April 3, 2018
Agnia Grigas

April 3 (Reuters) – Donald Trump has just held his first Baltic Summit with the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. At the media briefing after Tuesday’s meeting, the U.S. president re-affirmed America’s commitment to their “deep and lasting friendship” and praised his Baltic counterparts for doing “terrific jobs.” With tensions rising between Moscow and NATO, these three countries are indeed important U.S. allies – and the administration would do well to learn from their hard-earned expertise on the frontline of Russia’s energy, cyber and propaganda war.

The summit, which took place against a backdrop of diplomatic expulsions after Britain blamed Moscow for poisoning a former Russian spy in the UK and just days after Russia test-fired its new intercontinental ballistic missile Sarmat, was of enormous strategic significance. When President Barack Obama met with the leaders of the three Baltic nations in Washington in 2015 he called them the United States’ “most reliable allies in NATO.” More recently, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the Baltic states during his visit to the Estonian capital of Tallinn in 2017, saying that the United States stands firmly behind NATO’s Article 5 pledge of mutual defense of Alliance members: “An attack on one of us is an attack on us all.”

The Baltic leaders received the same message from Trump, who praised their commitment to “burden-sharing” in the costs of NATO. The U.S. president should now craft a careful policy to show Washington’s support for the needs of the nations run by Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite, Estonia’s Kersti Kaljulaid and Latvia’s Raimonds Vejonis.

The Baltic states are not simply recipients of NATO’S protection; they are also active supporters of U.S. foreign policy. Since joining the alliance in 2004, the Baltic countries have participated in a number of NATO missions. They have deployed their troops to Afghanistan as part of NATO-led operations and sent soldiers to Iraq to fight Islamic State. In addition, they are hosting NATO battalions in their countries as part of a broader bid to deter Russian aggression. Washington, which already has sent troops to Norway and Poland, should consider rotating American troops through the Baltic republics in the coming years as well.

All three Baltic states have gradually increased their share of GDP on defense since 2010. Estonia was one of only five NATO allies that met the benchmark of 2 percent spending in 2017; Lithuania and Latvia reached the target this year. Lithuania also reintroduced conscription in 2015, while Estonia has had the draft since the 1990s. Following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and since boosting their defense budgets, they will spend a total of around $2 billion on defense by 2020. The Baltic republics have also been purchasing American military equipment, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles. While Trump has been vocal about expecting NATO countries to boost their defense spending, the administration should help the Baltic countries outline their broader defense priorities once they’ve achieved this objective.

In addition, Washington should broaden its cooperation with the three key NATO Centers of Excellence based in the Baltic states. These institutions, which include the Energy Security Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania, the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre in Tallinn, Estonia and the Strategic Communications Centre in Riga, Latvia, are intended to train and educate specialists from NATO member and partner countries. While all three are already contributing to NATO operations, the United States should increase the involvement of U.S. experts in these hubs.

Looking further east, Washington should turn to its Baltic allies for advice on plans to provide support for the nascent democracies in the East. The Baltic states and Poland have particularly close relations with countries like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP); the leaders who met with Trump in Washington this week are among the best placed and informed to take the lead in shaping EU policy on this initiative. The Trump administration should also take guidance from the Baltic leaders on the best way to optimize programs like the Washington’s Emerging Donors Challenge Fund, which allows USAID to partner with 10 donor countries on a range of development and anti-corruption programs.

The Baltic states are not only allies in the defense sector. In 2017, Lithuania began importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States. Along with Poland’s LNG terminal expansion and Polish and Lithuanian purchases of American LNG, this signals a powerful challenge to Russia’s dominance in Europe’s gas markets. While the globalization of natural gas markets is boosting diversification options for gas-importing states, the arrival of American gas to this region is strategically important.

The first meeting between Trump and his Baltic counterparts was more than a symbolic encounter. With the rise of Russian aggression, it was important to reaffirm the United States’ support for its friends on Europe’s frontlines. But it was also an opportunity for the Trump administration to build deeper relationships that move beyond rhetoric with often-overlooked allies. (Reporting by Agnia Grigas)