Options for the Baltic States in an Uncertain Security Environment

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.


National Security Situation:  The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania face an uncertain security environment due to Russian belligerence and concerns about the willingness of their North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to come to their defense.  There is unease about allied reactions should Moscow undertake hybrid warfare actions in the Baltic States.  This is further exacerbated by questions about the U.S. commitment to Baltic security under the Trump administration.

Date Originally Written:  January 17, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  January 26, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of the three Baltic States facing the potential threat of an unpredictable Russia and concerns about the backing of their primary security guarantor, the United States.  While the three countries are not as unified as they are often portrayed, this article focuses on collective efforts that can be made to enhance their security.  The author’s M.A. studies focused on the Baltic States and European security and he has continued to keep an eye on the region.

Background:  Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Since this dissolution, relations with Russia have been rocky.  Points of contention include the treatment of large ethnic Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia and the determination of the Baltic States to integrate with Europe, including  NATO and the European Union (E.U.).  (All three formally joined both bodies in 2004.)  Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, using the rights of ethnic Russians as part of its justification, the Baltic States have become increasingly concerned about the Russian threat.  All of the Baltic States have been increasing defense spending and strengthening their defense capabilities. Lithuania has reinstated conscription.  (Estonia has maintained mandatory military service since regaining independence, and Latvia has, so far, indicated it sees no need to reinstate conscription).

In addition, the Baltic States have been pressing their allies in NATO and the E.U. to increase defense expenditures and commit to the collective defense of the three countries.  The election of Donald Trump in the United States in November 2016 has created uncertainty because of the president-elect’s campaign statements deriding NATO and seeking friendlier relations with Russia.  The potential to lose the U.S. as their most important ally threatens to leave the Baltic States vulnerable.

Significance:  The Baltic States’ small size, integration in European alliances, recent history as part of the Russian sphere of influence, and ethnic Russian minorities have made them a target for Moscow.  As relatively weak, geographically vulnerable countries on NATO’s periphery, the Baltic States are seen as ideal targets for Russian efforts to challenge the cohesion of European institutions, especially NATO.  The opportunity to “right” some of the perceived wrongs of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is a bonus.  Due to Russia’s desire to project its power into the Baltics and NATO’s requirement to defend the Baltics, the region is considered a possible flashpoint for a conventional conflict between the West and Russia.

Option #1:  The Baltic States focus on further strengthening trilateral cooperation between themselves.

Risk:  The Baltic States have limited resources. Focusing on trilateral efforts between themselves may come at the expense of activities that would boost ties with more powerful allies, such as Britain, Germany and Poland.  Even enhanced trilateral cooperation may not be sufficient to deter or combat major threats emanating from Russia.

Gain:  The stronger the three Baltic States are together, the better the deterrent to Russia.  Enhancing joint military equipment procurement beyond small items such as ammunition could reduce equipment, logistics, and support costs, while improving interoperability between Baltic military forces.  Better integration of Baltic military forces would enhance their ability to deter Russia and fight a delaying action while NATO mobilizes.  By preparing strong defenses, the Baltic States can also reduce potential allied concerns about coming to their aid.

The Baltic States, while cooperating closely in some ways, each have their own viewpoints that have hindered cooperation in other areas.  The recent acquisition of armored vehicles was one missed opportunity.  Instead of coordinating a purchase, thus reducing procurement and joint logistics costs, each Baltic State procured their own models.  Estonia purchased used CV90s from the Netherlands, while Latvia bought used CVR(T)s from the U.K., and Lithuania new Boxer armored vehicles from Germany.  Cost and regional ties appear to have taken priority over trilateral considerations.  On the other hand, a joint air defense system acquisition is currently being discussed.

Option #2:  Upgrade regional defense ties.

Risk:  The Baltic States relying on regional powers, such as EU partners Sweden and Finland or NATO allies, could fail to deter Moscow or effectively respond to Russian aggression.  This failure might be because of external and domestic pressures, differing interests, or divergent threat assessments.  In the worst case of a Russian invasion, some allies may find it more expedient to keep their distance than become involved in a bloody conflict.  The costs of rotating forces to the Baltics or otherwise maintaining readiness for such operations may be hard for regional allies to sustain over the longer term.

Gain:  The significantly greater combat capabilities that can be brought to bear in combination with regional allies can provide more deterrence than those available among the Baltic States alone.  Regional support using both NATO and E.U. mechanisms can bolster Baltic efforts.  Sustained political support can also enhance Baltic deterrence.

Option #3:  The Baltic States seek rapprochement with Russia.

Risk:  Moscow is not interested in anything but compliant, supplicant states.  Reaching some sort of deal with Russia would likely result in a narrowing of policy options, some loss of sovereignty, and negative economic effects.  Democracy would likely be curtailed and concessions would have to be made to ethnic Russian populations.

Gain:  By preemptively reaching a deal with Russia, the Baltic States might hope to gain a better position than if it were decided without them in Washington and Moscow.  Such rapprochement could also reduce the chances of conflict, at least for the short-term.

Other Comments:  It should be noted that having enjoyed independence for only 25 years, the Baltic States are unlikely to surrender it easily.  Acknowledging the limitations of their small defense institutions, all three militaries support volunteer defense associations and maintain significant reserves.  From their perspective, any conflict on their territory will be conventional only in the initial stages.  Domestic forces will quickly turn to insurgent tactics, following the example of the Forest Brothers fighting the Soviet Union during and after World War II[1].

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Ruin, Pahl, “The Forest Brothers — Heroes and Villains of the Partisan War in Lithuania,” Baltic Worlds (Stockholm, Sweden), Oct. 25, 2016. The author also highly recommends the documentary “The Invisible Front,” which is available on Netflix.