- Russia’s war in Ukraine has NATO’s Baltic states concerned that they might one day be next.
- To avoid being caught unprepared, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania want to increase their security.
- Officials say they need more troops, air-defense systems, and other weapons as protection.
Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves through NATO’s Baltic members, who fear they could become future targets of Russian aggression. These countries along the military alliance’s front line are now scrambling to make sure they’re protected should the Russian military ever come knocking.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all increased their defense spending, and NATO has boosted its presence in the region as a result of the Ukraine war. But in recent interviews with Insider, prime ministers and top government officials from these three countries said their militaries still need additional security guarantees and combat capabilities.
“There is an imminent need of a stronger NATO presence in our region,” Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said. Russia “is an existential threat particularly to our region countries, but in a broader sense to all Europe.”
The three Baltic states, nestled in the northeastern corner of the European continent, were part of the former Soviet Union before its collapse in 1991. Even before Russia launched its assault on Ukraine in February 2022, these three countries warned that Moscow posed a tremendous threat to Europe.
Collectively, the Baltics share a border with Russia that spans over 500 miles and another border that is slightly longer with Belarus, which is seen by many Western observers as a Russian puppet state. Lithuania, the most southern of the Baltic states, also shares a small border with a tiny militarized Russian exclave called Kaliningrad. That proximity is disconcerting for these states.
For nearly 14 months, the Russian military has been bogged down by its grinding war in Ukraine. Western intelligence estimates Russia has likely suffered well over 200,000 casualties, and a senior Pentagon official said in February that Moscow will likely emerge from the fight as a “shattered military power.”
But Russian struggles in Ukraine are little comfort to officials in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who worry that if they don’t act now, they could be caught unprepared if Russian President Vladimir Putin ever decides to wage war on NATO and pick the Baltics as his opening battleground.
More boots on the ground
Some leaders in the Baltic countries have said that they ultimately want to host more NATO troops, including permanent brigades, in the years to come. The idea is that a larger troop presence could serve as a critical first line of defense in the event of a Russian attack, holding off the Russian advance until other alliance forces arrive.
According to a June 2022 NATO fact sheet, the three Baltic states each host a multinational battlegroup ranging in size from between 1,400 to 1,900 troops. In addition to the manpower provided by these units, they also have tanks, armored fighting vehicles, heavy artillery pieces, and other military hardware.
“These battlegroups are multinational, and combat-ready, demonstrating the strength of the transatlantic bond,” the NATO fact sheet reads. “Their presence makes clear that an attack on one Ally will be considered an attack on the whole Alliance.”
Last year’s Madrid summit saw NATO members agree to allocate more troops to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, with a brigade-size unit — which can be up to 5,000 troops — assigned to protect each country. Most of these troops are not permanently stationed in the countries but are trained and ready to deploy there if needed, with the idea being that they could respond quickly if the Baltic nations were attacked.
These measures are part of a larger effort from the military alliance to boost its force presence in member countries near Russia. A NATO official told Insider that its defense posture has been shifting constantly since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula after invading Ukraine. This aggressive action prompted the alliance to send battlegroups to Poland and the Baltics, marking the “first time” combat-ready troops were sent to the east.
“NATO is committed to protect and defend every inch of Allied territory, and we are adjusting our presence in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” the official told Insider. “As part of a major overhaul, we doubled the number of battlegroups in the eastern part of the Alliance, put 40,000 troops under NATO command, deployed more jets and warships, and we are increasing the number of our high readiness forces to several hundred thousand.”
Still, the Baltics want to see a more permanent troop presence. How exactly NATO’s presence could best be boosted in the region is unclear, but the topic is likely to be one discussed at NATO’s upcoming annual summit in July.
Increasing NATO’s boots on the ground is a “constant concern” for Lithuania to be able to deter Moscow, Vaidotas Urbelis, the country’s defense policy director, told Insider. “In terms of presence, we have to increase our own forces. That’s why we are investing so heavily in defense. But NATO defenses are a common task. It’s a collective defense. And a light presence is critical here.”
