The three Baltic States are key members of the NATO defensive alliance. Since regaining independence after the illegal Soviet occupation, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have all become deeply integrated into Western institutions, such as NATO and the EU. These small countries, understanding the potential peril of reoccupation by a resurgent Russia after the annexation of Crimea, have been extremely vocal in sounding the alarm that Russia remains a security threat. They understand that the West must get serious about security lest its more vulnerable members once more get trampled.
Thirty years ago this month, the Baltic States sent Gorbachev a clear message by forming a massive, 2 million member human chain from Tallinn, Estonia all the way to Vilnius, Lithuania. This show of resolve, known as the Baltic Way, demonstrated that the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian patriots would not be suppressed in their push for independence from Communist tyranny. This large- scale, peaceful popular protest was a remarkable event within the broader miracle of 1989 in Eastern Europe, and has today inspired the people of Hong Kong to make their own “Hong Kong Way.” But, as we in the West celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, let us not forget the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the danger posed by ambitious neighbors.
The Baltic States’ geographic situation is an unfortunate one. They are largely cut off by land from their NATO allies, their terrain has few natural barriers to an invading force, and the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet operates to the Baltic States’ north and south in St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad. The Suwałki Gap, a narrow strip of land on the border of Lithuania and Poland, constitutes the only land border between the Baltic States and the rest of NATO. This tiny strip with two highways lies between Belarus and Kaliningrad, meaning that Russia could easily seal it off, making a logistical nightmare for NATO to come to the Baltics’ aid. At sea, the Russian Navy is not particularly impressive, but is more than capable of harassing ships and conducting grey zone operations on infrastructure and the port and supply chains.
This unfortunate geographic situation, combined with Russian military buildup in the Western Military District and Russia’s propensity to meddle in its neighbors’ affairs, makes Baltic Security of vital importance to NATO. As things currently stand, Russia prefers to stay below the threshold of conventional war, knowing that its conventional forces may have a short-term advantage, but that in the long-run, NATO forces are superior. As such, Russia seeks to destabilize the political situation through hybrid means, such as misinformation/disinformation, economic capture, the use of proxy groups as an element of “aktivnye meropriyatiya” (“active measures”) in intelligence operations, and cyber-attacks. By utilizing hybrid warfare against the spectrum of a state’s governmental and societal functions, Russia economizes the use of force and is able to continuously adjust the intensity of conflict. It is important to remember that Russia views itself in conflict with NATO, even though the two are not locked in conventional war.
As the situation stands now, Russia is probably unlikely to conduct conventional military operations against the Baltic States. Its economy cannot sustain this kind of war, and it is currently mired in other theaters. Nevertheless, Russia will absolutely continue its hybrid efforts against Baltic society and government, as it seeks to undermine Western influence and restore the Baltic States to its sphere of influence. Indeed, Russia successfully annexed Crimea without firing a shot using a comprehensive package of hybrid tactics, perhaps most famously the “little green men” at a time when it viewed Western leadership as weak and feckless. NATO leadership must remain strong and resolute against the Russian threat, and Western European leaders need to understand that they have a moral imperative to defend their own people as part and parcel of their obligation to NATO. A Russian attack on the Baltic States will inevitably test Article 5 (the principle of “an attack on one is an attack on all”), upon which NATO’s credibility hangs. Likewise, the Baltic States must continue to make strides on societal security, infrastructural security (including energy security), financial security, cyber-security, and defense/deterrence. The work being done in the region is good, and needs to continue in order to maintain freedom in the Baltics.
From the “Year of Terror” in 1941 to re-independence in 1991, the Baltic States suffered under tyranny. For Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, national security is a matter of state survival. Freedom is vulnerable, and must be guarded with vigilance and enthusiasm. Russia must be taken seriously: all too often, the political discourse in the U.S. and Europe recognizes the threat that Russia poses, but fails to understand the nature of Russian tactics. Likewise, many political groups seek to associate their opponents with Russia, while ignoring Russian influence on their own parties, undermining faith in democratic institutions and doing the Russians’ work for them. For NATO, Baltic security is a matter of credibility. If the Baltic States fall and NATO does not respond, the alliance will no longer be taken seriously, and its defense will be undermined. For the United States, it is a matter of both credibility and affinity – the U.S. seeks to defend liberty in the face of tyranny wherever it exists. An aggressive Russia not only threatens security in Europe, but also threatens security in the U.S. After all, Russia seeks to undermine American political stability as well. In geopolitics, everything is interconnected, and the U.S. and Europe cannot afford to neglect any region, especially not the Baltics.
Photo Credit: US Embassy, Latvia
Cover Photo: NATO (nato.int)