In the summer of 2017 the Center for European Policy Analysis sent Colin Dueck on a listening tour of the Baltics to interview diplomatic, military and economic government officials in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on the subject of Russia’s long-term challenge to these countries, their national responses and related NATO and U.S. policies. He reports back that winter is coming and the Baltic states, as well as the United States, cannot afford to ignore their restless neighbor to the East.
Russian intentions and capabilities
Baltic officials agree broadly on the nature of the challenge from the East. They view Russia under President Vladimir Putin as an assertive, revisionist power determined to expand its sphere of influence in Europe and beyond, using a wide array of policy tools. These include economic pressure, shrewd diplomacy, oil and gas manipulation, bribery, disinformation, covert action, cyber attacks, military coercion and sometimes outright invasion. The Putin regime cultivates a sense of tension with the West, in part to consolidate its domestic political control. The Russian feeling of humiliation and revenge in relation to the USSR’s collapse is very genuine. But it also seems likely that Putin truly does fear some sort of eventual color revolution inside Russia. In any case, these dynamics render one-sided concessions toward Moscow rather futile, since Putin works on a bad-faith model of the West, and any such concessions are simply pocketed before moving on to the next aggression. The past decade has demonstrated quite vividly—in Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine and Syria—that Putin’s Russia has both the capability and the willingness to engage in forced territorial revisions or military interventions when it sees the potential benefits outweighing the costs. And when launching these forced revisions or interventions, Moscow frequently combines conventional and unconventional means into forms of hybrid warfare. However, Baltic officials agree that while aggressive, Putin can be deterred. He makes calculated gambles, big or small, when reasonably sure of success. He does not actively look for war with the West, and certainly not with the United States.
There appears to be a range of scenarios by which Moscow could further assert itself in relation to the Baltic countries, though the three states offer some striking differences in perception. The first and most extreme scenario would simply be a full-blown military invasion, which theoretically could come suddenly. The second would be a limited land grab, on some local pretext, probably combined with covert action, followed by a call for diplomatic resolution. The third would be if a pro-Russian government came to power in one or more Baltic countries, aligning their foreign policies more closely with Moscow. And finally the fourth scenario would be the regular use of disinformation and cyber attacks to demoralize and divide Baltic opinion.
In effect, this fourth option is the one already pursued by Moscow on a daily basis. Latvian officials worry more about the third possibility—a pro-Russian party taking power—than either the first or second scenario. Lithuanian officials are less worried by pro-Russian political sentiment, which is minimal in their country, and more by the possibility of open aggression. Estonian officials, as usual, fall somewhere in between.
To a certain extent, variation on these issues stems from the differing proportion of Russian-speaking citizens in each country. Lithuania has only a very small minority of Russian speakers, and the country as a whole is fiercely resistant toward Moscow. In Latvia, on the other hand, Russian speakers constitute over a third of the population. The concern, as Latvian officials make clear, is not that most Latvian Russians are disloyal, likely to rise up in violent rebellion, or looking to be annexed by Moscow; they are not. The more subtle problem is that a good proportion of Latvian Russians simply do not view Putin’s Russia as a threat, and prefer for Latvia to act as a kind of bridge between East and West, rather than primarily as a member of the Western alliance. Latvia’s social-democratic Harmony Party represents these views and aspirations politically, and is the single largest party in the national legislature, although not part of the current government. Of the three Baltic republics, Latvia has the closest ties to Russia—economically, culturally and diplomatically.
It is also worth emphasizing that the various Baltic scenarios outlined above, from cyber attacks all the way to invasions, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, compared to Western liberal opinion, Russian strategic culture makes fewer clean distinctions between war and peace. Numerous instruments of pressure and subversion are viewed as part of a continuum, whereby Russia engages in strategic or warlike competition with its adversaries even during peacetime. So for example, a sustained low-key campaign of subversion, bribery and disinformation in relation to a given country can act as a sort of softening up, prior to more direct military pressure. Or it can simply operate on its own, to promote Russian influence and break up opposition, if more direct measures are too costly.
