The NATO summit of July 11-12, 2018 in Brussels has been causing waves, many of them unsurprisingly emanating outward from U.S. President Donald Trump. Yet, the summit resulted in meaningful steps to bolster Baltic defense. The most notable product of the summit for the Baltic states was the letter of intent to create Multi-National Division North (MND North), a division-level headquarters led by the framework nations of Latvia, Estonia, and Denmark, to be co-located at Ādaži, just northeast of Riga, and at Karup in Denmark. Besides the Ministers of Defense of the three aforementioned countries, the letter of intent was also signed by the Ministers of Defense of Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania. The longer-term ambition is for all framework nations in the Baltic states as well as Poland to contribute to the headquarters. The staff will be put together starting September 2018, with initial operational capability planned for the first half of 2019 and full operational capacity by the middle of 2020. What does this development actually mean, however?
Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis has hailed it as both a concrete effort to strengthen NATO’s collective defense in the Baltic Sea region as well as a clear demonstration of the Alliance’s goal of promoting European security. These points are all true, but they are also primarily political. Beyond these basic points, the establishment of MND North has various ramifications for the roles of Latvia and Estonia in Baltic defense, and perhaps even in NATO’s military structures more generally, and for Baltic defense as a whole.
All three Baltic states are, of course, small countries with small populations: Lithuania just below 3 million, Latvia below 2 million, and Estonia below 1.5 million. They have correspondingly small defense budgets, and thus also correspondingly small military forces, although by the end of 2018 Latvia and Lithuania will join Estonia in meeting NATO’s 2% target. What these three countries have not had since regaining independence in 1991 is experience with division-level formations—that is, formations comprised of two to four brigades together with the various support units required to sustain a true operational, as opposed to merely tactical, capability.
Latvia and Estonia are too small to maintain sufficiently large armed forces to fill out a division, even a small one. Lithuania, which activated the Žemaitija motorized infantry brigade in 2016 and the Aukštaitija light infantry brigade in 2017 to stand alongside its longstanding Geležinis Vilkas (Iron Wolf) mechanized infantry brigade, is only just beginning to come to grips with the challenges of managing, maintaining, and directing division-level formations. One benefit which MND North offers to Latvia and Estonia is direct experience for their military staffs of participating in this level of military administration, logistics, command, etc. This includes coordinating and synchronizing subordinate units in training exercises and relating divisional headquarters activities to the Multi-National Corps Northeast headquarters based in Szczecin, Poland. Increased familiarity with this level will undoubtedly serve Latvia and Estonia well both in terms of improving the professional competencies of their respective militaries as well as enabling them to operate more closely with the rest of the Alliance at this higher level of command.
What an established headquarters provides is the capacity, in terms of infrastructure, equipment, and personnel, to coordinate the disparate tactical, logistical, and other support capabilities which give the aggregate formation operational-level capabilities—sui generis. That is, despite how much of a benefit it is for the Latvian and Estonian militaries (and Lithuanian as well, independently of MND North) to gain divisional-level experience, it is even more important that with the actual establishment and eventual operationalization of the headquarters there will finally be a divisional headquarters in the Baltic states. Prior to MND North, there was no division-level headquarters in the eastern Baltic littoral, which means that there was no specifically established capability to coordinate Baltic as well as rotating NATO forces at that level. Any such capability, if ever required due to the course of events, would have had to be imported in the midst of operations. Once MND North is established, this gap between the capacity to plan for the defense of the Baltic states and to implement any such plans, if necessary, will be plugged.
Yet, even as the Baltic states have wrested MND North from the Brussels summit, Trump’s meeting with Putin may still rattle them along with the plans for MND North. Trump on Thursday, July 12, did not rule out the curtailing of military exercises in the Baltic Sea region—or, more accurately, American involvement in them, some of which are NATO exercises. Given that much of the experience of MND North in coming to grips with division-level command will stem from coordinating subordinate units in exercises, the potential withdrawal or minimization of U.S. participation may ensure that MND North emerges stillborn or at best malnourished. This may come to characterize the Baltic states’ experience of the Trump administration as Obama-era initiatives for Baltic defense slowly lose their momentum: that Trump may giveth with one hand and a couple of days later taketh away with the other, once Putin has a word with him. Time will tell.