While the Biden Administration and the EU have started to work on the normalisation of their ties with Russia, Moscow’s threat remains a vital source of concern for Baltic states. As a NATO or EU intervention in case of attack cannot be taken for granted, the three countries have been extensively working on strengthening the readiness of their armed forces, individually but also together.
With Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joining NATO and the EU, the borders of the two organisations, and especially those of the Alliance, experienced important modifications. The EU has bordered Russia since Sweden and Finland became members in 1995, and NATO has bordered Russia since 1999, when Poland gained membership. The NATO–Russian border, previously limited to the Kaliningrad exclave, broadened when the Baltic states joined. This sort of transformation into buffer states has a significant political impact. On the one hand, it exacerbates mutual misperceptions between the Alliance and Moscow, especially when it comes to military exercises taking place in the Baltics, alongside the Russian border or in the Kaliningrad exclave. On the other hand, the significant presence of Russian speaking people in the three countries (about one million out of the six total), leaves room for important influence campaigns. The Russian presence in Ukraine since 2014, the current political situation in Belarus and the almost continuous build-up of Russian forces along the country’s Western borders are only the main demonstrations of the extent of the threat for the Baltic states. If a conventional Russian intervention in the Baltics is highly unlikely, cyber and hybrid threats are growing in intensity and dangerousness. If all Baltic states are concerned about Russia, the threats they are faced with are not the same. Due to the high number of ethnic Russians, Latvia and Estonia are more concerned by “little green men”, the masked Russian soldiers in unmarked green army uniforms who appeared during the 2014 Ukrainian crisis. Consequently, these two countries are focuses on homeland defence, whereas Lithuania is focused on resisting a direct Russian invasion.
Mitigating Uncertainty about Collective Defence
Being the three defence budgets barely sufficient to ensure basic Armed forces’ missions, the role of partners is crucial for the survival of Baltic countries. Despite the participation in European programmes, the EU is not given a major role when it comes to defence, the launch of a proper military operation in case of Russian aggression being unlikely. Conversely, Baltic states are aware NATO is essential to them – in military and political terms.
As NATO membership per se implies primary deterrence against the Russian symmetric threat, the three countries are trying to boost their contribution to NATO to gain as many bargaining chips as possible. The redeployment of soldiers in military operations carried out within or outside multilateral frameworks and the participation to common defence projects are all intended to reaffirm this reliability. Moreover, their defence-related strategic documents, all based on NATO’s Defence planning process, clearly identify NATO as the most important partner. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been among the first states to meet the objective of spending at least two per cent of GDP for defence, as NATO members agreed on in 2014. They have also extensively worked to ameliorate the interoperability of their military infrastructures and facilities and increase the number of assets pledged to the organisation, for instance in the countermine and the cyber domains.
As NATO members, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania should not be overconcerned about their limited capabilities and the lack of cutting-edge military technologies. Since July 2017, four Battlegroups are fully deployed in the Baltics and in Poland as part of NATO’s strengthened deterrence and defence posture. Canada is the framework nation Latvia, where it operates in Adazi with the contribution of Albania, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. Lithuania, Germany leads the Battlegroup, headquartered in Rukla, with the contribution of Belgium, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway. The Battlegroup based in Tapa, Estonia, operates as part of the 1st Infantry Brigade. It is led by the UK with the contribution of France and Iceland. Moreover, NATO has been protecting the Baltic skies since 2004, through NATO Air Policing mission, which has been enhanced in the last years.
In addition to this permanent NATO presence in the countries, the Article V of the NATO Charter should ensure full protection from allies in case of Russian aggression. However, Riga, Tallin and Vilnius cannot take collective defence for granted. Divides among NATO members might make reaching a consensus on article V too long or impossible, as some states might not accept going to war for Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania. Should a prompt consensus be reached at the NATO level, the deployment of NATO troops might be slow, while 24/48 hours might be enough for Russians to storm or besiege Riga, Tallin or Vilnius. The fact that Russia would probably go for a hybrid form of aggression is an additional source of complexity, as this might not fall under article V.
Building Autonomous Capabilities
For all these considerations, Baltic states are keeping upgrading and expanding their armed forces, but also to reinforcing their non-conventional capabilities, especially in the domains of cyber security and societal resilience.
In 2021, defence spending will raise to €645.5M, which is 2.29 per cent of projected GDP. A total of €46M will be added in 2022 to the National Defence Investment Programme, which will be maintained at the current level of €20M per year throughout the state budget strategy period.
