Jeremiah Cushman is a senior analyst at Military Periscope, where he writes about weapons. He holds an M.A. in European and Eurasian Studies from the George Washington University. He can be found on Twitter @jdcushman. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Date Originally Written: July 15, 2017.
Date Originally Published: August 14, 2017.
Summary: For much of the last 800 years, the natives of the Baltic States and Finland were ruled by others, whether Baltic Germans, Swedes, Russians or Hitler’s Germany. History shows these countries that, to retain independence, they must be willing and able to fight for it, and possibly join collective security organizations.
Text: Lithuania existed as an independent nation prior to 1918, in contrast to Estonia, Latvia and Finland. In 1385, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania joined with the Kingdom of Poland via a dynastic marriage. Although not specifically made for security purposes, the result was a great Central European power that eventually spread from the Baltic to the Black Sea. This was, however, an unstable union, with divergent interests between the Lithuanian and Polish halves. (Poland ultimately became the dominant power.) Efforts were made to strengthen the union, culminating with the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. The commonwealth eventually succumbed to its own weaknesses and the machinations of neighboring powers, Austria, Prussia and Russia, which divided it among themselves in the partitions of 1772, 1790 and 1795. If ultimately unsuccessful, the commonwealth nevertheless provided security for the Lithuanians for centuries.
Upon gaining independence in 1918, the Baltic States struggled to navigate their security environment. For the most part, they sought refuge in the collective security arrangements of the League of Nations. Different threat perceptions, a territorial dispute over Vilnius between Lithuania and Poland, and the maneuvers of the Germans and Soviets hindered trilateral defense efforts. A proposed four-way alliance among Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Poland foundered on Finnish reservations. Helsinki elected to focus on a Scandinavian orientation. Estonia and Latvia managed to conclude a defense alliance in 1923.
The Soviet Union saw Baltic cooperation as a threat and worked to undermine it. The Baltic States concluded their own treaty of cooperation and friendship in 1934, although little came from it. Non-aggression pacts signed with Moscow and Berlin came to nought and the three nations were occupied by Soviet forces in 1940 and annexed. While Finland fought for its independence and survived World War II, Baltic failures to prepare, and the overwhelming strength of the Soviet and German states that opposed them, ended their initial experiment with independence.
Finland was able to maintain its independence during and after World War II, fighting the Soviet Union twice in the Winter War of 1939-1940 and the Continuation War of 1941-1944. The Finnish state was saved, though it lost the Karelia region to the Soviets. Viewing Moscow as a direct threat, Helsinki allied with the Nazi regime as Berlin prepared its own attack on the Soviet Union. The Finnish government took pains to portray its own war as separate from that of Germany’s, without much success.
At the end of the war, Finland was left with an 830-mile border with Russia and a difficult position between its preferred partners in the democratic West and the Soviet Union. Moscow was able to dictate terms as the Finnish war effort collapsed in 1944 along with the fortunes of its German allies. In 1948, the Finnish government concluded a mutual assistance treaty with Moscow, including military obligations to come to the Soviet Union’s assistance in the event of an attack by Germany or its allies, or an attack from Finnish territory. The goal was to maintain independence and reduce the chance of conflict in Northern Europe.
By resolving Moscow’s security concerns, Finland was able to pursue trade with Western countries and play an active role in détente during the 1970s. The Nordic country benefited from trade with its eastern neighbor, while holding off Soviet efforts to tighten military relations. While this “Finlandization” policy ensured the nation’s sovereignty during the Cold War, it came at a cost to Finland’s freedom of action. Habits formed over those decades continue to influence national policy, including hindering those who might prefer new security arrangements in light of Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture.
The Baltic States declared their independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Remembering the lessons of 1940, they immediately focused on trilateral cooperation and integration with European security organizations to secure their freedom. Their security bodies focused on developing modern, capable forces on the Western model with the object of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). These goals were achieved in 2004. NATO’s Article 5 pledge that an attack on one is an attack on all is seen as the cornerstone of Baltic security. Accordingly, all three countries recognize the United States as their most important security partner. The Baltic States also pursue regional cooperation with their Nordic neighbors. These multilateral cooperation efforts have, in some cases, detracted from trilateral endeavors. Small countries have limited resources.
Accession to NATO and the EU, which has its own security mechanisms, seemed to resolve the security concerns of the Baltic States. However, the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. has led to uncertainty about the wisdom of relying on Washington. Trump has threatened to assist only those NATO members who meet the alliance’s defense spending goals and his commitment to Article 5 appears uncertain, despite efforts from other administration officials to reinforce American support for the Baltic allies. Trump’s apparent ties to Russia cause additional discomfort in the region.
Officially, the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania emphasize the continued importance of security ties with the U.S. and a belief that Trump will live up to Washington’s NATO commitments should it become necessary. So far, U.S. and NATO activities in the Baltic region have been unchanged from the previous administration, with multinational battalion task groups active in all three countries.
As for Finland, it has eschewed its former relationship with Moscow in favor of closer security relations with NATO and the U.S., and strengthened ties with neighboring Sweden. Helsinki still sees a strong national defense capability as vital for its security. NATO membership remains politically challenging, although Finland potentially benefits from E.U. mutual assistance mechanisms.
The lessons of history for this region are simple. To retain independence, one must first be willing and able to fight for it. States as small as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania must additionally find allies to bolster their own defense efforts. If one cannot be a great power, joining a great power organization, such as NATO, is the next best thing.
 Kirby, David. (1998). Northern Europe In The Early Modern Period: The Baltic World 1492-1772. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.
 Kirby, David. (1998). The Baltic World 1772-1993: Europe’s Northern Periphery in an Age of Change. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.
 Kasekamp, Andres. (2010). A History of the Baltic States. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
 Plakans, Andrejs. (2011). A Concise History of the Baltic States. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.