Home / Articles / NATO Vilnius Summit: Defense Takeaways for the Baltic States
This July, the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, was yet another historical gathering for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. After facing years of dilemmas with regard to Russia, the allies agreed to bolster NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroups and established brand-new defense plans. An agreement was reached on Sweden’s path to NATO, and Finland was welcomed as the Alliance’s 31st member. Despite the historical pivot to cement the defense of the Baltic states, all three countries have considerable homework to do regarding the construction of military infrastructure, the development of new capabilities, and the recruitment of military personnel.
More allied boots on the ground
In 2014, the Baltic states and certain NATO partners reached the consensus that a review of the existing Baltic and NATO deterrence strategy was imperative. The collective understanding ultimately resulted in the decision at the 2016 Warsaw Summit to deploy eFP units in all three Baltic states. This led to the involvement of Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom as the framework nations for enhancing the security of the Baltic states through the eFP battlegroups. However, the allies’ deployed battalion-level units have always been a “detonator” element in the overall NATO defense strategy. After the 2022 Madrid Summit’s decisions on gradually strengthening NATO’s defense posture, there were disagreements over how quickly brigade-level units should be deployed in the Baltic states, if at all.
Furthermore, the other countries with eFP battlegroups have similarly invoked geopolitical concerns and steadily raised their military presence. Nevertheless, there are significant budget, personnel, and equipment shortages facing each framework nation. These challenges are made more difficult by the inability of the Western defense industry to meet the demands of all the member states.
New defense plans for the Baltic states
The adaptation of NATO’s defense planning in the Baltic states can be traced back to Russia’s war against Georgia. Russia’s aggression in 2008 served as a first wake-up call for the Baltic states and NATO military planners. The disclosure of classified materials on the Wikileaks platform in 2010 and 2011 revealed that the defense plans of the Alliance, known as “Eagle Guardian”, previously did not include contingency planning for the Baltic states. The leaked documents subsequently showed that the United States, along with its allies, expanded these defense plans in the aftermath of the war in Georgia.
However, before the Vilnius Summit, there were uncertainties regarding the extent to which these plans included robust preparedness for immediate conflict involvement. The defense plans approved in Vilnius, which are “more detailed and concrete” and have more than 4,000 pages, appear to be a substantial advancement. Although it is evident that these plans continue to adopt a reactive approach, they demonstrate increased readiness and reinforcement capabilities. This also corresponds with NATO’s increased commitment to ensure logistical security and compatibility, including pre-positioned equipment in nations that may potentially require the deployment of additional military personnel under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Moreover, the allies also agreed to further improve NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense capabilities through a rotational presence and regular training with a focus on the eastern flank. A response capability needing to occur within a very restricted timescale would still pose a significant difficulty, given that time would be the main factor in a Baltic crisis scenario.
NATO’s enlargement in the Baltic Sea
On the eve of the NATO Vilnius Summit, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement about the agreement between Sweden and Turkey that paves the way for Sweden’s prospective accession to the Alliance. The agreements have contributed to the continued expansion of NATO, resulting in the Baltic Sea region becoming a more cohesive element of NATO’s broader deterrent strategy towards Russia. From the Baltic perspective, the inclusion of Finland and Sweden into the Alliance is expected to reduce the importance of Russia’s Kaliningrad region within its Baltic maritime theater of operations. This transformation facilitates the Alliance’s ability to reinforce the Baltic states through alternative Baltic Sea routes. This reduces the longstanding risk of potential Russian aggression in the Baltic Sea region. Nevertheless, the Russian Baltic Fleet maintains the most dominant military position in the region.
Both nations possess substantial capabilities in terms of air defense, as well as naval and ground forces. Finland possesses a considerable artillery armament and maintains a significant land army. The ground forces of Finland comprise a total of 23,000 soldiers. However, during times of crisis, Finland can expand its fighting force to up to 280,000 military personnel. In addition, its military force possesses a larger arsenal of artillery than the combined forces of the German and French armies, reaching an overall inventory of 1,500 weapons. Its ground forces are comprised of a combined total of 650 battle tanks, approximately 200 of which are Leopards 2A6 or 2A4. Helsinki will also replace its current fleet of 61 F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets with a total of 64 F-35A Lightning II jets, with deliveries set to begin in 2026. In addition to its prominent military capabilities, Finland also maintains a crucial geopolitical position. The border it shares with Russia covers approximately 1,340 km and is now a NATO frontier. This shift has led Russian military strategists to spread their military assets more thinly over the expanded NATO border.
