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A nation must think before it acts.
For Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is all too familiar. All three Baltic countries were occupied in 1940 by the legal predecessor of the Russian Federation and were forced to live almost half a century under Soviet rule. Russia’s aggression has reawakened the worst memories. Although much has been done to support Ukraine and reassure the Baltic states, there is still much more to do.
The Russian war against Ukraine is undoubtedly the largest concussion to the Baltic security environment in recent decades. Baltic institutions and politicians were at the forefront in condemning Russia and advocating for the strictest sanctions possible against the country. Military equipment and all kinds of other goods have been sent to Ukraine.
The reaction is not only political and institutional, but also largely societal. The war reinvigorated fear of Russia among many Balts. People wonder if the conflict could spill over to the Baltic states and if history may repeat itself. Discussions about resistance and escape routes are no longer uncommon in ordinary families. There is a widespread belief that Ukrainians are also fighting for the Baltic states and Europe.
Ukraine support rallies are held in Baltic cities. Ukrainian flags fly from buildings. Countless social media profiles bear Ukrainian symbols. People offer their homes to Ukrainian refugees. Donations are collected and ordinary people organize transportation to and from the Polish-Ukrainian border. Some Baltic nationals have also left their homes to travel to Ukraine to fight on its behalf. Even if some parts of the Baltic Russian-speaking population remain more sympathetic to Russia, overall, there has not been such solidarity with another nation in recent decades as there has been Ukraine.
The European Union and NATO have become more unified than ever. Western countries have imposed severe sanctions on Russia and Belarus. Ukraine has been supported by all kinds, short of direct military intervention. NATO allies, including the United States, have deployed additional troops and military hardware to the Baltics and other NATO eastern flank countries. However, there is a growing sense that more needs to be done both to support Ukraine and to strengthen the Baltic defenses.
The unwillingness to irritate Russia has been a constant argument at different times and in various contexts. If Russia were not a nuclear-armed military giant, it would be much easier to decide on further Western action in Ukraine. But despite Russian nukes, it is worth taking more risks to avoid more peril in the future. The establishment of a safe humanitarian zone in western Ukraine by NATO and possibly also non-NATO countries could be one such move. This zone should be created before Russia is able to operate freely in that area. Any Russian action against the enforcers of the zone would then be Russia’s call. If it came to a direct confrontation with Russian forces, history provides examples of low-scale, non-nuclear conflicts between nuclear powers, for example, between the Soviet Union and China, India and Pakistan, and India and China.
For the Baltic states, Russia’s military failures in Ukraine cast doubt on Russian military power. However, Russia remains by far the biggest risk to Baltic security. Since 2014, Western allies have done much to reassure the three countries. NATO established rotational multinational battlegroups as part of its enhanced forward presence, and the United States has individually rotated its troops and military hardware. However, the allied presence in the Baltics is small compared to the risks posed by Russia.
It is time to stop appeasing Russia in this respect as well, and establish a permanent American military presence in the Baltic states. Russia will undoubtedly lament and berate such a course of action, as it has done ever since NATO started expanding eastward. Russia criticized the accession of the Baltic states to NATO in 2004. Russia also denounced the deployment of multinational NATO battlegroups in the Baltic states in 2017. But Russia did not go beyond words in either case.
For the Baltic states, however, permanent American boots on the ground are the best guarantee for their long-term security and stability. Although the current NATO multinational battlegroups in the Baltics led by the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany are invaluable, a permanent American presence would be a far stronger deterrent and fighting force if it came to that. America has by far the strongest armed forces amongst the NATO allies and for that and many other reasons deserves respect from Russia.
The United States has already done much to support the Baltic states politically and militarily. The Baltic cause has strong and bipartisan support in the United States on which more bold decisions can be taken. Furthermore, the financial costs associated with a permanent presence would not be a major point. The Baltic states would do their best to alleviate the costs. Meanwhile, American troops might be relocated from other overseas military bases. Russia’s war against Ukraine is a dark but convenient time for deciding on strengthening the Baltic defense.
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.