At the beginning of the year, The New York Times reported that dozens of U.S. Special Operations forces have been deployed to the Baltic States to train the militaries of these NATO members of Europe’s eastern flank. The troops will also aid in intelligence gathering operations carried out by the CIA to monitor Russian activities and attempts to destabilize the now free former Soviet republics.
The deployment is a complement to the four multinational battalions that will be posted in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia in the coming months following a decision at the NATO summit in Warsaw last year.
Naturally, the Kremlin has called these developments “a provocation” but this is nothing but a poor attempt to shy from their own responsibility for the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West.
As The McCain Institute has shown using interactive timelines, there has been a huge increase in Russian military activity the Baltic region since the occupation of Crimea in 2014.
Security incidents have occurred on almost a daily basis. Russia has engaged both in actions of conventional military nature, such as massive military exercises and breaches of other countries’ air space, as well as activities of unconventional, so-called “hybrid” character. They consist of intimidations in the air, on land, at sea or under water.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has dismissed Baltic concerns by saying that “only an insane person” would think that Russia is planning to attack a NATO member. Leaving aside the fact that Putin also denied invading Ukraine, this is missing the point.
The threat to the Baltics doesn’t come from a planned Russian campaign of re-conquest. Rather, there is the risk that one of these Russian military provocations can lead to an accident and the situation subsequently spiraling out of control. For the past years, the Kremlin has engaged in a massive propaganda campaign portraying the democratic Baltic states as run by “fascists” who oppress Russian speakers. Should a Russian plane violating Baltic airspace crash for instance, there is a chance that the Kremlin will find itself compelled to respond with military action, trapped by its own words.
As Rand recently showed in a series of wargames, NATOs defense of the Baltic states is dangerously inadequate at this point. It is the Russian capabilities that pose the threat, not possible motives, which as we have seen before, are often manufactured.
A successful Russian operation in this region would mean the end of NATO and by extent do serious damage to U.S. credibility all over the world. Whereas many Western European countries have neglected their defense and the Russian threat, the Baltic states have been “paying up”. Estonia meets the 2% spending target set by NATO. Latvia and Lithuania have had the two fastest-growing defense budgets in the world since 2014.
As the Latvian president Rajmonds Vejonis said at a security conference in Sweden a year ago, “what provokes Russia is weakness.” Failure to respond to Putin will only embolden his aggressive behavior, not calm it. Far from being a burden, NATO has been a force multiplication that enhances our own security. U.S. deployment to the Baltics is therefore a welcome increase to NATO deterrence in the region. The next step is to seriously strengthen its defense.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.