Baltic States Are Pushing NATO for More Than Just a Tripwire Against Russia

Moscow’s neighbors in NATO want larger troop deployments that could deter any more land grabs by Putin.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
French soldiers during a NATO drill in Estonia
French soldiers during a NATO drill in Estonia
French soldiers take part in a major drill as part of the Enhanced Forward Presence NATO operation at the Tapa Estonian army camp near Rakvere, Estonia, on Feb. 6. Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

The three Baltic states are pushing to dramatically scale up NATO’s military footprint on its eastern flank to deter Russia from making any military moves on alliance territory as it battles to conquer land in Ukraine.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are advocating that NATO upgrade its presence in the Baltic region to include divisional-sized headquarters and larger contingents of multinational forces in each of the three countries, according to multiple European and U.S. defense officials familiar with the matter.

It’s still unclear whether NATO countries will ultimately approve the proposal, as internal negotiations between the 30 alliance members are ongoing. Yet the debate within the alliance over the plan reflects a growing sense of alarm among some of NATO’s eastern members that the alliance needs to quickly strengthen its deterrence posture against Moscow, lest Russian President Vladimir Putin set his sights on military action against NATO territory after his misadventure in Ukraine.

The three Baltic states are pushing to dramatically scale up NATO’s military footprint on its eastern flank to deter Russia from making any military moves on alliance territory as it battles to conquer land in Ukraine.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are advocating that NATO upgrade its presence in the Baltic region to include divisional-sized headquarters and larger contingents of multinational forces in each of the three countries, according to multiple European and U.S. defense officials familiar with the matter.

It’s still unclear whether NATO countries will ultimately approve the proposal, as internal negotiations between the 30 alliance members are ongoing. Yet the debate within the alliance over the plan reflects a growing sense of alarm among some of NATO’s eastern members that the alliance needs to quickly strengthen its deterrence posture against Moscow, lest Russian President Vladimir Putin set his sights on military action against NATO territory after his misadventure in Ukraine.

That debate is heating up ahead of a major NATO summit in Madrid next month and amid Finland’s and Sweden’s formal bids for NATO membership after decades of military nonalignment. The summit is being billed as the most significant meeting between NATO leaders since Russia launched its military invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Under an initiative called “Enhanced Forward Presence,” NATO in 2017 began deploying one battalion-sized multinational battlegroup to each of the Baltic countries and Poland on a rotational basis. The Baltic states are pushing to increase the size of these battlegroups and set up more permanent stationing plans. While specifics of the plans are still being negotiated, one proposal under discussion is to upgrade the size of the battlegroups to three multinational battalions, alongside adding a divisional-sized command headquarters to each of the three countries.

A divisional command headquarters would allow NATO allies to lay the groundwork for quickly scaling up their military presence in the Baltic region in the event of any showdown with Russian forces. This includes putting in place reinforcement plans, command structures, and logistics and communications infrastructure for rapid troop deployments, the officials said. It’s unclear whether NATO’s other members would accept these proposals, which are expected to be hashed out behind the scenes before the Madrid summit in June.

Still, the proposals showcase a possible shift in strategy for NATO defense planners amid Russia’s Ukraine invasion as they look to revamp the alliance’s presence on its eastern flank from its current “tripwire” posture to a “forward defense posture.” Under the “tripwire” posture, smaller units rotate through NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank to deter Russian military action, but they could lack the forces to fully repel an invasion. This compels NATO troops to train for contingencies where they need to retake alliance territory after falling back from an initial invasion.

“Under the backdrop of what has happened in Ukraine, this is politically suicidal to accept the strategy for each and every prime minister and president in eastern front but also, I think, in NATO more widely,” said one senior Baltic defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Committing yourself to a strategy where you accept that parts of NATO will be occupied, even for a weekend, is a disastrous political strategy. No one can commit to this. So this is something that needs to be changed.”

A “forward defense” posture could pour enough NATO military resources into the Baltic region to credibly face a Russian invading force toe-to-toe and repel it. Baltic defense officials believe expanding NATO’s military presence, including by increasing the size of NATO’s multinational forces in the region and establishing division-sized command structures, is the best way to ward off any plans by Putin to lunge for more territory beyond Ukraine.

There could be pushback from NATO allies in Western Europe, however. Some NATO allies feel that the current presence in the Baltic region is adequate and believe Putin understands the message that the alliance, backed by the powerful U.S. military, won’t cede an inch of its territory to Russia. They also believe that Putin won’t make any moves on NATO territory given that the Russian military remains overstretched and bogged down in Ukraine, while being hamstrung by poor training, tactics, and equipment. Additionally, some allies are stretched thin militarily as they rush to ship as many heavy weapons and as much ammunition to the Ukrainian military as possible, draining their own supplies and limiting their ability to dispatch more troops and equipment to the Baltic states.

“Clearly, if this would be an easy thing to do, then it would’ve been done already,” the senior Baltic defense official conceded.

Still, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine has drastically altered how European countries view their own security in recent months, with Finland and Sweden readying to join NATO and Germany, long a proponent of balancing ties between Russia and the West, committing to dramatically ramp up its defense spending.

“It feels like it’s not going to happen imminently, but I could imagine in the future they might decide that is the way to go,” said another Western diplomat familiar with the deliberations, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I think they would rather have something more stable, something more predictable, and something that they can hold up to the Russians.”

NATO’s mutual defense clause, known as Article 5, forms the backbone of the military alliance’s collective security agreement and extends the umbrella of protection from the United States and other allied militaries across all NATO territory. NATO has steadily expanded since the end of the Cold War, adding new members from the former Soviet Union into the fold as they transitioned into democracies. Top Russian officials have said they view NATO and its expansion eastward as an existential threat to Moscow’s security, despite NATO’s insistence to the contrary.

Baltic states have long pushed for a permanent NATO presence in their countries, arguing that it could serve as a stronger deterrent if the Russians consider military action in the region. In addition, some Baltic officials have pushed for NATO allies to deploy higher-end defensive equipment to their region, such as U.S.-made Patriot air defenses, artillery, and coastal defense missiles. There has also been a push in the region for more U.S. military financial assistance.

In anticipation of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the Biden administration ramped up its military deployments to Europe in an effort to strengthen NATO’s military capabilities and reassure nervous allies. The Pentagon deployed an Italy-based infantry task force of 800 U.S. troops to the Baltic region, as well as eight F-35 fighter jets and 20 Apache attack helicopters. Since the invasion, NATO nations have also doubled the size of the alliance’s battle group in Estonia and stood up new multinational battalions in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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