a trauma they do not wish to relive. While they do have NATO and the EU on their side to deter Russian aggression, the countries have nevertheless been taking precautionary measures.
The smallest of the states, Estonia, with a standing army of around 6,000, has already began preparing for the eventuality of a Russian invasion. In 2016 the country began to organize training sessions for its citizens in the form of so-called War Games. 25,400 volunteers signed up to take part in weekend training sessions in insurgency warfare and survival, going as far as learning to create I.E.D.s (improvised explosive devices). Recognizing its small odds of winning an open-field battle against the far stronger Russia, the Estonian military and citizens would have to employ tactics designed to cause large disruption to the occupying army through partisan warfare. Latvia has likewise focused its efforts on training a volunteer force of insurgents to combat the Russian giant.
Similarly, Lithuania has taken steps to prepare its citizens for the worst-case scenario. Since 2014 the country has been issuing instruction manuals on how to resist a foreign invasion. These manuals cover everything from identifying Russian weaponry to espionage, and organizing cyber-attacks against the invader. Unlike the other states, Lithuania’s geographical position has presented cause for worry. Lithuania lies just north of Russia’s powerful military base in the Baltic, Kaliningrad. In October 2016, it was reported that armed forces together with nuclear-capable weaponry were deployed to the base. The Baltic neighbor expressed immediate dissatisfaction, claiming that the move was a violation of international treaties which further fueled regional tensions.
It is no secret that these reactions came as a result of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Unlike in Ukraine, though, there is a crucial difference here: the Baltics possess significant modes of deterrence to possible Russian aggression. As EU member states, any violation by Russia upon the western Baltic states would arguably upset the EU even further. If Putin decided to take action, economic and diplomatic sanctions would undoubtedly ensue. Most importantly however, there is NATO. As members of the international alliance since 2004, the countries are legally guaranteed protection by a combined force of 28 countries, including the United States.
Landing exercise during NATO Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) in 2016. Source. Flickr.
Of course the relationship with NATO has not been a perfect one, and here is the cause for uncertainty. The biggest contributor to the military alliance, the United States, has slowly been questioning the fairness of its military contribution which is far larger than that of many European states. Barack Obama was not afraid to call out “free riding”, an issue that applies especially to the Baltics of which only Estonia has met NATO’s military expenditure target of 2% of GDP. Latvia and Lithuania each have about 1.1%. United States’ new leadership has been especially wary of this problem, with Donald Trump calling out European NATO countries for lack of financial and military contribution, and claiming it will not come to the aid of Europe unless the countries pay their fair share.
But it might seem to be an unfair assumption that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, with a combined population of around six million, are deliberately riding off of foreign protection. It is unlikely that these states would ever be able to assemble a force that could stand up to Russia’s might, and they are very much forced to make use of any allies to deter the military giant.
For now though, the Baltics appear to have a relatively stable support from NATO. Since the annexation of Crimea, the alliance has been boosting its presence on its eastern flank. NATO has been deploying troops to the three states, permanently placing around 1,000 soldiers to each country. Additionally, the U.S. has stationed dozens of special ops fighters to train local troops and gather intelligence.
Zapad 2017 is a large-scale joint military exercise between Russia and Belarus that will take place near Lithuania’s borders in September this year. Source: en.kremlin.ru.
This move was however not welcomed by Moscow who considered it an act of aggression. Putin might of course not have any hostile intentions against the Baltics, and in that case, NATO’s increasing presence in Eastern Europe might just be the thing that provokes him into action. But there are also the Russian minorities in each country who constituted 25% percent of the population in Estonia and Latvia respectively, and 5% in Lithuania. Similar to the situation in Ukraine, a Western military presence could be perceived as a threat to Russian minority rights. Taking into account the unpredictability and unclear intentions of Putin, there is no telling what the reaction might be.
Seeing as isolationism has once again entered the global arena, it is possible the Baltic States’ dependence on foreign protection might be put to the test. Considering the recent rhetoric of “America First” and Trump’s initiative to better the relationship with Moscow, it is possible that the biggest bulk of NATO’s military could be reluctant to intervene – one might ask whether the tiny states are really worth a war with Russia. So the question arises: how long can the three little Baltic States keep hiding behind NATO’s protection?