NATO Is Dangerously Exposed in the Baltic

Don’t listen to Russia. NATO needs to bolster, not downsize, its flimsy defenses.

By , a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Soldiers take part in a NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, on Nov. 29, 2021.
Soldiers take part in a NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, on Nov. 29, 2021.
Soldiers take part in a NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, on Nov. 29, 2021. GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP via Getty Images

Nowhere is the credibility of the United States and its allies at greater risk than in the Baltic Sea region. NATO’s Article 5 pledges the alliance to defend its members. Doing that for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—three thinly populated states squeezed between Russia, Belarus, and the Baltic Sea—is hard. Years of cost-cutting, timidity, and wishful thinking by NATO governments make it harder.

As the Russian military buildup around Ukraine raises fears of a broader East-West security crisis, NATO allies are hastening to bolster the Baltic states’ defenses while non-NATO members Sweden and Finland are tightening their ties with the alliance. In late January, U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters arrived in Estonia as part of a wide-ranging reassurance effort. At bases elsewhere in Europe and the United States, 8,500 U.S. military personnel are on heightened alert, ready to deploy to the region as part of NATO’s 40,000-strong Response Force.

These moves, though desirable, are belated and insufficient. Regional security in the Baltic Sea has been a problem for much longer than the current standoff with Russia. Solving this requires more than a one-off, reactive deployment. With Ben Hodges, a former U.S. Army commander in Europe and now my colleague at the Center for European Policy Analysis, I have spent the past year deep in the weeds, looking at the problems of Baltic Sea regional security and how to fix them.

Nowhere is the credibility of the United States and its allies at greater risk than in the Baltic Sea region. NATO’s Article 5 pledges the alliance to defend its members. Doing that for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—three thinly populated states squeezed between Russia, Belarus, and the Baltic Sea—is hard. Years of cost-cutting, timidity, and wishful thinking by NATO governments make it harder.

As the Russian military buildup around Ukraine raises fears of a broader East-West security crisis, NATO allies are hastening to bolster the Baltic states’ defenses while non-NATO members Sweden and Finland are tightening their ties with the alliance. In late January, U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters arrived in Estonia as part of a wide-ranging reassurance effort. At bases elsewhere in Europe and the United States, 8,500 U.S. military personnel are on heightened alert, ready to deploy to the region as part of NATO’s 40,000-strong Response Force.

These moves, though desirable, are belated and insufficient. Regional security in the Baltic Sea has been a problem for much longer than the current standoff with Russia. Solving this requires more than a one-off, reactive deployment. With Ben Hodges, a former U.S. Army commander in Europe and now my colleague at the Center for European Policy Analysis, I have spent the past year deep in the weeds, looking at the problems of Baltic Sea regional security and how to fix them.

On the surface, everything looks fine. NATO allies have stationed so-called enhanced forward presence tripwire forces, roughly 1,000 troops strong, in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These units obviously cannot withstand a Russian assault; they are there to make sure the Kremlin knows an attack on the Baltic states would also be an attack on other NATO members. In nearby Poland, the United States has a more substantial presence of 5,000 service members. The Baltic states and Poland play their part too: Their defense budgets exceed the minimum 2 percent of GDP mandated by NATO. These funds are spent wisely, including on modern weaponry that could at least slow, and thus help deter, a Russian attack.

Since 1991, NATO has been an organization designed for peace, not war—a dangerously outdated assumption.

Across the Baltic Sea, Sweden and Finland have also been boosting their spending. These two non-NATO countries have close military ties with each other as well as NATO. Neighboring Norway, though not a littoral state, is closely involved in Baltic Sea security through its logistical, intelligence, and military aviation capabilities. Denmark has upended its previous defense posture, which discounted any need for territorial and regional defense. Combined, Poland plus the Nordic countries and three Baltic states have a greater GDP than Russia’s. Their combined defense spending is around half of Russia’s—but the Kremlin has global ambitions, such as space weapons, a blue-water navy, and a strategic nuclear arsenal.

