Longview: NATO and US strategy in the Baltic region and the response of Russia

With the conclusion of NATO engagement in Afghanistan and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, one of the more pressing security issues for the United States and NATO has been regional security concerning their allies in the Baltic. Looking at Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, it is not particularly hard to see why. All three countries share a land border with Russia. They all have large ethnic Russian minority groups. They all lack the necessary military resources to deter Russian encroachment on their territory effectively. In many ways, the Baltic states appear to be the most apparent location for Russia to test the NATO alliance’s limits further. 

As a result of the inability of the Baltic states to effectively defend themselves in the case of Russian aggression, NATO and US policy in the Baltic region is primarily focused on military deterrence in the short term, while creating a lasting foundation for the Baltic states to maintain their own security in the long term. Since Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia’s entry into NATO in 2004, NATO forces have been permanently stationed in the Baltics, initially to secure Baltic airspace through the Baltic Air Policing mission. NATO commitment in the region has since then been expanded to include four multinational infantry battalions in the Baltic states and Poland through the Enhanced Forward Presence, a yearly naval exercise, BALTOPS, and a Baltic presence in the Joint Expeditionary Force led by the United Kingdom, representing the main military deterrent by NATO currently present in the Baltic. All told, the NATO troops in the Baltics reach approximately 4500 in number, including a number of fighter jets and warships also stationed there

In the long term, however, NATO and the United States are looking to ensure the Baltic states’ security through the formation of a fighting force capable of deterring Russia without direct US involvement

In the long term, however, NATO and the United States are looking to ensure the Baltic states’ security through the formation of a fighting force capable of deterring Russia without direct US involvement. The United States have attempted this through the Foreign Military Financing and International Military Education and Training programs, providing military, financial support and training to the Baltic states’ militaries. Furthermore, there has been a willingness to increase military spending in the Baltic States due to Russia’s perceived threat. Lithuania, for example, has committed to a military spending benchmark of 2.5 percent of their GDP by 2030. Estonia and Latvia committed to the NATO military spending benchmark of 2 percent of the GDP in 2018, highlighting the long-term strategy of increased military self-reliance of NATO members in the Baltics.

Russia, meanwhile, has responded to NATO’s expansion in the Baltics as a threat to their national security. Moscow remains committed to the restoration and reconstruction of its armed forces into a modern force capable of denying the US and their NATO allies access to the Baltics in case of conflict. The Kaliningrad Oblast especially is one of the most pivotal strategic positions concerning Russian response to NATO in the Baltics, as its geographical position south of Lithuania provides freedom of movement for Russian troops in the region. Similarly, Vladimir Putin’s recent attempts to integrate Belarus further into the Russian Federation point to the strategic importance of the Suwalki Gap. This 90km gap found on the border between Poland and Lithuania would, if taken, cut off the Baltic states from the rest of their NATO allies. 

Figure 1 A map highlighting the Suwalki Gap on the border of Lithuania and Poland

The Kaliningrad Oblast is also the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet, capable of denying NATO direct access to the Baltic Sea and necessitating a NATO ground invasion through the fortified Suwalki gap. Additionally, the Russian Baltic Fleet operates the S-400 anti-air defense system, capable of minimizing NATO air superiority in the region and nuclear capable 9K720 Iskander short-range ballistic missiles for destroying larger enemy positions up to 500km away. Kaliningrad also holds some 20.000 armed personnel, in addition to the 120.000 armed personnel near St. Petersburg.  With this in mind, it is clear that Russia holds the regional strategic advantage in conventional military strength.

Despite the current advantageous Russian military situation in the region, a conventional invasion of the Baltic states by Russia in response to an increased NATO presence is unlikely

Despite the current advantageous Russian military situation in the region, a conventional invasion of the Baltic states by Russia in response to an increased NATO presence is unlikely. An overt invasion of the Baltics could escalate the conflict to the point of total war with the United States and the rest of NATO, without much for Russia to gain from it. It is much more likely that Russia would respond to NATO’s advancement in the Baltics in non-military avenues or indeed using hybrid warfare. As seen in Crimea and more recently in Belarus, Moscow has used political unrest as a pretense for military intervention or support of separatist groups through the Wagner Group. This strategy can also likely prove to be the preferred option for Russia in the Baltics, as large parts of the populations in Estonia and Latvia are ethnically Russian. In the third-largest city in Estonia, Narva, for example, 87 percent of the population is ethnically Russian, leading to further speculation whether or not a Crimean-style deployment of Russian “little green men” in the border town would be possible. Russia has also been known to engage in cyber-warfare and disinformation campaigns in the region to undermine the United States and NATO’s trust, further underlining the possibility for Russia to favor this strategy over conventional warfare.

In conclusion, the United States and NATO are committed to increasing security in the Baltic region through an ongoing mission to support, equip, and train the military forces of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia to deter Russian encroachment. Meanwhile, Russia is responding to NATO’s perceived aggression with an increased military presence in the region and disinformation campaigns aimed towards the Russian minorities in the Baltic states to undermine the NATO alliance’s overall credibility and potentially destabilize the region as previously seen in Ukraine. 


The Editor: Christian Haulund

Christian Haulund is a second-year undergraduate student at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests mainly lie within the realm of security in the Nordic and Baltic regions, but also extend to radical militant groups in Africa and the Middle East.

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