Reinforcing Baltic Security

By Matthew T. Jablonski


 

Introduction 

 

The escalation of the conflict in Ukraine by the Russian Federation demonstrated that the Kremlin is actively seeking to rewrite the European security framework on its terms, which carries wide ranging implications for the international order and transatlantic security. President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in the early hours of 24 February 2022 also served as a bellwether for the rest of Europe, and in particular the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, that we are now entering an era of geostrategic uncertainty of which there is no clear end in sight.

 

Informed by their respective histories and struggles for independence, the Baltic states reacted decisively and in a coordinated manner to Russia’s brutal aggression. The three countries are considered to be among NATO’s most vulnerable Allies in the event of a concerted military effort by Russia, and security analysts have long noted that a Russian offensive could cut the region off from assistance and reinforcements from the rest of the Alliance [1]. Belarus’ closer alignment to Moscow, which includes the indefinite deployment of Russian troops onto Belarussian soil, creates further insecurity in the region [2].

 

Joint action, as well as substantial political and military support from the rest of the Alliance, was needed rapidly to establish a strong deterrence posture as war broke out once again in the heart of Europe. Yet, in spite of coordinated sanctions placed on the Russian economy, renewed momentum within the Alliance, and the losses Russia is suffering on the battlefield in Ukraine, President Putin appears determined to continue his expansive military campaign so as to “return [what is Russia’s] and strengthen [the country]” [3].

 

Such language should indicate that we are set for a protracted period of tension between Russia and the transatlantic community. As a result, NATO must react accordingly and take the necessary steps to ensure its Eastern Flank is better fortified. As part of this process, the concerns of the Baltic region, whose societies worry they could be next after Ukraine, must be considered as the Alliance rethinks its defence posture amidst the current war and beyond [4].  

 

NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics

 

In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO Allies recognised potential vulnerabilities on the Eastern Flank and took steps to reassure the Baltic states and Poland through the deployment of four multinational battalions - an initiative entitled Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) - consisting of roughly 1,000 troops each [5]. The decision to establish these battlegroups, taken at the 2016 Warsaw Summit, was a demonstration of Allied solidarity and provided a measure of strategic deterrence in the context of instability in Eastern Europe and Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine. It also represented a reversal of trends at the time, as the number of American troops stationed in Europe had been on a steady decline and Canada’s military presence on the continent was also non-existent [6].

 

In the Baltics, these battalions were deployed in Rukla (Lithuania), Adaži (Latvia), and Tapa (Estonia) and are each led by a ‘framework nation’ - Germany in Lithuania, Canada in Latvia, and the United Kingdom in Estonia. While these framework nations provide the bulk of the forces to each battalion, numerous other Allied nations contribute to the strength of these battlegroups on a voluntary and rotational basis [7].  

 

Although not permanently established on Baltic territory, the eFP battlegroups were welcomed as a significant contribution to security in the region and represent an important example of Allied collective defence. However, their limited size means that they “essentially constitute a trip wire that could neither halt nor push back a serious Russian intervention” if one were to occur [8]. Furthermore, issues persist when it comes to multinational equipment compatibility and duplicative capabilities, as well as over what role the battlegroups would play in the event of crisis that falls below the threshold of Article 5 and NATO’s mutual defence commitments [9].

 

Reinforcing Current Deployments

 

Russia’s military build-up and eventual renewed invasion of Ukraine forced the Alliance to take action. NATO has adapted its defence posture in the Baltics so as to increase its readiness and vigilance in the event of the spreading of hostilities, which includes an expansion of available forces and capabilities to reinforce all three eFP battlegroups in the region [10].

 

For example, the United Kingdom announced it would double its personnel in Estonia and send additional equipment to reinforce its military presence in the country. As part of Operation IRON SURGE, the U.K. imported Challenger 2 tanks and armoured vehicles from the Royal Welsh battlegroup, along with an additional 1,000 troops. According to British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, “these deployments constitute a credible deterrent to stop Russian aggression threatening the territorial sovereignty of Member States” [11].

