James J. Coyle
April 15, 2018
When leaders of the Baltic States returned to the White House on April 3, 2018, it marked the third visit by leaders of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania; previous heads of state gathered in Washington in 1998 and 2013. As it was before, the purpose of their visit was to secure American protection from Russia for their tiny countries.
They probably left disappointed. President Donald Trump told Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania and Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia that he wants better relations with Russia. “Nobody has been tougher on Russia,” said the American president. For the future, however, Mr. Trump told the assembled leaders that improved ties “would be a good thing, not a bad thing.” He implied that Baltic concerns were misplaced. “Just about everybody agrees to that, except very stupid people, OK?” he asked rhetorically.
Washington had been a staunch supporter of the Baltic States throughout the Cold War. Soviet troops conquered the three countries in 1940 as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Acting U.S. Secretary of State Sumner Welles condemned the occupation, and governments-in-exile kept their independent embassies open in Washington until the 1991 collapse of the USSR.
Faced with a resurgent Russia, the Baltics again have turned to the Westfor military and ideological support. There are good reasons, however, that the United States should not have involved itself in the defense of these countries. They were part of the Soviet Union for over a half-century, which allowed many residents to develop an affinity for Russia. One-third of the population of Latvia and one-quarter of Estonians consider themselves ethnically Russian. Russians in these countries are not entitled to automatic citizenship and must pass a rigorous naturalization process. This leaves most Russians “stateless,” a condition that makes Moscow’s promises of citizenship and passports look attractive.
Russia beams radio and television broadcasts into the countries, depicting their governments in the worst light. The Kremlin subsidizes Russian ethnic groups and political parties in all three states. Russian oligarchs own many of the industries. The countries face pressure from Moscow in the energy sector. Lithuania gets all its oil and natural gas from Russia, and Latvia receives the majority of its energy from the same source. Only Estonia has its own supply of shale oil, and ports to bring non-Russian oil into the country by sea.
The Baltics are under threat. According to Lithuanian Army Lt. Col. Algimantas Misiunas, Russian plans to seize the Baltics are more than a wish or desire, but a need. Russia needs a land bridge with Kaliningrad, full access and control of the Baltic Sea, and the restoration of its Soviet-era influence in Europe. Independent Baltic States stand in the way of all these goals.
These are all strong arguments against getting involved in the Baltics, and they should have been made in 2003. Conditions changed in 2004 when NATO admitted the Baltics into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As such, the three countries joined a military grouping that Russian National Security Strategy identified as a threat to Russian national security: “The strengthening of Russia is taking place against a backdrop of new threats to national security that are of a multifarious and interconnected nature … (including) opposition from the United States and its allies.” The Baltics, then, are under greater threat than ever — because of their association with the United States.
Since the 2004 accession to NATO, the United States and its allies have been the guarantors of Baltic security because of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that “… an armed attack against one or more of (the parties) in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” This is the centerpiece of the alliance and, should these countries be abandoned in the face of Russian aggression, it would mean the collapse of the alliance. For this reason, since 2014 the United States rotated troops throughout the Baltic States. Today, the Americans have been replaced by the United Kingdom in Estonia, Canada in Latvia, and Germany in Lithuania.
Writing for the Army War College, a variety of military authors advocate increasing the NATO military presence through more ground troops (permanently stationed or rotated), air assets and coastal defense forces. None of these measures makes sense from a military viewpoint. Geopolitically, the area is squeezed between Russia and Belarus on the East, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad in the West. There is no strategic depth, and the states are only connected to Europe by the 65-kilometer-wide Suwalki Gap. The entire area is covered by Russian Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. It would be suicide to try to fight a war with the Kremlin on this territory.
The United States and NATO are committed to the defense of three countries whose combined population is roughly equal to the population of the Washington, D.C. area and whose alliance with the West is a threat to Russian national security interests. The West has dealt itself a bad hand. If the West were to abandon the Baltics, however, the Russian threat would move to Poland and beyond while the NATO alliance was fractured.
NATO and America can protect the Balkans only through the projection of steadfast resolve. The deployment of token NATO troops combined with surge exercises are insufficient to stop a Russian advance, but they serve as a warning that an attack on the Baltics is an attack on the entire alliance. It is Western unity, combined with the American nuclear umbrella, that can keep the Kremlin from the shores of the Gulf of Riga.
James J. Coyle is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts” (2017) and a senior, non-resident research fellow of the Atlantic Council.