Near Russia’s border with the Baltics, soldiers on both sides are practicing for war

By Michael Birnbaum


BALTIC CURTAIN | This is part of a series examining the new front lines in a Cold-War-style confrontation between Russia and the West.

BALTIC CURTAIN | This is part of a series examining the new front lines in a Cold-War-style confrontation between Russia and the West.
VORU, Estonia — When unidentified aircraft were speeding toward northern Estonia one recent day, British fighter jets stationed nearby scrambled to intercept them. Screaming across the country, they quickly identified the targets: two Russian fighters and a spy plane. It was just the latest confrontation between the West and Russia in a region that has fast become a tripwire for conflict between nuclear superpowers.

In the two years since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the tiny Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have taken an oversize role in facing down Russia’s challenge to the West. The Kremlin has been building up its military along its border with the former Soviet satellites. Western allies of the Baltics, worried that the region is vulnerable, have responded by pouring tanks, warplanes and soldiers into an area slightly larger than Florida. They will commit thousands more troops to the three countries and Poland at a summit starting Friday.

The British decision to leave the European Union makes NATO even more important as an alliance that binds the West together, NATO leaders say, amid concerns that the political and economic turbulence unleashed by the decision will shrink Britain’s outsize role in global affairs. The departure plans come at a critical time of escalation between Russia and the West.
“Uncertainty and unpredictability always create challenges to our security,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview. “It is a more unpredictable situation now than before the U.K. decided to leave.”

Western and Russian warplanes already encounter each other in the Baltic skies nearly every day. A Russian warplane buzzed a U.S. destroyer in April, coming within 30 feet and raising fears of an accident that could quickly escalate into a crisis. Any attack on the Baltics has the potential for far more global danger than Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, since the United States and other members of NATO committed to defend the region when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the military alliance in 2004.

Adding to the fears, Russian leaders now routinely raise their willingness to use nuclear weapons, a habit not seen since the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s. Western leaders shy away from talk of a new Cold War. But Russian and Western officials make clear that they are settling into a confrontation that neither side expects to end quickly.

“There is a much greater sense that we’re dealing with a long-term strategic competition with Russia,” said Alexander Vershbow, deputy secretary general of NATO, the Western military alliance formed during the Cold War to defend against the Soviet Union. “It will be a very dangerous relationship that needs to be managed very carefully going forward,” he said in an interview.

NATO’s new top military leader, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, said as he arrived in the spring that the alliance had to be ready to “fight tonight” against Russia, if necessary. And President Obama quadrupled military spending in Europe in his budget proposal earlier this year, to $3.4 billion.

Russia plans to form three new divisions of its military by the end of the year — tens of thousands of troops — and station them in its westernmost territories, near the Baltics and Poland. Russian President Vladimir Putin has framed it as a simple response to NATO activity.

“We are constantly accused of military activity, but where?” Putin said Thursday. “Only on our own soil. We are supposed to accept as normal the military buildup on our borders.”