In contrast, Sweden maintains a significant naval fleet, comprising modern corvette-class warships and Blekinge-class diesel submarines. The country’s military industry provides it with significant capabilities in the areas of submarine and combat aircraft production. It also has the locally manufactured JAS 39E Gripen multi-role fighter aircraft. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Sweden’s armed forces initiated a strategic transformation, which involved implementing a fresh budgetary framework and providing financial support for the establishment or re-establishment of military installations. In contrast to its previous hesitation over substantially increasing defense spending, the Swedish government has now announced a plan to increase spending by 28%, reaching NATO’s target of 2% of GDP. Sweden will invest in a range of systems, such as artillery, transport aircraft, and naval forces. Since 2022, Sweden has boosted its military presence on the strategically vital island of Gotland, situated near military and commercial maritime routes that are crucial for Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg. The primary military function of this island is to offer essential assistance through the deployment of air and coastal defense components.
The Baltic states’ efforts to bolster the eastern flank
The Baltic states have now achieved a substantial increase in their military expenditures, with plans indicating an increase to 3% of their respective GDP in the forthcoming years. According to the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, Russia’s military capabilities could be quantitatively restored within four years of the end of the war in Ukraine. Therefore, advancements in military capabilities are expected to take place during the forthcoming years as part of all three nations’ efforts to enhance their armed forces.
Estonia and Latvia have recently signed an “umbrella agreement” with Germany for the joint purchase of the IRIS-T medium-range air defense missile system. Both nations have also reaffirmed their commitment to future involvement in the European Sky Shield Initiative, a project with the aim of establishing integrated air defense systems at the European level. Meanwhile, Vilnius plans to acquire additional NASAMS medium-range Air Defense Systems to add to its armed forces — it has used these since 2020.
Lithuania has signed a contract for acquiring High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers for $495 million, with deliveries set to begin in 2025. Both Estonia and Latvia have also made clear declarations about their intentions to purchase six HIMARS units each. According to Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anušauskas, the coordinated total procurements of the three Baltic states should reach 20 HIMARS systems. In addition, Vilnius has also signed a letter of intent on the acquisition of Leopard tanks to create a new division in its armed forces.
The Latvian government has granted approval for the acquisition of Naval Strike Missile anti-ship armaments (the deliveries of which are anticipated to take place after 2025), with the aim of bolstering the country’s coastal defense capabilities within the Baltic Sea region. In contrast, Estonia has made the decision to acquire Israeli Blue Spear land-to-sea missile systems, incorporating these capabilities in collaboration with Finland. Estonia intends to work with Finland to potentially deny access to the Gulf of Finland for Russian warships.
Furthermore, Latvia has launched its National Defense Concept, which indicates a significant adaptation in the state’s strategic planning for national defense. Jānis Garisons, the Secretary of State of the Latvian Ministry of Defense, made remarks regarding the medium-term stated objectives, emphasizing Latvia’s proactive measures in reinforcing its eastern border, including in anticipation of a potential invasion. These steps will introduce capabilities to counter the mobility of migrants from Belarus, who Moscow and Minsk use as an element of hybrid warfare. The plans, which involve collaboration with Estonia and Lithuania, also encompass the development of fortification positions along the eastern border and anti-mobility measures for potential heavily armored enemy vehicles and infantry.
Latvia is also now engaged in ongoing efforts on intensifying the State Defense Service through the implementation of a draft program aimed at recruiting 850 additional conscripts over the next year. The effective implementation of conscription will require not only a new social contract with society, but also a longer period to build up military reserves. The current objective is to increase the number of personnel involved in defense and the active reserve service up to 31,000. Lithuania has announced plans to substantially increase its active military reserves to 36,000 and further increase its prepared reserve of military personnel to reach nearly 120,000 by 2025. Additionally, Estonia has increased its wartime military personnel structure up to 43,700. However, in the event of rapid mobilization, all three nations would face obstacles, which is why intelligence and early warning capabilities are imperative.
Conclusion: NATO’s growing defense in the Baltic states — unchanged challenges
As previously indicated, Russia’s most reliable advantage — time — could influence its military planning to the degree that it may decide to test NATO borders in a limited timeframe. For this reason, the Alliance’s task is to strengthen deterrence to the point where Russia’s military calculations pertaining to a hypothetical invasion of the Baltic states acknowledge the immediate engagement of the entire Alliance in both combat and reinforcement operations. From a geopolitical standpoint, in practice it would be difficult for the Baltic states to implement a full Anti-Access/Area Denial strategy against Russia. Finland’s — and Sweden’s expected — accession to the Alliance, however, will serve to partially tackle Russia’s maritime superiority. The homework for the Baltic states is still related to increasing military personnel; however, the ability to close airspace and to combat Russia’s denial capabilities in the Baltic Sea are even more crucial. The Baltic states have made notable advancements in enhancing their defenses. All three countries utilize military conscription that operates on a voluntary basis, and they are actively engaged in military personnel recruitment efforts. The acquisition of new military assets will guarantee improved defense quality. However, the issue of raising the quantity of forces to counter Russian forces remains a persistent challenge. To maintain the credibility of deterrence, the Alliance needs to persist in working towards the resolution of outstanding issues in defense policy. Therefore, exercising Allied readiness and robust reinforcement operations in the Baltic states is vital.
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.