Home / Articles / Baltic Security: The Same Challenges Remain, Even During a Pandemic
The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic go far beyond health issues and economy. It is a much broader challenge for the security of Western countries, not least for those at NATO’s Eastern frontier, like the Baltic states.
Up to this point, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia proved to be rather successful in tackling the pandemic. The countries have suffered a relatively low number of deaths (as of May 27, 66 in Lithuania and Estonia; 23 in Latvia); moreover, they are among the leaders in testing. When it comes to the number of tests per 1 million inhabitants, Lithuania is among the top 15 countries in the world, while both Estonia and Latvia are in the top 30.
Moreover, in a sign of regional solidarity, governments of the Baltic states are cooperating to remove border restrictions, with the aim of ensuring that people from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are able to travel between these three countries starting from mid-May. The so-called “Baltic Bubble” was the first successful attempt to ease travel restrictions in Europe since nations began shutting their borders earlier this year. For instance, in the last week of May, an average of 10,000 people crossed Lithuanian-Latvian border daily, with no quarantine on arrival required. Experts hope that this move could boost the Baltic tourism sector and reduce the expected economic decline.
With these positive developments in mind, other long-term security issues must not be neglected. Threat perceptions, strategically important infrastructure projects, and defense spending remain critical challenges for the Baltic governments.
Same Old Threats
While the global focus is currently on the pandemic and health risks, well-worn security challenges for the Baltic states remain. Hostile disinformation campaigns, Russia’s revisionist foreign policy, and cyber-attacks are here to stay.
Fighting disinformation attacks remains a crucial aspect of Baltic security. For example, in late April, Lithuanian National Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis, Lithuanian media outlets, state institutions, and addressees at the NATO headquarters in Brussels received a falsified email from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announcing an alleged decision to withdraw NATO troops from Lithuania. In other instances, fake news was spread about a U.S. soldier allegedly infected with the coronavirus in Lithuania, and the allegedly expressed intention of the Ministry of National Defense not to halt international military exercises. In late May, some Russian-backed media outlets in Baltic and Eastern European countries reported false information that the Canadian-led NATO battle group in Latvia had “a high number” of cases of the deadly virus. These instances fit into a pattern of previous attempts seeking to discredit NATO in the eyes of the Baltic citizens, as well as seeding doubt about the Baltic countries’ full-fledged membership in the alliance.
However, Baltic states are relatively well prepared for this kind of threat. Due to multiple previous instances of disinformation attacks, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians have become resilient. A number of initiatives, such as Lithuanian “elves”—volunteers who set out to combat Russian online trolls—seek to tackle the problem. With the use of artificial intelligence tools, “the elves” can filter around 30,000 internet articles daily and identify the most extreme cases of disinformation or propaganda. It acts as an early warning system, swiftly identifying and responding to disinformation threats. Recently, the initiative gained international recognition and expanded to Latvia and Estonia. Hence, the efforts of malign actors are usually ineffective in significantly shifting the public opinion. For instance, the population of the Baltic countries are among the most supportive of membership in the EU and NATO.
Moreover, the question of disinformation and its role in geopolitical competition have become mainstream in the West over the last several years. For instance, the East Stratcom Task Force was set up by the European Union in March 2015 to address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns. It gained even more attention during the pandemic: The latest EUvsDisinfo report, published in May, contains nearly 500 examples of COVID-19-related pro-Kremlin disinformation. However, there are calls by experts to expand the East Stratcom Task Force beyond its monitoring role and actively publicize the efforts by the EU. For instance, the fact that opinion polls in Italy strongly favor non-EU and non-NATO states as allies—a trend which is at least partly attributable to the EU’s lack of effectiveness in communicating its support for Italy during the pandemic—is worrying. Strengthening the EU’s capabilities in tackling disinformation is a long-term priority for the Baltic states, which seek a more coherent European approach towards a common challenge.
Beyond disinformation campaigns, Russian foreign policy objectives of maintaining influence in the region are not changing. While the pandemic hit Russia hard, both in terms of health (as of May 27, it has the third-highest rate of infections in the world) and economically (Russian GDP could go decline by 5.5 percent in 2020, according to the IMF), Russian military exercises were not delayed. For instance, despite earlier announcements by Russian military officials about the suspension of exercises on NATO borders, a series of military exercises involving all branches of the Russian Armed Forces took place in Kaliningrad at the end of April. Moreover, the largest event of the combat training program for the Russian forces, Caucasus-2020, is still planned for September. It sends a clear signal to neighboring countries and NATO at large that Russian military priorities will not change even in the complicated circumstances of the pandemic.
The Kremlin’s focus on the military is also confirmed by its ongoing incursion into Ukraine: At least 32 Ukrainian soldiers died in Donbass region in 2020 alone (as of May 21), while OSCE observers reported new evidence of Russian military hardware around the city of Luhansk. It leaves no doubt that the Baltic countries still face an unstable neighborhood and an assertive Russian foreign policy. Therefore, the Baltic political preference continues to underscore the need to strengthen NATO’s deterrence posture on the Alliance’s Eastern flank, rather than an initiative by France to seek closer dialogue with Russia.