The black hole in the region’s security is Germany. Its size and location would add crucial heft, but the other countries around the Baltic Sea are privately mistrustful of decision-makers in Berlin. Germany has backed the two Nord Stream natural gas pipelines along the Baltic seabed. Other countries in the region see them as a grave threat, entrenching the Kremlin’s dominance of the region’s energy supply. (In a countermove, Poland has just built a pipeline to Norway to secure another source of gas.) In the event of a Russian provocation, would Germany back deterrence or call for dialog and compromise? Germany’s shilly-shallying over Ukraine, which included banning Estonia from donating some much-needed howitzers to the beleaguered Ukrainians, have intensified doubts. Last week, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks described Germany’s approach as “immoral and hypocritical.”


Many think that NATO’s presence in the region has gone far enough already. Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded NATO withdraw all outside forces from the region and commit to Sweden and Finland never being allowed to join.

Yet below the surface, the region’s defense and security arrangements, far from threatening Russia, look troublingly flimsy. In our Center for European Policy Analysis report, we identified more than a dozen serious problems. It starts with the West’s attitude to Russia. Politicians and decision-makers in the region still have radically different threat assessments. The Baltic states have been sounding the alarm since the 1990s. Other countries are much later to the party and more cautious in what they say—and that’s before you get to the huge problem of Germany.

These differing threat assessments and political approaches are obstacles to everything else. Intelligence collection and sharing are hampered by the gulf between NATO and non-NATO members. Washington jealously guards its best intelligence—for example, anything involving Russian submarines. Even within NATO, there are inner and outer circles. For example, there is the British-U.S. intelligence-sharing agreement, which also includes the other so-called Five Eyes: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Military mobility—the vital business of moving large numbers of troops and equipment—is patchy too. There is no common maritime strategy, though control of the Baltic Sea in a crisis will determine what happens on land. Systems to defend ground targets against air and missile attacks are costly. No country in the region has enough of these defensive systems, and some have none. NATO’s small air policing deployment—typically just four warplanes based in Estonia or Lithuania—is there to deal with peacetime problems, such as airspace intrusions, not to fight off the Russian Air Force.

A Polish exercise last year, despite making generous assumptions, ended with Polish forces being slaughtered in five days and the Russians poised to take Warsaw.

The command structure is like a bowl of spaghetti. Each country guards its national decision-making jealously. Although the Baltic states are one small operational area in military terms, they have three national headquarters, each commanding pint-sized forces. NATO has two divisional and one corps headquarters, with Estonian and Latvian forces under a Danish headquarters that is based partly in Denmark and partly based in Latvia. The two other headquarters are in Poland. Further up the hierarchy, NATO’s main land forces headquarters is in the Netherlands—but splits taking charge on a six-month rotating basis with its naval counterpart in Naples, Italy. Behind all that is the regional U.S. headquarters in Poland and its main headquarters for Europe in Virginia. Somewhere else are the Brits with their Joint Expeditionary Force—a 10-nation military framework for rapid deployment—and the Germany-based Joint Support and Enabling Command, which is meant to ensure that the right forces are in the right place at the right time. Confused yet? And I haven’t even mentioned the five-nation Nordic Defence Cooperation framework, the French-led European Intervention Initiative, and, of course, the European Union’s own nascent defense efforts: battle groups that mainly exist on paper.

The assumption is that in a crisis, this spaghetti will spontaneously straighten under the pressure of events and thanks to U.S. leadership. It would be good to test that assumption with realistic, hard exercises where decision-makers can practice surmounting the bureaucratic and physical obstacles hampering effectiveness in real time. Current exercises in the region are too small, too well scripted, and too devoid of complexity. Planners are given many months to ensure that everything goes smoothly. All too often, the highlight is a distinguished visitor day closer to a theatrical performance than a training event, where participants identify problems by experiencing them.

NATO exercises used to be different: harder, bigger, and costlier. In Cold War West Germany, for example, British and U.S. tanks would thunder across farmland, crushing hedges and ruining crops. A jeep would follow behind with an officer bearing cash and checks to compensate farmers for their losses. Road closures were common, as were bouts of deafening nighttime noise. Such inconveniences and costs are the price of security—and of freedom. Nowadays, civilian life takes precedence. That reflects a much deeper issue: Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has been an organization designed for peace, not war. That was a defensible—if optimistic—assumption in the 1990s. It is dangerously outdated now.