The Estonian National Defence Development Plan 2017–2026 envisages the amelioration of Estonian combat readiness by expanding and improving the combat capabilities of its Armed forces. The wartime rapid response structure will grow from 21,000 to 25,000 troops and will be armed and equipped according to the objectives. The 1st Infantry Brigade will become a mechanised force ready for engagement thanks to the procurement of 44 BAE System CV9035 IFVs purchased from the Netherlands, FGM-148 JAVELIN third generation anti-tank missiles (to also equip the 2nd Brigade), at least 12 South Korean K9 THUNDER self-propelled howitzers and APCs to equip the Kalev’s and Viru’s manoeuvring brigades. The 2nd Infantry Brigade will be transformed into a combat capable motorised force with a strong fighting ethic, with an infantry battalion and an artillery battalion to be added to its current structure. Air policing will continue to be at the heart of the country’s aerial defence, but UAVs will be procured to support military intelligence and early warning capabilities. Concerning territorial defence, more than 10 light infantry companies will reinforce the existing defence structure, to progressively increase from 3200 to 4000 conscripts. Volunteers’ level of training will be maintained at a high level thanks to the upgrade of the Defence League’s infrastructure.
The 2020-2024 State Defence Concept 2020-2024 identifies the four pillars of the deterrence-based Latvia’s defence strategy: the reinforcement of national armed forces to ensure adequate defence capabilities, the development of a comprehensive defence, the strengthening of NATO collective defence and the enhancement of international cooperation.
The Concept stresses that current defence spending levels will barely be sufficient for maintaining Armed Forces’ core functions. If the development of capabilities such as medium-range air and missile defence, active defence at sea and long-range indirect fire support remain long-term goals, the country will be forced to rely on Allies to fill capability gaps, both in military and financial terms.
The professional army will reach 8000 troops by the end of the period, and the National guard, considered indispensable for the defence of the country’s integrity, will increase to 10,000 by 2024 and to 12,000 by 2027.
The Defence budget for 2021 reaches €1Bn, a slight decrease compared to 2020. More than 30 per cent of the defence budget is allocated to the main priorities: the modernisation of the Army, the strengthening of deterrence and collective defence, strategic intelligence, cyber and information security, and public participation in strengthening national security. Between 2020 and 2024, around €1.3Bn will be devoted to the modernisation of Lithuanian Armed forces – about €100M more than for the 2014-2019 period. After those concerning IFVs, self-propelled howitzers and medium-range air defence systems, all completed in 2020, the ongoing modernisation programme will focus on the procurement of one MCM ship, armoured all-terrain vehicles (2024) and medium sized utility helicopters to replace obsolete Russian-made Mi-8 (2025).
The three Baltic states have been trying to demonstrate their reliability to NATO and EU partners in the last decade through the raise of defence spending and the amelioration of their military capabilities. On 21 May, the leaders of the three countries states officially launched preparatory works for the possible acquisition of multiple-launch rocket systems to enter service around 2025, which might become the first joint procurement programme among Baltic states.
“We believe that NATO needs to send a clear and strong message about the Russian threat and make collective defence the most important task of the alliance in the next decade”, Estonian Defence Minister Kalle Laanet said on that occasion.
However, hope of Baltic leaders has somehow been deceived some weeks after, during the first NATO summit under the Biden Presidency. The Alliance has recognised the need to “continue to respond to the deteriorating security environment by enhancing our deterrence and defence posture, including by a forward presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.”
It also condemned the Russian military build-up, its direct interference in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova and the use of proxies to destabilise the political, economic, and societal functioning of certain countries. However, Chinese ambitions and assertive behaviour have been identified as possible threats to the Alliance, with a focus on the participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area. Growing attention towards China and the opening to dialogue with Russia are becoming hot topics on both US and the EU agendas. Mid-June, Presidents Biden and Putin agreed to launch a bilateral dialogue on strategic stability to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures”.
Some weeks later, “professional and substantive” discussions, as they were defined by US and Russian representatives, took place in Geneva. Other meetings are to follow in September, with the establishments of working groups. On the EU side, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron proposed to hold formal talks with President Putin following bilateral meetings with him in the last months. The fact that the other European countries rejected their proposal could not be enough to reassure Baltic states. With the end of the Merkel era and approaching elections in France, the impetus the two leaders have tried to give to European defence and programmes that stemmed from it, mainly under PESCO and the European defence fund, is at stake. In addition to this uncertainty over partners’ political agendas, hybrid threats against Baltic states are gaining momentum. In June and July, the number of migrants reaching Lithuania from Belarus has reached more than 2000 people (they were less than a hundred last March). This unprecedented migratory pressure has forced the country to ask for the activation of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and the help of Frontex to make border monitoring more effective. Moreover, a physical border is under construction to stop illegal arrivals. According to Lithuanian authorities, the Belarus government is encouraging border crossing, as Russia has already done in the past, letting migrants reach Norway and Finland.
Per these considerations, societal resilience and the strengthening of armed forces preparedness will likely remain crucial issues for Baltic states.