With the world’s attention captured by Russian airstrikes in Syria, Russian president Vladimir Putin hopes to distract from his stalled and costly intervention in eastern Ukraine. For the tiny Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania however, the lessons of Crimea and the Donbas are not so easily forgotten. In recent months, the Baltics have been taking concrete steps to upgrade their military capabilities and develop a strategic response to the threat of Russian aggression on their own territory.
With the world’s attention captured by Russian airstrikes in Syria, Russian president Vladimir Putin hopes to distract from his stalled and costly intervention in eastern Ukraine. For the tiny Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, however, the lessons of Crimea and the Donbas are not so easily forgotten. In recent months, the Baltics have been taking concrete steps to upgrade their military capabilities and develop a strategic response to the threat of Russian aggression on their own territory.
In separate addresses at this year’s United Nations General Assembly, the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia each stressed that Russia had violated UN principles but had not been sufficiently punished over its aggression in Ukraine. For a host of reasons—including Estonia and Latvia’s precarious borders with Russia, the presence of substantial Russian-speaking populations in both those countries, and a contested Soviet legacy in all three—Baltic leaders fear that their territories could be the next stage for Russian intervention. Consequently, the Baltics have taken responsible steps to bolster their security vis-à-vis Russia, with help from the West.
For instance, the Baltics are making substantial investments to enhance their outdated surveillance capabilities. These measures have been taken in direct response to Russia’s military superiority—specifically the March release of a new Russian radar jamming system, which can disrupt military communications from hundreds of kilometers away. Several months after that development, Lithuania procured new radars for its border with Belarus, while Latvia inked a $22.7 million deal for American-made Sentinel radars to be delivered next year. Lithuanian defense officials have also warned of Russia’s use of “radio electronic warfare” in eastern Ukraine, and are working to develop appropriate countermeasures.
Cyberspace is another vulnerable domain for the Baltics, and Estonia is leading the charge to boost its defenses. Estonia has prioritized cyber defense ever since it suffered a massive cyber attack in 2007, which officials accuse Moscow of launching. In recent months Estonia has signed agreements with Raytheon to advance cyber defense and hosted the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, which provides cyber advice to NATO allies and stages cyber war games to test nations’ readiness. Again, such defensive measures have been prepared with Moscow in mind: in both Georgia and Ukraine, cyber attacks have been a key component of Russia’s hybrid war tactics.
The Baltics are also seeking to step up their conventional capabilities, with help from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ahead of the alliance’s annual summit in October, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics argued for a “substantial increase of NATO’s military presence, sending a clear signal to Russia about NATO’s determination to protect each and every ally.” NATO has increased its attention to the region since the Ukraine crisis, flying air policing missions over the Baltic Sea and establishing “force integration units” on the ground. Britain also recently announced it would be sending 100 troops to the Baltic States and Poland, in accordance with its NATO commitments.
Although NATO troops are stationed in the Baltics on a rotational basis, the Alliance’s commitment to the region has only strengthened in recent months. The number of NATO troops in the Baltics has greatly increased, and current troops are being stationed with an open-ended time frame. The United States has also stepped up its support: American troops are a common sight in the Baltic capitals, and this June the U.S. strategically positioned tanks, artillery, and other heavy military equipment in the Baltics. These tactics supplement the Baltic states own efforts, which may include future plans for a joint air defense shield. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged at an October address in Norway, the current Russia-caused instability is “our new strategic reality” and will require long-term adaptation. The Baltic states, together with Western alliances, are heeding that call.
The Baltic states are even strategizing in the long term about how to reduce their dependence on Russian gas. On October 15, a grant agreement was signed for a landmark gas pipeline between Poland and Lithuania. This pipeline will increase energy supplies to the Baltics, integrate them with European Union gas markets, and weaken Russia’s tight hold on the region. In overseeing the agreement, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker celebrated the deal’s demonstration of “European solidarity” and praised European leaders for “taking responsible decisions to increase our security and strengthen our resilience.”
All of these developments—new cyber defenses, radar investments, troop deployments and energy agreements—fit into a larger strategy, demonstrating the Baltics’ strong commitment to boosting their defenses and deterring Russia. Putin may hope that the world will forget about Ukraine, but his most immediate Western neighbors show no signs of doing so.