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A nation must think before it acts.
On April 3, 2018, the three Baltic presidents—Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia, and Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia—will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House. This unprecedented quadrilateral Baltic-U.S. presidential summit is the culmination of a series of high-level working visits between American and Baltic representatives that have taken place in rapid succession since 2014. In this regard, the Trump administration continues the Obama administration’s systematic engagement and commitment to strengthening the resilience of the Baltic states against destabilizing influences from, first and foremost, Russia. The dual purpose of this summit is to discuss U.S.-Baltic cooperation, notably on security and defense in the Baltic Sea area, and to reconfirm the strong U.S. commitment to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as the three Baltic nations celebrate the 100th anniversary of their creation as independent states.
For the tiny Baltic nations, close relations with the U.S. are a necessity, regardless of who the president is. A lesson drawn from the challenges to Baltic statehood in the 20th century is that only strong military and political support from Washington (and major European powers) will ultimately help secure Baltic independence against the offensive strategic ambitions of those in Moscow. Russia’s annexation of Crimea revitalized the memory of the Baltic states’ troublesome past with Soviet Russia—just as they were about to celebrate their 10-year anniversary as NATO and EU members in 2014.
The Baltic states’ path to membership in both organizations was completed almost exactly fourteen years ago, in March 2004 (NATO) and May 2004 (EU). American political support played an important role throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s not just in terms of U.S. assistance in shepherding the three countries along the difficult domestic reform process to meet the accession criteria. American clout in Europe helped also convince the more reluctant European member states to allow the three Baltic states into both NATO and the EU. Against this background, it is no surprise that any potential criticism of President Trump has been muted in the Baltic states. Whether or not—and how—to engage with him is simply not a matter of choice. Strong U.S. military and political support is a matter of survival and instrumental for the defense of their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
National defense budgets across Europe have long been subject to heated Transatlantic debates. For the Baltic states, the need to spend more has been a pressing issue in recent years. As the smallest of the three Baltic states, it is no coincidence that Estonia maintained compulsory military service and invested comparatively more in its territorial defense capabilities than its Western neighbors. Since 2014, in contrast to most European states, the NATO benchmark of 2% of GDP investment in defense has found full endorsement also in Latvia and Lithuania. The demands created by the deployment of allied forces on their territory have torn holes into their small budgets. At the same time, none of the three Baltic states can today afford to become complacent and risk jeopardizing its status as a loyal ally. Their credibility rests on their own, visible commitment to fulfilling their part of the Transatlantic bargain. Estonia came close to reaching the target already in 2012. Over the past three years, both Latvia and Lithuania have increased their defense spending from less than 1% in 2014 to around 1.5% in 2016 and reaching beyond 1.7% last year. They are both now well on their way to joining Estonia in meeting and exceeding the 2% target. These actions answer President Trump’s demands and respond to previous administrations’ calls on European allies to pay up for their defense to secure continued support from the U.S. Fears of “sabre rattling” and of unduly provoking Russia with a “militarization” of the Baltic region, voiced in Western European states, and notably Germany, are strongly rejected by the tiny states on Russia’s border. Little more than 25 years ago, the Soviet occupation of the three small states finally was ended. That the U.S. never recognized the Soviet occupation of the three Baltic states is often highlighted in this context. The strategy of nurturing close political ties with the U.S. serves today as an insurance policy for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
The Baltic states’ close relationship with the United States is not uncontested since any U.S. involvement in Baltic affairs provokes fierce negative reactions from Russia. It is worth remembering President Obama’s visit to Estonia in early September 2014, where he met with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This was the first visit of a U.S. President to Estonia. In Tallinn, President Obama assured the three Baltic states of U.S. military support and promised “American boots on the ground” in the region. Several thousand U.S. troops were rotated in the three Baltic states from 2014. Now, these have been replaced with the establishment of NATO battalions—the “enhanced forward presence” of the Alliance, each under the leadership of another NATO ally—the United Kingdom in Estonia, Canada in Latvia, and Germany in Lithuania. Despite the important role played by these multinational battalions, calls for a permanent presence of U.S. troops in the three Baltic states have increased. The value of American boots on the ground in the Baltic region resides in the symbolic and real projection of supreme force that a U.S. military presence entails vis-à-vis Russia.
Obama’s 2014 visit came shortly before the NATO Summit in Wales, and the American reassurances came just after NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had announced plans for the creation of a new NATO spearhead force, a multinational unit made up of several thousand soldiers, that was to help deter any Russian incursions into the Baltic states. Shortly after President Obama’s visit, Eston Kohver, an Estonian officer working for the Internal Security Service (KAPO), was kidnapped from Estonian territory at the border to Russia at gunpoint. Kohver had been investigating smuggling cartels. Although local Russian FSB commanders might have been responsible for the capture, acting independently from the state, the incident was then systematically exploited for a Russian show of strength against Estonia—and indirectly the U.S. and NATO. After a year of being unlawfully held by the FSB in Russia, a showcase trial condemned Kohver to 15 years in a Russian prison at a hard labor camp. He was finally returned to Estonia after a deal was struck to exchange him for Aleksei Dressen, a Russian spy jailed in Estonia.