 

In Latvia, the Canadian-led battlegroup in Adaži eFP also received a substantial boost via contributions made under Operation REASSURANCE, which increased Canada’s land, maritime, and air capabilities in Europe and the Baltic region [12]. In the last couple of months, Allied forces there have doubled to 5,500 troops and Ottawa has announced it is extending its contribution to the mission beyond 2023, after which is was set to expire [13].

 

For its part, Germany had already announced increased contributions to the battlegroup it leads in Lithuania and Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent declaration that the German presence would increase to the level of a ‘robust combat-ready brigade’ was especially welcome. Such an expansion, if it were followed through on by Berlin, would represent a substantial increase as up to 3,500 more soldiers could thus be deployed to Lithuania [14].

 

The reinforcement of each eFP battlegroup has been complemented by the United States’ decision to increase its presence in Europe to over 100,000 troops in total - a first since 2005. This included an increase of troops in the Baltic region,  which was welcomed by all Baltic governments as a decision which contributes positively to regional security [15].

 

Baltic Concerns and Wishes

 

From the Baltic perspective, the momentum that has grown within the Alliance over the last few months must be harnessed to bolster defence capabilities across the region as well as along NATO’s entire Eastern Flank to deter any potential attack on Allied territory. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis warns that this process is critical, as Russia has shown it is willing to launch an unprovoked war against its neighbours and therefore concrete steps must be taken to increase the resilience of the region against any such threat [16].

 

Establishing a more effective deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia would start with the Alliance’s vision. As NATO prepares to unveil its new Strategic Concept, Baltic officials have stressed that the document  must be clear as to where the current and emerging threats lie (the previous version of the document noted Russia as a ‘strategic partner’) and also have a renewed focus on collective defence [17]. Ideally, this would set the stage for NATO to become more proactive in its defence posture and allow for greater capabilities to be deployed to the Baltics. As Jonatan Vseviov, the Secretary General of Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argues, this process should be coupled with effective political signalling to make clear that the Alliance will “not only defend every square meter of its territory, but that NATO is also able to defeat any sort of aggression from day one, so that not even a square meter of NATO territory is lost, not even for a week” [18].

 

On the military front, Baltic governments are pushing for the Alliance to reconsider its current ‘trip wire’ defence posture, which requires Allies to surge reinforcements to the region to stop invading forces and risks leaving troops stationed there exposed [19]. Some officials have gone even further and suggested NATO’s current policy in the region is political obsolete. To underline the seriousness of the situation, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas described NATO’s current plans for the Baltics as “to lose it and liberate it afterwards” - a strategy that would entail “the complete destruction of our countries and our culture” [20]. The prevailing sentiment is it should therefore be replaced with a ‘forward defence’ concept with a greater NATO presence in the Baltics in order to deter potential Russian aggression and make any attempt at military incursion very costly. Such a decision, according to Latvian President Egils Levits, would also send “a very strong signal to Moscow we’re ready to defend the territory of NATO” [21].

 

Considering Belarus’ aforementioned rapprochement with Russia, which has included allowing the Russian military to use air bases and military infrastructure to launch attacks on Ukraine, concerns over the infamous Suwałki Gap - a 100km strip of land along the Polish-Lithuanian border laying between Kaliningrad and Belarus - have also grown, and make reassurances all the more important [22]. Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves notes that the area is a “huge vulnerability because an invasion would cut off Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from the rest of NATO” [23]. In this context, continued communication that the Alliance will defend every inch of its territory at all costs, in addition to an increased NATO presence in the Baltics, are seen as critically important.

