Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts NATO in the Baltics: Deterring Phantom Threats?
NATO in the Baltics: Deterring Phantom Threats?

NATO in the Baltics: Deterring Phantom Threats?


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is right to focus on the security of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, its most exposed members. However, the idea that deterring Russia in the Baltics requires the deployment of significant additional NATO forces there is misguided. First, Russia will perceive additional NATO forces in the region as presenting an offensive threat and is likely to respond by increasing its own level of forces in western Russia. In this dynamic, known as the security dilemma, an actor’s attempts to increase its own security by strengthening its military capabilities are seen as threatening to an adversary, and a spiral of arms racing often ensues, making war more likely. Next, in deploying additional forces to the Baltics, NATO would be attempting to deter Russia from doing something there is no indication it plans to do. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has tread lightly in the Baltics, perceiving them as part of Europe, and therefore subject to a different set of geopolitical rules than places like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Rather than attempting to equalize the military balance in the Baltics, NATO should take a page from its Cold War playbook. It should station enough forces there to leave no doubt of its resolve to defend them, but not enough to pose an offensive threat to Russia. Additional forces should be stationed where they can reinforce the Baltics in a crisis, and NATO should periodically exercise this reinforcement. In this way, NATO can defend its most exposed members without raising the risk of inadvertent war with Russia.

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