The U.S. has a long history of championing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Baltic states, dating back to the interwar period of the 1920s. Today, U.S. interest in the Baltic region derives primarily from its treaty obligations as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The U.S. needs an enduring presence and a long-term strategy to meet its NATO obligations in the Baltic region. Among other basics, this presence should include establishing a robust and permanent NATO military presence in the Baltic states and conducting regular large-scale training exercises with a focus on rapid deployment of U.S. forces from the continental United States to Europe.
Due to decades of Russian domination, the Baltic states factor Russia into their military planning and foreign policy formulations in a way that is simply unimaginable in many Western European countries and North America.
The Baltic region presents unique military and political difficulties that the U.S. needs to overcome. Acknowledging these challenges and planning for them are the first steps in ensuring that the U.S. can meet its NATO treaty obligations.
These challenges include:
- The Baltic states are geographically isolated from the Alliance. Militarily speaking, the three Baltic states are isolated from other NATO members. To the north of the Baltic states are non-NATO (but friendly) Finland and Sweden. To the south and east are Russia and Belarus. To the west, Lithuania shares a border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Only Lithuania shares a land border with another non-Baltic NATO member: a tiny 65-mile border with Poland, to the southwest between Kaliningrad and Belarus known as the Suwalki Gap.
- The Baltic states are geographically small. The Baltic states are small in population and size. Combined, the three have roughly the same geographic size and population as Missouri. The Baltic region is probably the only region inside NATO that is too small to depend on rapid reaction forces based elsewhere for its own defense.
- NATO’s critical dependence on non-NATO countries. It would be extremely difficult, but not impossible, for NATO to respond to an incident in the Baltic region without the acquiescence of non-NATO Finland and Sweden.
- Domestic U.S. politics. Any U.S. military response that placed large numbers of American men and women into harm’s way would be politically difficult for any U.S. President. This would be especially true for the Baltic region.
A Step in the Right Direction
Although the U.S. and NATO have taken some positive steps toward increasing capabilities in the region since the Ukraine crisis started in early 2014, neither NATO nor the U.S. is ready to defend the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion.
The U.S. maintains an infantry company (approximately 150 soldiers) in each of the three Baltic states for training. There has been an increase in U.S.-led and NATO-led training exercises in the region. The U.S. has established a so-called prepositioned European Activity Set, which includes 250 tanks, infantry, fighting vehicles, and self-propelled artillery—only a brigade’s worth of equipment—to be placed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. The U.S. has increased funding for improving military infrastructure, such as ground and air training, and staging sites in the Baltic region.
Whether these measures will help to deter Russian aggression is debatable. While 150 soldiers in each of the Baltic states and Poland might have a strategic communications effect, they would have little tactical impact opposing a Russian invasion. The one battalion that will rotate from the U.S. to train in Europe is clearly no substitute for the two brigade combat teams that were removed from Europe in 2013. Prepositioning dozens of tanks in storage across the region is no substitute for having two brigades of tanks—and the soldiers to operate them—on the ground in Europe, as the U.S. did before 2013.
On-the-Ground Strength Needed
One area that remains controversial inside the Alliance is the question of permanently stationing NATO troops in the Baltic states. The only way to guarantee the security of the Baltic states against a conventional Russian military threat is by having robust troops and military capabilities on the ground. The Baltic states are too small to rely on a strategy of defensive depth that could buy NATO enough time to mobilize and deploy a sizable force to the region.
There is a common misconception that the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation (NATO–Russia Founding Act) prohibits permanently basing NATO soldiers in Central and Eastern European countries. This is not true. Regarding the question of permanent bases, the act states:
NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.
When reading the phrase “in the current and foreseeable security environment,” it is important to remember that Russia and NATO agreed to this act 19 years ago. Russia’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic security has changed since the days of goodwill in 1997.
Tip of the Spear
The U.S. should not keep a token force in the Baltics to serve as a “tripwire” in the event of a Russian invasion. Instead of a tripwire, the U.S. presence should resemble the tip of a very long and sharp spear aimed at the region: a strong force with a rapid and credible capability of reinforcement. To do so, the U.S. needs to have the right ground presence. The U.S. should:
- Establish a strong defensive posture in the region. Defending the Baltic states and deterring Russian aggression will be far easier and cheaper than liberating them. The U.S. needs to carry out a proper strategic review to determine what force levels are required for defense of the region.
- Establish a permanent military presence in the Baltic region. Contrary to popular belief, nothing in the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act prevents this. The compromise at the 2014 Wales Summit resulting in rotational forces and prepositioned equipment to the region is only one part of ensuring the security of the Baltic states.
- Prepare to reinforce Europe quickly. During the Cold War, the U.S. conducted an annual military exercise called Operation Reforger (Return of Forces to Germany). Operation Reforger was designed to prove that the U.S. could move conventional military forces rapidly from the U.S. to Germany in the event of a war with the Soviet Union. The U.S. should consider holding a similar exercise focused on defending and reinforcing the Baltic states.
- Make a long-term commitment to joint training exercises. An old military adage says that one should train as one fights. Training exercises with allies are invaluable opportunities to improve interoperability, camaraderie, morale, and success in simulated battle conditions. The U.S. should prioritize training missions in the Baltic region.
A Defensive Posture
The U.S. needs to make it very clear to Russia that there is a line on the map that Russia cannot cross without serious consequences—from countries that are in NATO and countries that are not. The U.S. is obligated by treaty to defend NATO countries. Any response that NATO makes to reinforce its members’ territorial integrity would be a responsible defensive measure designed to defend the Alliance, not to provoke a war with Russia.
—Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. Daniel Kochis is a Research Associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Davis Institute.