In speaking with Baltic officials, I found a nagging uncertainty as to where Putin might strike next, and a certain foreboding in some circles. As one Lithuanian official said to me, “winter is coming.” The mood in these countries is not one of panic, nor fear of imminent attack. There is, however, an understanding at the official level that the long-term challenge from Russia will continue to be persistent, powerful and intense. Whereas the attention of official Washington is sometimes riveted from place to place around the globe, then diverted again, the Baltic countries simply have no choice geographically but to pay close and constant attention to their gigantic neighbor, Russia.
Baltic responses and the problem of deterrence
In response to this challenge, the three Baltic republics have done a considerable amount in recent years to better defend themselves. They have strengthened their conventional military capabilities, expanded regular forces, bolstered territorial defenses, increased personnel numbers and undertaken new weapons acquisitions. They have created multiple programs to boost civil resistance and national resilience in case of crisis. This includes, for example, public awareness and patriotic education programs to counter information warfare, as well as new crisis response initiatives. They have improved their cyber defenses and worked to counter cyber attacks; Estonia in particular has taken the lead on this issue. In Lithuania and Estonia, military conscription is in effect. Defense expenditures in all three nations have increased dramatically over the past few years. Military spending in Estonia is a little over 2 percent of GDP, and both Latvia and Lithuania are on track to meet the same benchmark in 2018. National guardsmen, riflemen’s unions, defense leagues and special operations forces have been developed and trained to handle a number of security threats, including unconventional ones. I asked officials in each country what exactly these forces would do if some local scenario materialized on their own territory involving violent Russian-backed insurgents. They each gave the same answer: “We would shoot them.”
National Baltic legislatures have passed laws to clarify that if their own soldiers are ordered by civilian authorities not to fight invading Russian forces, such orders must be ignored. The experience of 1940—when Soviet forces annexed the Baltic republics without war—will not be repeated. If attacked, these countries will fight. They have worked to improve security coordination between civilian and military agencies; between government and society; with NATO; and among the Baltic states as a whole. Baltic countries provide training, advice and assistance through the Eastern Partnership initiative to other former Soviet republics in the Caucasus, as well as to Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine. Ukraine in particular is viewed as a vital front line in the Baltic States’ own defense. In the realm of energy security, the Baltic states are no longer an energy island; they do not depend as heavily on Russia as they once did. There are still certain vulnerabilities such as national electricity networks. But Lithuania’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, completed in 2014, has helped open up the region to global supplies. Moreover, gas provides a shrinking percentage of Baltic energy needs. Officials admit more always needs to be done. But taken as a whole, these republics are taking the initiative to work on their own defense.
Of course, these are small countries with very small populations. In the worst-case scenario of a Russian invasion, even a rearmed collection of Baltic states cannot match Moscow’s nearby military capabilities; the imbalance of power is simply too great. So Baltic republics rely on the NATO alliance, having joined it in 2004, to help deter and if necessary counter Russian aggression. After Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the United States and other NATO allies agreed to provide increased military assistance to the Baltic states. At their 2016 Warsaw summit, NATO allies further agreed to deploy four multinational battalions to Poland and the Baltic states. Britain took the lead in Estonia, Canada did so in Latvia, Germany took the lead in Lithuania, and the United States did likewise in Poland. These forces are now in place, as is a Polish-based American brigade combat team. The hope in all Western capitals is that this new Western military presence will help deter Moscow. The question, naturally, is whether Putin’s Russia will in fact be deterred.
Deterrence can come in the form of either punishment or denial. In terms of deterrence by denial, it is not entirely clear that four NATO battalions together with national Baltic forces could actually deny Russian military advances were hostilities to occur. Moscow frequently conducts large-scale snap exercises involving 100,000 troops or more in Russia’s western military district. In case of combat, Moscow could bring a great deal of firepower to bear in the region, not only on land, sea and air, but up to and including threats of nuclear escalation. Built-up Russian forces in the Kaliningrad Oblast could strike across the narrow border between Poland and Lithuania—the so-called Suwalki gap—and cut off the Baltic states from Western support by land. Meanwhile, Russia would presumably use its anti-access and area denial capabilities around the Baltic to cut off these republics by sea. No doubt the Baltic states, together with deployed NATO battalions, could inflict some real damage on Russian forces, and perhaps slow down any advance. But at the very least, under current circumstances there are serious questions as to whether denial would really be possible, and for how long.