All of these issues involving NATO and the Baltic littoral states are coming to a head in the current standoff with Russia. Putin’s proposed veto on enlarging NATO any further directly infringes on the sovereignty and security of Finland and Sweden, which have for years maintained that though they do not wish to join the alliance right now, they have the right to apply should they choose to. Russia’s growing military presence in Belarus highlights the vulnerability of the Suwalki corridor, the thin neck of land connecting the Baltic states and Poland. Putin’s threat to respond to NATO with “military-technical measures” could easily involve the deployment of medium-range missiles, perhaps even nuclear-armed weapons, in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. Russian cyberattacks and sub-threshold warfare are already evident; Sweden, for example, is worried by mysterious drone flights.


How can NATO’s problems in the Baltic region be fixed? One of the easier steps would be to align the region’s security objectives by compiling and publishing a common threat assessment. An unclassified version would boost public awareness. The classified version would form the basis for military planning, exercises, and budgeting. For more than 20 years, Estonia’s counterintelligence service has published a hard-hitting annual report about Russian subversion and other threats. Although this may give the Kremlin clues about sources, methods, and targeting, the benefits in terms of deterrence, political will, and societal resilience are much greater.

This highlights our next recommendation: fostering a public security culture that increases not only military resistance but also economic, social, and political resilience. Finland is the standout example of this, with military conscription, extensive training for civilian decision-makers, counter-disinformation training in schools, and regular exercises.

The tripwire forces in the Baltic states are currently hostages—a reminder to the Kremlin that an attack on what Russian hard-liners regard as renegade provinces would also mean tangling with Britain, France, and Germany. These deployments need to be on a war-fighting footing. It is therefore time to plug the gaping holes in air and missile defense as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Some of these are expensive, and the countries that need them most cannot afford them. Rich countries that are farther from the front line should pay to have them where they matter most. Proper intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities—which combine drone, sensor, and satellite capabilities with modern computing power—create an unblinking eye that can look deep inside Russia, identifying what Kremlin forces are doing long before a crisis actually develops. Rewriting the rules on data-sharing with non-NATO members Sweden and Finland would maximize the usefulness of these insights.

NATO needs to change too, writing a new strategic concept—in essence, the alliance’s manifesto—to more clearly stress defense against and deterrence of a Russian attack in the region. The European Union’s fumbling efforts to codify its approach to common security and defense policy need clear language on military preparedness and its willingness to use force in response to aggression.

Decision-making needs streamlining. It is the United States that makes the NATO security guarantee fully credible. It therefore makes sense for the senior U.S. officer on the continent—the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, known as SACEUR—to have the political preauthorization they need to issue orders in circumstances short of war. By the time the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s political body, has met, been briefed, deliberated, ironed out potentially dissenting views from countries such as Hungary, and reached a decision, it could be too late. A lightning attack by Russian forces, likely following a period of intense, artificially created confusion, could reach the Baltic Sea or cut the Suwalki corridor in a matter of hours.

Above all, NATO needs exercises. The best way to increase the internal and external credibility of defense is to practice using difficult scenarios in real time. These must include surprises, disruptions, escalations, and hard decision-making, with advanced technology at the forefront. A good result of these exercises would be if they produced numerous embarrassments. For example, a Polish exercise last year, despite making generous assumptions about their access to advanced weaponry, ended with Polish forces being slaughtered in five days and the Russians poised to take Warsaw.

That caused a furor in Poland—but the brickbats should have been bouquets. Nobody in Poland—or, for that matter, anyone else involved in the region’s security—would claim privately that defenses against Russia are adequate. For everyone living around the Baltic Sea, it will be better to find their shortcomings early and fix them than to wait until the enemy is at the gates.

Edward Lucas is a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Liberal Democratic candidate for the British Parliament, a former senior editor at The Economist, and the author, most recently, of Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet. Twitter: @edwardlucas

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