 

Conclusion and Recommendations

 

The war in Ukraine is not over yet, but it is never too soon to start thinking about what comes next. Certainly, plans are already underway to rework NATO’s defence and deterrence posture on its Eastern Flank, but Allies must ensure Baltic perspectives are considered and the region is sufficiently reinforced. To effectively do so, there are numerous policies the Alliance and its Member States can adopt but the following three steps would represent notable progress:

 

Active political signalling and coordination: Within the framework of NATO’s 2030 Initiative, Allied leaders agreed to  deepen and broaden political consultations between Member States. While this pledge applies to a wide-range of policy areas, in the context of Baltic security it should include regular information sharing and discussions with Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius so as to better understand their specific concerns and reduce the possibility for political mis-messaging. Confusion from Lithuanian officials over the exact nature of Germany’s commitment to deploy additional forces to the country demonstrates the risks of a lack of political coordination [24]. Better communication can avoid obscuring the Alliance’s impressive unity since the escalation of the conflict and this will require outreach from Allies to those countries how are on the front-line of the Eastern Flank. Political disunity, on the other hand, can only work in favour of the aggressor and discredit the Alliance’s position on the current war as well as the defence of its own Member States going forward [25]. Enhanced political support, through deeper coordination and effective messaging which underlines Allied unity and the defence of the territorial integrity of all Allies, is therefore critical.

 

Stronger military presence in the region: While all Baltic governments are carrying their weight within NATO and have each set a defence spending target of 2,5 per cent of GDP, their respective armed forces do not constitute a strong enough deterrence against the world’s second-largest army. Ahead of the Madrid Summit, Mircea Geoană, NATO’s Deputy Secretary-General, suggested leaders will be working on a "fundamental transformation of NATO's posture, presence and deterrence" and hinted permanent bases will be established in Eastern Europe [26]. In the current environment, a transformation of NATO’s defence posture and the stationing of more forces in the Baltic nations is in oder. Over the coming months, the Alliance must shift from a forward presence policy to one of forward defence and active deterrence, which would include permanently stationed troops, prepositioned stocks of munitions, as well as the addition of air and missile defence systems in the region [27]. In addition, NATO can develop its Baltic Air Policing mission into one of Air Defence, with F-35 aircraft provided rotationally by Allies, as part of its efforts to counter Russian capabilities in the region [28].

 

Deepening cooperation with NATO partners: The decision of both Finland and Sweden to pursue NATO membership will fundamentally alter the military geography of Northeastern Europe. Their eventual accession to the Alliance would facilitate the defence of the Nordic and Baltic states, as well as allow NATO to reinforce its deterrence capabilities in the Baltic Sea [29]. However, political consultations must first take place amongst the Allies and every Member State needs to ratify the admission of the two countries - a process which risks delaying their official membership. In the meantime, NATO can initiate plans for an integrated Nordic-Baltic defence posture that accounts for regional air defence and enhanced NATO presence in the Baltic Sea. Even without the certification of their respective membership applications, there is an opportunity for NATO and the Baltic nations to integrate regional defence activities with both Finland and Sweden as a stopgap measure. These could include joint operations planning and exercises, border surveillance, information sharing, and early warning infrastructure [30]. Such proactive defence planning and actions can reassure Baltic Allies and also signal a new era for the Alliance as it adjusts to the new era of instability in the region.

 

The destruction of Ukrainian cities and atrocities being covered in places such as Bucha and Irpin are a sobering reminder of the threat posed on NATO’s Eastern Flank. For the Baltic nations, who have always been aware of the precarious nature of peace and stability in their region, there is an acute feeling that time must not be wasted. At this historically pivotal moment for European security, NATO must rise up to the challenge, remain united, and implement courageous and forward-thinking policies so the collective defence of all Allies can be assured.

 

Bibliography

 

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[29] Paul Poast, ‘What NATO Needs to Do Before Finland and Sweden Join’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 7 June 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/06/07/what-nato-needs-to-do-before-finland-and-sweden-join-pub-87262 

 

[30] Van Tol et al., ‘Deterrence and Defence in the Baltic Region: New Realities’, Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2022, https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/CSBA8312_(Deterrence_Defense_Baltic)_web.pdf