Russian infiltration attempts to influence Baltic decision-making, organized crime, corruption, and Russian foreign and defense policy have remained a constant concern since the three Baltic states regained their independence in the early 1990s. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been most fragile and vulnerable to subversive influence from Russia. In recent years, especially since 2014, Russian subversive actions have been recorded systematically in the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian national security and intelligence agencies’ public reports. That way, the level of awareness has been raised domestically, but these public assessments have also received increasing attention internationally. With the ongoing U.S. investigations concerning Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election and widespread concerns across Europe about the extent of Russia’s ability to destabilize societies and manipulate political decisions, the expertise available in the Baltic states has become an invaluable asset.
The relationship between the U.S. and each of the Baltic states has been defined traditionally by the large power asymmetry and heavy, one-sided Baltic dependence on U.S. support. But today, while remaining vulnerable, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have each much to offer in return, and not just as NATO “frontline states.” The Baltic understanding of the Russian modus operandi is second to none. Most, if not all, political and military leaders in the Baltic states are fluent Russian-speakers with decades of experience of handling the co-existence of their tiny states with the giant Russian neighbor. That, if anything, provides them with deeper insights into the structures and mechanisms of Russian operating procedures.
Important examples of this expertise are the lessons learned from the Estonian state’s exposure to cyber-attacks in April 2007 in conjunction with riots around the Bronze soldier monument in Tallinn that were instigated by Russian-affiliated actors, as Estonian security services later concluded. For over a decade, cyber security and the development of capabilities to protect state structures against infiltrations have become a core priority in the Baltic states. Considering the increasing range of cyber-attacks on the U.S. attributed to hackers associated with Russian intelligence services, it is clear that the tiny Baltic allies represent a valuable source of technical and tactical expertise. Of course, the U.S. and the Baltic states have very different capabilities for handling Russia due to their size differentials, but, today, U.S.-Baltic cooperation is a two-way street. Even if President Trump may not benefit personally from the Baltic expertise on Russia, his administration and the range of U.S. agencies engaged in investigating and combating Russian subversion are certainly profiting from the deepening of U.S.-Baltic cooperation on security and defense matters.
The Baltic transition to reestablishing sovereign, democratic policy-making structures and implementing market reforms was swift and generally deemed successful. But significant vulnerabilities remain today as the Baltic states continue to be safe havens for money laundering operations. Additional concerns are the heavy political influence of Russian-affiliated actors, media control by oligarchs with close ties to Russia, and the dependence of political parties on financing of dubious origin. Every local and national election is still regarded with great concern as the party political system remains in flux and there are many access points for Russian influence operations.
Of direct relevance to NATO is the corrosive influence of Russian state actors in the strategically important field of logistics and energy supply. Both transport and energy remain a key battlefront in the three Baltic states, where corruption persists and necessary progress in European market integration is delayed by different beneficiaries of the status quo. Recent revelations about the money laundering scandals in which Danske Bank in Estonia and ABLV bank in Latvia respectively have been embroiled and the political corruption plot around Lithuania’s former Minister of Transportation Eligijus Masiulis and a leader of the Labor Party Vytautas Gapsys have brought to light the persistence of fundamental challenges faced in the region. These spectacular scandals underline the fact that the three Baltic states remain frontline states not just militarily, but also in the fight against endemic corruption. In the elimination of these legacies of failed reforms after the Soviet occupation, the Baltic states have recorded varying degrees of success. The fight against corruption has been, and still is, frequently hampered by powerful actors with links to the parliaments and even government. The Baltic region continues to play a role as a (partly safe) haven for international money laundering operations.
As is so often the case in attempts to dismantle encrusted criminal structures against the powerful influence of vested local and foreign interests, only a hardnosed, radical approach can help uproot the problem and promote a real change. The feverish activities in Latvia after the rapid collapse of ABLV showcase in this regard the difference that U.S. institutions can make when they apply their might. A U.S. Treasury Department report had accused ABLV of laundering money and effectively breaching North Korea sanctions. The American intervention precipitated the downfall, setting a signal that U.S. authorities will not shy away from applying “tough love” against the Baltic states when U.S. interests are at stake. The episode also makes clear that the security interests of the U.S. are intrinsically interwoven with the state of domestic affairs in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Success in combating corruption, hindering manipulations, and preventing infiltration of the political structures in the Baltic region will have a mutually reinforcing positive effect. When the U.S. intervenes with determination, its global power can lend a decisive helping hand to the Baltic states in their domestic struggles.
From the ongoing investigations in the U.S., we know that the struggle to defend political independence and the democratic political system against malign influence is not exclusively a Baltic concern. The U.S.-Baltic knowledge exchange and mutual support is clearly beneficial for the U.S., as much as it remains vital for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Even as the controversies around President Trump and his ties to Russia cast their shadow over the White House, the U.S.-Baltic celebrations of the 100th anniversary are a living testimony to the achievements that the unswerving U.S. support to Baltic independence made possible. Over the course of their history, the incredible tenacity of the three tiny Baltic nations in the face of adversity sets a shining example also for the U.S. The Baltic states’ centennial celebrations act as a powerful reminder that unfaltering loyalty, and a commitment to freedom and democracy, will ensure in the long term the prosperity of the nation.