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The Baltics: Will Russia Invade and Should the U.S. Defend?

Russia has long been an unfriendly neighbor to the Baltic States. With President Putin gambling near and far and successfully exploiting Washington’s geopolitical errors, people from the post-Soviet states are concerned, to say the least.

But how likely is it that Russia will invade the Baltic States in the near future? And if so, should the US defend its easternmost NATO allies?

To answer these questions we need to look at some of the issues underpinning this topic, such as President Putin’s expansionist ambitions, the strategic value of the Baltic States to Russia and the US, the role of NATO under the new US leadership of President Donald Trump and last, but not least, the current state of Russia’s economy.

Putin’s expansionist ambitions

President Putin has long been known to have expansionist ambitions aimed at the post-Soviet states and, as he commented on many occasions, he would like to see the Soviet Union order restored. And even though having expansionist ambitions does not necessarily equate to having a calculated and set plan to pursue them, President Putin’s gambling over the Crimean peninsula and its subsequent annexation set off alarm bells all over Eastern and Central Europe.

As seen in the Crimean annexation, the Russian leader gambled and won. One could argue that Crimea had more strategic value to Russia than the Baltic States do. After all, Ukraine was considering cancelling Russia’s lease on the naval base in Sevastopol, which would have meant that Russia would no longer have been able to have its Black Sea Fleet stationed there.

The region’s strategic value

The strategic value of the Baltics to Russia, however, must not be underestimated. Great powers that wish to project military and economic might need to have strong access to a potential theatre’s oceans, especially one as important as the Atlantic Ocean. Currently, Russia is, effectively, hemmed in by its geography, making its operations in the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean more difficult, slower and less responsive and leaving Russia with less assertive influence due to it not having sufficient naval access in the area.

Russia does have some access to the Baltic Sea. However, it is limited to St. Petersburg’s naval base and Russia’s tiny Kaliningrad exclave (Kaliningrad Oblast), which borders Lithuania and Poland. Kaliningrad Oblast is cut off from mainland Russia by Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. Occupation of all or some of the Baltic States would provide Russia with a clear and unobstructed access to the Baltic Sea and strengthen its position in the North Atlantic Ocean without having to worry that its current Baltic access could be interrupted in times of war. There are also fears that for more influence in the Baltic Sea Russia would also try to occupy Poland. However, at the moment that seems like a step too far even for Putin.

With regard to the US, the Baltic States may seem like a meager gain and equate to nothing more than a buffer zone for the West. However, taking over the Baltic States would be a considerable gain for Russia. Its political and economic influence in the region would increase dramatically.

Having better access to and a stronger presence in the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic would lead to Russia’s dramatic expansion of trade, which it needs in order to modernize its military and assert its naval power.

Having a much stronger Russia on the doorstep of Western and Central Europe is not only against the geopolitical interests of the US, but is in fact a security threat to the West as a whole. And who is to say that Russia’s expansionism would stop with the Baltic States?

How would Russia do it?

What is most expected by the military experts in the case of the Baltic States is another Crimean-style operation, where Russia would use the Russian minorities in the Baltics to stage a rebellion and a subsequent takeover from the inside.

Russian state-controlled media has already been steadily spreading the Kremlin’s propaganda to Russian-speaking people, both at home and abroad. This propaganda includes claims that there are ‘concentration camps’ being built for the Russian minorities in the Baltic States. With such propaganda the Kremlin is gathering public support for an intervention to ‘liberate’ the Russian minorities from the made-up Baltic oppressors, similarly to the scenario seen in Ukraine prior to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Latvia, having the largest number of Russian minorities (about 36 percent of the population), is expected to be the starting point. However, depending on the circumstances, this ‘liberation’ could start in any of the Baltic States.

NATO training exercise in Germany. (Randy Wren/U.S. Army)

Estonia also seems to fit the picture. The Russian-speaking population in Estonia is around 28 percent and is mainly concentrated in the capital Tallinn and Estonia’s third largest city Narva. Being at the border with Russia, Narva’s population is predominantly ethnic Russian and stands at almost 87 percent. Estonia, however, is the economic leader in the Baltic States and the ethnic Russians in Estonia are known to be doing far better than their counterparts in Russia.

However, even though the ethnic Russians in Estonia are not overly in favour of joining the Motherland, President Putin, does not really need their consent and approval should he decide to proceed with his expansion plans. Therefore, Narva, even though maybe not the first on Putin’s list, certainly cannot be totally ruled out as a potential target.

Lithuania’s Russian minorities only comprise around 5.8 percent of the country’s population and are well integrated. Therefore, a slightly different strategy could be in the cards for Lithuania. Russia depends on road and rail links through Lithuania to reach its Kaliningrad Oblast. Its goods and military material are sent from the mainland to Kaliningrad Oblast via a railway line and overland routes in Lithuania and Belarus. As a pretext for an invasion, the Kremlin could very well make up a story where Lithuania is for some reason at fault in the Moscow-Lithuania-Kaliningrad transit arrangement.