In effect, NATO and the Baltic States count on the implication of deterrence by punishment, not simply denial, to prevent any Russian attack. And this may very well hold. A Baltic war would certainly be very damaging to Russia’s economy, cutting off trade including gas exports in that direction. The Western allies, taken together, possess the military capabilities to hit back at Russia and inflict tremendous damage. But would NATO allies actually exercise these capabilities if a sudden attack overran one or more Baltic republics? For that matter, would they exercise them and risk a general conflict over some more limited, local or covert Russian aggression in the region? Of course, one of the purposes of placing multinational NATO battalions in each Baltic nation is to ensure that Western allies would be intimately affected by any Russian advance, making a vigorous response more likely. All sides—including Moscow— understand the seriousness of what this means. But it is worth noting that the United States confines its far greater weight, militarily, to Poland. Some U.S. troops are certainly on the ground inside the Baltic states, but within the multinational NATO battalions now stationed in those countries, no permanent units are American. No doubt Moscow notices this too.
U.S. policy recommendations
My impression from these interviews was that U.S. policy within the Baltic region is mostly on track. The United States and its NATO allies have done and are doing a considerable amount, materially, to reassure and support these republics. Baltic officials are clearly grateful for the enhanced NATO presence this year; they find the facts on the ground within their own nations reassuring. They are greatly impressed by a U.S. national security team that includes Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Bipartisan congressional delegations have also visited the Baltic nations to assure them of U.S. support. Local officials reiterate their appreciation for everything the United States has done to support them in recent months and years. They continue to look for steady, consistent messages and signals of American support, from the presidential level on down.
Of course, in assessing any recommendations for U.S. policy, the question is not simply what allies prefer, but what would promote American national interests. Arguably there are two main sets of U.S. interests in the region. The first is to preserve a European balance that is predominantly democratic, stable, humane and open to U.S. trade and investment. NATO is an expression of this American commitment, not the other way around. The second U.S. interest is to avoid war with Russia. The best and perhaps only way to preserve both sets of interests simultaneously is to deter Moscow from making any aggressive mistakes in the Baltic region. Certainly the United States should not disengage or withdraw from the region. If conflict does come, it might be in part because Putin’s Russia underestimates America’s willingness to fight for its stated commitments. More than one war involving the United States has started this way.
One answer is for the United States to bolster the credibility of its deterrence posture in the region, not only through consistent verbal signals, but through material actions that Moscow understands. The United States should continue to bolster the capabilities of all three Baltic allies, by helping them to better defend themselves on land, at sea, in the air and in cyberspace. This need not require massive amounts of American money or personnel; when it comes to force multipliers, a little can go a long way. Air defense for example is an area where U.S. technical and military expertise is extremely useful. Baltic governments do not really expect or request multiple American combat brigades. For one thing, the Pentagon does not have them to spare. Nor is it clear that Baltic nations have the logistical capacity to absorb any such extensive U.S. forces, which might present Moscow with some dangerous incentives to preempt.
The Trump administration should, however, consider deploying one U.S. battalion to Lithuania, from forces already in Europe. Not only would this be most welcome in that country but by clustering U.S. forces both north and south of the Suwalki gap, Moscow would be presented with a more vivid indication that any invasion of the Baltics would mean confronting American troops—and this is something Moscow does not want. True, Russia will complain. But one U.S. battalion cannot truly be viewed as capable of marching on St. Petersburg. It would, however, add considerably to the American deterrent within the Baltic region. And this would make conflict less likely in the first place.
Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. Colin Dueck is a Professor at George Mason University and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The analysis in this article was made possible by the generous support of the Baltic American Freedom Foundation who enabled Colin Dueck to visit the Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the summer of 2017.