The Baltic States and NATO: Reassurance amid Doubt

An earlier version of this article first appeared in French in the Revue Militaire Suisse, No. 4, July/August, 2014.

Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea saw trepidation reverberate around the capitals of NATO’s East European allies, no more so than in the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Given the large Russian speaking minorities in both Estonia and Latvia (approximately 25% in both cases), the Russian tactic utilised in Ukraine, consisting of information warfare aimed at social destabilisation before then deploying irregulars to complete the conquest, provoked particular unease. With the Baltic states acutely interdependent in security terms, these unconventional methods provide a worrying threat for all three states. Nonetheless, the tactic’s utility is likely to be less effective in the Baltic context. As the economic historian, Olaf Mertelsmann, has remarked, Crimea’s Russian speakers could see the incentive of better economic prospects, education and social services in Russia relative to their Ukrainian experience. As Baltic Russian speakers look directly eastwards at St. Petersburg’s hinterland in the Leningrad Oblast and the Pskovskaya Oblast, two of Russia’s poorest regions, the existence of the same incentive is doubtful in the Baltic context given the superior social and economic opportunities these three states can potentially provide by comparison.


From the conventional military perspective, deterrence and reassurance have been the orders of the day. For NATO, the Baltic states present a difficult balancing act involving the credible maintenance of security assurances granted under the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5 on the one hand, while attempting to facilitate de-escalation of tension with Russia over the Ukraine crisis on the other. While Washington had previously been sensitive about even a light US military presence in East Europe, the Crimean crisis ensured the stationing of 150 US paratroopers in each Baltic state for joint training purposes by April 2014. There has been an increase in the frequency of NATO’s air policing mission. As no Baltic state possesses a fighter jet, policing of Baltic airspace has, since 2004, been implemented by 14 air forces of different NATO allies through 4-month rotations. The use of 4 fighter jets has been typical during each rotation. However, with the US holding the rotation for the first third of 2014, an extra 6 US F-15C fighters were deployed once the Crimean crisis esculated in early March. Each previous rotation has been undertaken by a sole ally. However, the rotation commencing in late April 2014 was, for the first time, carried out by a coalition of allies including Denmark, France, the United Kingdom and Poland. The rotation beginning in September 2014 will include Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal. Furthermore, the 6 US F-15Cs, brought in to enhance the US rotation earlier in 2014, will continue to buttress each rotation, an arrangement lasting until the end of the year at the earliest.

Solidarity Well Earned

This enhancement of NATO’s reassurances through increased air monitoring and token ground force deployments are important moves considering the sensitivity of the security situation. From the Baltic perspective, this solidarity has been painfully earned. The serving Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, has previously referred to her country’s participation in NATO as an “insurance policy”. As well as participation in the US-led Multi-National Force in Iraq, all three states sought to contribute to this insurance plan via NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Albeit in different ways, all engaged in NATO burden-sharing in order to enhance ISAF’s progress. Estonia provided its troops without caveats, fighting alongside the UK and the US in the combat intensive Helmand Province. Lithuania put much of its financial and military resources into its leadership of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Team (PRT) for the Afghan province of Ghor. Latvia was active in security capacity-building in East Afghanistan. All three now anticipate that their interactions with NATO’s major allies during these missions will enhance their security guarantees vis-à-vis the current situation with Russia.

Baltic Unease

While significant reassurance measures have been taken, points of unease with both inter-Baltic and wider NATO defence cooperation still remain. In terms of inter-Baltic defence cooperation, in November 2012, an article in the main Estonian daily, Postimees, carried the sensationalist message that, due to its comparatively lax attitude to defence sector development, Latvia had emerged as the largest threat to Estonian security. While over- exaggerated, given the security interdependence of all three states and the lower defence spending ratios of Latvia and Lithuania in 2012 and 2013 at 0.9% and 0.8% of GDP respectively, the article was a front for the blunt frustration of Estonian officials who have met the NATO target of 2% since 2012. Another point of slight discord has been the Estonian bid to host a section of the air policing mission at its newly constructed Ämari Air Base; this has angered some Lithuanian politicians who do not wish to see their Siauliai Air Base challenged as the principal and permanent host for NATO’s Baltic air policing. With ground forces, the joint Baltic Battalion (BALTBAT) has had a dubious track-record. First active between 1994 and 2003, BALTBAT was originally conceived under the peacekeeping mantra. It suffered due to sharp underinvestment and disinterest once the Baltic states joined NATO, each state choosing to pursue options with other allies. It is now planned to reinvent BALTBAT as a territorial defence entity, with the battalion scheduled to take part in NATO’s Saber Strike (2014) and Trident Juncture (2015) exercises. Full training will commence in 2015.

Wider Cooperation Doubts

With wider cooperation issues, divergent objectives between the East European allies and NATO more broadly could prove difficult. For Russia, many West European allies (Angela Merkel’s Germany chief among them) find virtue in the scalability approach which outlines an initial light but visible NATO presence in the east that will then be bolstered by rapid response capabilities should the security situation deteriorate. While a plan has emerged which would see 100 US troops rotate in East Europe for training purposes over the long-term, this is probably not enough for many Eastern European politicians who wish to see a heavier and enduring NATO presence in the region.

Criticising what they see as an unjustified “business as usual” outlook, Baltic politicians have also found doubt regarding normalised French and German relations with Russia. Germany, through its economic interdependence with Russia, is seen as an obstacle preventing tougher Western sanctions against Moscow. The French position is paradoxical, currently helping to reassure the Baltic states through air policing, while at the same time refusing to cancel a 2011 contract to supply Russia with two Mistral assault ships. 400 Russian naval personnel arrived in France in June 2014 to receive the operational training provided under the agreement.

Many of the pressing issues mentioned stretch beyond the East European security situation, extending into the wider debate on NATO’s continued coherence. The discussions at September’s Wales Summit should therefore be among the most pivotal transatlantic deliberations since the Cold War’s end.  

Publicēts 25. augusts, 2014

Autors Eoin Micheál Mcnamara