Is there anything that can be done to prevent Russia’s expansion into the Baltics?

The only real deterrent for Russia is a strong and committed to its principle of collective defense NATO.

The Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) are some of the newest members of the NATO alliance. They joined NATO in 2004.

NATO is an Alliance Treaty signed in Washington D.C. in 1949 in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union to the West. The Treaty is based on the principle of collective defense, which is enshrined in Article 5. The Article stipulates that an armed attack against one or more of the members of the Alliance constitutes an attack against them all, and if such an attack occurs the members pledge to assist the attacked member(s) so as to restore order and maintain security of the North Atlantic area.

Therefore, as per Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, should Russia invade the Baltic States, this invasion would constitute an armed attack not just on the Baltic States, but also on all of the member states, which in its turn would trigger the principle of collective defense.

However, the newly elected President of the United States Donald Trump set off alarm bells in NATO’s smaller member states, when during his election campaign he stated that under his presidency the US would not automatically rush to the defense of those member states if they were not contributing enough to the Alliance’s budget.

Article 5 collective defense principle is not conditional per say. However, Article 3 of the Treaty does stipulate that the member states are required to ‘maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack’. In line with Article 3, in 2002 NATO adopted a 2 percent guideline, where all members are encouraged to spend at least 2 percent of their respective gross domestic product (GDP) on their own military defense.

Currently, out of the 28 members of the Alliance only five members (Estonia, Poland, Greece, the United States, and the United Kingdom) meet the recommended defense spending goal. The rest are lagging behind.

Even the older, wealthier member states like Germany and France are still under the target line. However, Germany takes a stance that what matters more is not the amount of the GDP that is spent on the military defense, but rather on what and how wisely it is spent.

Some countries spend even less than 1 percent GDP on their defense, i.e. Canada, Slovenia, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg.

Being in the firing line and not much more than a buffer zone between the big powers, the Baltic States are permanently aware of the Soviet threat. Therefore, even though much smaller and not as wealthy as some of the older member states, they are taking their commitments to the Alliance very seriously. Estonia, for instance, is one of the few NATO’s members that already meet the 2 percent military spending goal. Lithuania and Latvia, whilst still under the 2 percent threshold, have also been both steadily increasing their military spending.

Moreover, at a NATO summit in Wales in September 2014, in order to strengthen the Alliance the leaders of the member states that fall below the recommended guideline committed to stop defense budget cuts and as their economies grow to increase investment in military spending so as to reach the recommended 2 percent target within the next decade.

So far, Art. 5 principle of collective defense has only been invoked once, which was in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. All three of the Baltic States sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Estonian soldiers even served in one of the deadliest areas in Afghanistan, i.e. Helmand province.

All in all, it is safe to say, that the Baltic States understand the threat from their eastern neighbor and are committed to NATO. One would like to hope that the US would not underestimate that threat either.

NATO needs to remain strong

Russia’s economy currently is not at its best. Weakened by western sanctions over Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the sharp decline in global oil prices and with mounting costs of its involvement in Syria, in theory, Russia could not afford to get involved in even more costly wars without damaging its economy even further. From that perspective it would seem unlikely that Russia would try to invade its Baltic neighbors in the near future.

That being said, however, President Putin’s recent geopolitical moves around the world showed world leaders that his foreign policy is unpredictable, to say the least. Therefore, although Putin has not yet collected all of the ace cards to freely take over the Baltic States, Mr. Trump’s comments about his unwillingness to defend NATO’s easternmost members are emboldening the Russian leader to gamble and gamble he may. A weaker-looking NATO could lead to President Putin acting on his expansionist ambitions despite Russia’s weak economy; thus making the Russian invasion seem highly probable.

As NATOS’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has recently put it: “Two world wars have shown that peace in Europe is also important for the security of the United States.” Security also equates to prosperity. Unstable and insecure Europe is not a good trading partner for the US. It is true that Europe needs the US more in security terms than the US needs Europe. However, the US also greatly benefits from peace and stability in Europe both in security and economic terms. The US and the EU are each other’s main trading partners in goods and services and provide each other with their primary sources of foreign direct investment.

Therefore, even though the US is right to press the European member states of the Alliance to contribute more to NATO’s defense budget, it should limit itself to just that. NATO and the US need to keep the deterrence against Russian aggression strong and avoid emboldening the Russian leader to gamble for further expansion.

A stronger and more influential Russia on the doorstep of Western Europe is not in the interests of the US. Hence, one can only hope that the new President of the United States Donald Trump will recognise the significance of NATO to the security and prosperity of the US and will not underestimate the capabilities of the Russian leader.