Homework to be Done
Such challenges and persistent threats demand the need to continue policy initiatives that are somewhat under-the-radar. One of the issues related to strengthening NATO’s deterrence in the Baltics is optimizing troop movement across the NATO countries, which is still too slow. There is a complex maze of procedures that armed forces moving between various allied countries for exercises must deal with; for example, in some instances, this leads to situations where troops arrive at the border with wrong paperwork and have to be put on hold. Significant steps were taken in recent years to tackle the problem, and EU-NATO cooperation proved fruitful in making necessary legislative changes and infrastructure investments. However, the European Commission’s latest EU budget proposal includes $1.65 billion for the military mobility initiative, far below the originally proposed $7.15 billion, leaving the speed of military movements a partly unresolved question.
In the area of infrastructure development, the project of Rail Baltica maintains its importance. Since Soviet occupation, the Baltic countries have been mainly linked to an East-West railway axis using the Russian gauge 1520 mm rails, while the European gauge is slightly narrower. This makes it difficult and costly to interconnect the Baltics with the rest of the EU via Poland, not least when military movement is of concern. Rail Baltica seeks to resolve the issue. The 870-kilometre railway that will connect Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland is expected to be completed by 2026; however, it recently encountered delays. The budget cuts expected during and after the pandemic could have a negative impact on the implementation of this project if the political support is not maintained.
Finally, energy plays a part in reducing dependence of the Baltics to Russia. Synchronization of electrical power networks of the Baltics with the rest of Europe is the focus; however, it also proved to be a difficult project to implement. The Baltic grids are still part of the post-Soviet BRELL ring, which includes Russia and Belarus, and remain dependent on the control center in Moscow. At the end of May, the Baltic states and Poland submitted a joint application for funding from the EU’s Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), requesting financial support around $1.3 billion for the second stage of the synchronization. It is hoped that the project could be finalized by 2025. Synchronization of the Baltic power grid with continental Europe is also important in the context of electricity generated by third countries in potentially unsafe power plants. Belarus is expected to launch the Astravets nuclear power plant, which is located just 50 kilometers from Lithuanian capital Vilnius, this year. Lithuania maintains this project is not transparent and seeks to limit its role in the regional electricity supply.
Maintaining the Level of Defense Funding
In December 2019, during the NATO Summit in London, U.S. President Donald Trump hosted a separate lunch for the leaders of eight NATO countries that spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Among the invitees were leaders of all the Baltic states. In Trump’s words, this is a group of “2 percenters. . . . These are countries that have not been delinquent. They’ve been, in some cases, even more than 2 percent, because they feel so strongly about what we’re doing. And that’s really a sign of respect for the United States.”
While primarily symbolic, it was an important gesture of commitment by the current U.S. administration towards some of the most geographically vulnerable Allied states. It also again reaffirmed the importance of maintaining the necessary level of defense spending in each of the Baltic states.
In 2018, Lithuania’s main political parties committed to increasing defense spending every year for the next decade, reaching at least 2.5 percent of GDP by 2030. The current spending level is already slightly above 2 percent, and almost quadrupled in nominal terms to reach more than $1 billion in 2020. However, another marked increase in spending in the near future might face some domestic challenges, especially if the global economy struggles to regain steam. The European Commission predicts that Lithuania’s GDP might shrink by 7.9 percent in 2020. While there was a strong political consensus to increase defense spending, and President Gitanas Nausėda remains supportive, the parliamentary elections this October could lead to some political opposition. Crucially, procurement decisions, such as one to buy six Black Hawk helicopters for more than $300 million from the United States, should be finalized. Such investment is needed to increase the country’s preparedness, and also to send a signal to allies about the continuation of Lithuania’s long-term defense planning (During previous economic declines, such as in 2009-2011, defense funding was among the areas most negatively affected).
Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks also reiterated the need to maintain spending on defense. A reduction in spending would not only make Latvia more vulnerable, but also pose a challenge to the country’s economic development, as the Armed Forces have already started various cooperation projects with local companies. Therefore, 2 percent of GDP is seen by the minister as the minimum-level of defense funding, rather than the “ceiling.” However, if the EU’s forecast of Latvian GDP decline of around 7 percent in 2020 proves realistic, the Latvian budget income might shrink by up to $900 million, which would pose a significant challenge to continue some of the defense-related projects.
Estonia’s political stance on defense issues remains strong, as well. Estonia has spent around 2 percent on defense since 2015 and remains committed not to drop below that threshold. Estonian Minister of Defense Jüri Luik said he does not consider it possible to reduce defense spending, even if the EU’s forecasts of a decline of the GDP by 6.9 percent in 2020 prove realistic. While the GDP decline might lead to a recalculation of the defense budget and even a nominal decrease of funding by 66 million euros this year, such drop would be “a pretty tragic decision for Estonia’s defense capability.” Therefore, borrowing to fill the gaps may be a solution.
It is also essential that the equipment expenditure as a share of defense expenditure does not go below the NATO guideline of 20 percent. While Lithuania and Latvia were above the threshold in 2019, Estonia, which has maintained a bigger defense budget than the other Baltic states over the last decade, was slightly below it.
While the pandemic poses multiple challenges for every country, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia seem to be in a relatively strong position. The initial response to the health crisis proved effective in all of the Baltic states. While the economic forecasts are dire—not least because the Baltics are export-oriented open-economies—the conditions are sufficiently good to start a debate on how the long-term economic impact can be tackled. Moreover, the broad set of long-term challenges, such as disinformation and Russian assertive foreign policy, are not being overlooked. The unchanging nature of these trends demand a continuation of strategically important security and infrastructure projects, as well as effective advocacy of the Baltic initiatives on an international level. History proves that the Baltics have the capacity to do what is necessary—as long as they keep creating the “Baltic bubbles” and act together.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.