February 29, 2016 | Issue Brief on International Conflicts
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
 For a full list of recommendations to improve U.S.–Baltic security cooperation, see Luke Coffey and Daniel Kochis, “The Baltic States: The United States Must Be Prepared to Fulfill Its NATO Treaty Obligations,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3039, September 29, 2015, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2015/09/the-baltic-states-the-united-states-must-be-prepared-to-fulfill-its-nato-treaty-obligations#_ftn25.
 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between NATO and the Russian Federation, May 27, 1997, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_25468.htm (accessed February 25, 2016). (Emphasis added).