Lithuania has asked for the permanent deployment of a German brigade to the country, something its defense minister, Arvydas Anušauskas, said is necessary given the country’s shared borders with Russian ally Belarus and the Kaliningrad exclave. Lithuania can’t rely solely on reinforcements that will come in after the war starts — it needs reliable forces already in place, he argued.
And Reinsalu, Estonia’s foreign minister, told Insider that he hopes the upcoming summit will “give us additional forces.”
Air-defense systems, ammunition, and anti-tank weapons
More troops aren’t the only things on the Baltic wish list. Reinsalu said NATO’s eastern flank, which is made up of the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, needs greater air defense capabilities. He explained that there needs to be a boost in regional air defense and missile defense systems and a rotation of “systematic and sustainable” capabilities.
“We know where we need stronger protection,” Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė told Insider. “Air defense systems are one of the most important elements that are still missing.”
Layered and integrated air-defense systems — which can protect against aircraft and missiles — are critical for the region, Jim Townsend, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO Policy, told Insider. But beyond that, these countries will also need adequate stocks of ammunition and weapons to protect against tanks and armored personnel carriers, weapon systems like the American-made FGM-148 Javelin or FIM-92 Stinger.
The likelihood of a Russian assault on the Baltics is unclear. Russian forces are struggling in Ukraine and appear unlikely, at least in the near term, to spread themselves even more thin or give NATO a reason to become directly involved in the conflict.
Still, the Baltics feel a need to be prepared just in case, particularly given Russia’s demonstrated pattern of aggression against its neighbors. And they say that if Russian forces win in Ukraine — either through an outright military victory or by dragging the conflict out such that Western support is eroded and Russia gains control over chunks of territory — then Moscow is likely to turn to another country next.
“Russia is the most direct threat to European security right now,” Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told Insider. “No country in the world can then feel safe next to an aggressive neighbor.”
The Baltic states would likely be the most vulnerable to a Russian attack on the rest of Europe, so the aim is to “increase the pain” that would be inflicted on Moscow if it tried to wage war, Townsend said. He said the strategy has essentially been to turn these countries into “porcupines,” a term that has sometimes been used to describe the defense of Taiwan against neighboring China.
While war is probably unlikely, the Russians are still unpredictable, Townsend said. “You have to hedge, you have to be ready for anything,” he added. “And that will lead us to trying to strengthen the three Balts even stronger in order to make Putin understand that the pain would be unacceptable for him to absorb if he were to try something against the Balts.”
The Russian threat is worse now than it was before
As the Baltic states seek a greater military presence on the ground, they’re also keeping a close watch on defense spending in their own countries, and across NATO in general.
NATO’s guideline for defense expenditure as part of a member’s GDP sat at 2 percent last year. Many countries fell short of this goal, but the Baltic states all exceeded it for the year — a sign of just how serious they are about Russia’s threatening actions.
And they are keen for allies to know how much their own spending has been increased.
“We need to ensure that we do everything on our side so that our partners would not think that we are … free riders on American guarantees,” Šimonytė told Insider of Lithuania’s efforts to avoid seeming like it’s piggybacking on other NATO members.
And work is underway. As one example of efforts in these states to build-up their capabilities, the Baltics have all sought to purchase US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, which Ukrainian forces have found success in using to hit key Russian positions.
Historically, these countries have been “under-defended” and “not spending as much on defense as they should have been,” Townsend said. But after Russia first annexed Crimea, the Baltic defense spending and training went up, and while the war in Ukraine drags on, NATO has increased its forward presence forces there.
So as the threat landscape continues to shift, the Baltic defense has adapted along with it, Townsend said.
“The Balts had always been worried about their vulnerability. NATO had been worried about their vulnerability too,” he said. “But the Russian threat hadn’t appeared to the extent that it has now.”