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A nation must think before it acts.
The Baltic states have felt themselves to be in something of a defense crisis since the Russian annexation of Crimea, which revealed Russia’s revisionist intentions to the extent that even Western Europeans began to take them seriously. While all three Baltic states worked to improve their own national defenses, they also had to rely on NATO to provide the resources necessary to deter or, if necessary, defeat Russia. Trump’s disparagement of NATO on numerous occasions throughout his campaign and into early 2017 spurred Baltic efforts to improve their own defenses and, for Latvia and Lithuania, to join Estonia in reaching 2% of GDP spent on defense—a goal to which they had already committed by NATO’s 2014 Wales summit, but whose urgency Trump’s rhetoric redoubled. What in fact have the Baltic states achieved in defense during Trump’s first year in office?
In the broader context, in 2017, the forward deployment forces to the Baltic from other NATO member states began to trickle in, as agreed at the 2016 Warsaw Summit. This included even a pair of F35s sent by the United States to their temporary new base in Estonia. This was also the year of Russia’s Zapad-2017 military exercise, which although modeling a conflict with the United States in Lithuania and Poland, fortunately failed to live up to the hype generated by the Western press. The United States sent some forces to the Baltic states to calm nerves during this time, including Patriot missile systems for air defense and other forces for small exercises during the summer of 2017.
As a result of policies pursued in the previous decade and a half, entering 2017, Estonia had the strongest foundation in defense of the three states. Even at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Estonia took territorial defense seriously and never ended conscription. It also had an early experience with Russia during the 2007 bronze soldier cyber attack, which led it to focus heavily on cyber security. This emphasis culminated in early September 2017 with high-level cyber defense exercises for European Union defense ministers, designed to enhance EU-wide understanding of and collaboration in cyber security and defense.
Beyond the cyber sphere, in early 2017, Estonia undertook a new defense development plan for 2018-2021. Highlights of this new plan include the stockpiling of large-caliber ammunition, the development of an armored maneuver capability built around 44 CV90 infantry fighting vehicles by 2019 with support armor coming a year later, and self-propelled artillery to arrive in 2021. The plan also includes the development of military infrastructure such as barracks and training areas to accommodate the increased presence of allies, the opening of an air operations command center, and increasing the number of active service as well as reserve personnel.
Compared to 2016, when a RAND report predicted that in a conventional war the Baltic states would be overrun within three days, Estonians are now far more confident of their ability to defend themselves. The Chief of Staff of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), Brigadier General Martin Herem, noted as early as March 2017 that the EDF could mobilize 21,000 soldiers for battle, of whom over 3,000 are professionals and the rest conscripts or reservists. This has given Estonia confidence that it can now resist an invasion for longer than a couple of days, thereby buying NATO more time to reinforce its eastern flank. Due to the small size of the Estonian population and, by extension, of its military, certain capabilities will remain beyond Estonia’s immediate grasp, such as the needed four or five mid-range anti-aircraft systems, each of which requires 50 professionals and 100 reservists to man. As Herem noted, “[t]he number of people who want to become professional soldiers is running out.” The manpower issue notwithstanding, Estonia has been one of the few NATO countries to have consistently sustained a defense budget of 2% of GDP over the past few years, and it has now been pushing it even higher to prepare for the unwanted contingency of Russian invasion.
Although Lithuania abolished conscription in 2008, the government moved swiftly to restore it in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. However, Lithuania has not yet actually needed to implement conscription because so many citizens have volunteered that there has yet to be a need to conscript any. Lithuania has also been moving to procure new vehicles and equipment for its armed forces, including infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, and surface-to-air missile systems. This procurement is expected to continue until 2021. Lithuania’s defense budget has expanded significantly in response to the renewed Russian danger, climbing from 0.89% of GDP in 2014 when Crimea was annexed to 1.8% in 2017, with the expectation that it will rise to 2.07% in 2018, thereby meeting the NATO target. Lithuania’s military has been steadily growing since 2009 and especially since 2014. Its target for 2018 is nearly 20,000 personnel, of which over 9,000 are professionals and the rest conscripts and National Defence Volunteer Force.
Besides enacting a longer-term plan for defense procurement, Lithuania has been very active in hosting or participating in various military exercises throughout 2017. The Lithuanian Ministry of Defense puts the figure at above 70 exercises. These exercises include naval exercises such as the joint BALTRON Squadron Exercise 17/1 between Lithuania and Latvia; the purely national exercise Lightning Strike which sought to improve the mobilization capacity of Lithuania’s rapid reaction force and domestic support forces; and the international exercise Hunter in which various NATO countries trained in anti-armor tactics. Lithuania’s largest exercise was Iron Wolf 2017, which tested the Iron Wolf mechanized infantry brigade and is a part of the much larger Saber Strike exercises held annually by the U.S. Army in Europe since 2010, in which Estonian and Latvian forces also participate.
Latvia has perhaps been the most frenetically active of the three Baltic states in improving its defense, particularly in the realm of procurement. Unlike Lithuania, which has a longer-term plan for defense procurement, Latvia’s purchases seem to be more urgently made. As early as 2016, Latvia began receiving new weapons systems, including radar systems from the United States, and deliveries of new equipment continued into 2017. In late 2017, the first self-propelled howitzers from Austria began arriving with the remainder to be delivered by the end of 2018. Latvia also bought an as yet unspecified number of Stinger ground-to-air missiles from Denmark. Its defense procurements are continuing into 2018 as it plans to spend €234 million on it this year alone, or 46% more than in 2017. Latvia, like Lithuania, will reach 2% of GDP spent on defense in 2018. Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis has stated that the capability of the Latvian armed forces to defend Latvia has substantially improved.
Contrary to the other Baltic states, however, Latvia has thus far consistently rejected conscription, largely on the basis that the country cannot afford it along with supporting a professional army and national guard. This has not, however, stopped the debate about conscription from continuing. Despite rejecting conscription, Latvia has enshrined a concept of total defense much like Estonia and Lithuania. Latvia can field 5,000 professional soldiers, 3,000 reserves, and 8,000 National Guardsmen.
Over the course of Trump’s initial year in office, the three Baltic states have significantly increased their budgets and spending money to modernize their armed forces. This trend began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 while Obama was still in the White House and has only continued and strengthened under Trump. This is perhaps spurred by concerns about the United States’ reliability after the 2016 election, but certainly fueled by the knowledge that to date actual U.S. support for NATO and the Baltic has been unflagging. Indeed, as a result of the presidential summit between Trump and the Baltic presidents in early April 2018, the United States granted over $170 million to the Baltic states for defense purposes—primarily for large caliber ammunition and training and equipment programs. Baltic defense is improving despite early concerns stemming from Trump’s rhetoric, not only because of the Balts’ own efforts or by U.S. and other NATO member states on the ground, but also to diplomatic results achieved at the presidential level.