Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia occupy an important area in Eastern Europe. Stretching from South to North, the nations are bordered by the Baltic Sea on one side and by Russia and Belarus on the other. Under Russian occupation until 1991, they served as a counterbalance to Russian occupation in Europe, especially due to their membership in NATO. The United States seems to have a problem. The security of these states is of utmost importance as they are weakly defended. Their security is heavily dependent on the United States along with the NATO alliance. The Baltic states serve to counter the rising Russian influence in Eastern Europe.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became soviet states in 1944, despite protests from the international community. The United States State Department, led by Under Secretary Sumner Welles, issued what later came to be known as the Welles Declaration, stating, “During these past few days the devious processes where under the political independence and territorial integrity of the three small Baltic Republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – were to be deliberately annihilated by one of their more powerful neighbors…The people of the United States are opposed to…any form of intervention on the part of one state, however powerful, in the domestic concerns of any other sovereign state, however weak.”
This declaration resulted in non-recognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States which lasted for more than 45 years. Upon the dissolution of the USSR, the nations regained their independence in 1991. For many years, the nations assisted NATO. Their political leadership was pro-western.
In 1997, in an effort to win back their lost states, the Russian government offered lucrative security packages to the Baltic States which were rejected. Many viewed this as an effort by the Kremlin to prevent the Baltic nations from joining NATO. In the end the Russian effort failed and Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia all joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004. Since then, the three nations have progressed phenomenally. Estonia, especially, is now a Baltic success story. They are leaders in e-governance, and currently rank 27th in the world in the field of internet penetration, as the nation has more than 77% of the population enjoying high speed internet.
Military Back log
Despite NATO membership, their armed forces are small. The Lithuanian military has 7,000 professional soldiers, the Latvian military has around 4,200 professional soldiers, while the Estonian military has 3,200 professional personnel. Their defense expenditure is around .8 to 2.0% of the entire GDP of each of the three countries. Clearly, they have limited military capabilities. The modernization of their military is a result of their alliance with NATO. The United States has to reinforce the Baltic nations without initiating a conflict with Russia.
However, the three nations have been dedicated and resourceful members of the alliance. The Estonians, in spite of their small active military personnel, have deployed more than 2,000 troops to Afghanistan. According to the Heritage Foundation, Estonia is currently developing plans to reinforce the battle hardened troops to a strength of around 20,000 and plans to permanently deploy over 10% of their professional military units.
Not long ago President Obama while speaking in Estonia, expressed the support of the US to NATO’s commitment by saying, “Estonia is a close and reliable ally to the United States. We take our NATO commitment seriously – very seriously.” In 2015 the Baltic States again find themselves as the last line of defense against growing Russian aggression. However, the Baltic nations are in a “no gain, just loss” situation due to their energy policies. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Baltic States have previously relied, almost 100%, on the Russian gas company Gazprom for their needs. Although Estonia depends on shale oil, Latvia and Lithuania are most vulnerable. Russia is the leading supplier of oil to the three nations, and, according to the Army War College report, “the most vulnerable sector of their economy is that of energy supply.”
It is also important to address the economic needs of the Baltic nations. In the first quarter of 2012, the GDP of Lithuania dropped by 12%, Estonia by 15%, and Latvia by 18%. Due to the economic recession, the Baltic States’ economic growth has stagnated, making them more vulnerable to Russia’s economic success, especially in the energy sector. Additionally, unemployment continues to rise. Latvia’s unemployment rate is 9.8%, Estonia’s 10.8%, and Lithuania’s a staggering 12.4%, which has ranked them 126th in the world. Economic progress in the region is imperative in order to prevent another Crimea.
It is important not to take Russia’s growing aggression and unlawful annexation of Crimea lightly and the invasion of Georgia in 2008, followed by claims over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two dense ethnic population of Northern Georgia. As of today, after years of bloodshed, battle cries and international condemnation, Georgia lost control over the majority of South Ossetia, along with a significant portion of Abkhazia. In the end Ukraine lost the Crimean Peninsula, effectively losing the territory to Russia, despite rapid condemnation from the US and the global world.
Ukraine not only lost the Crimean Peninsula but also lost major cities in the Eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk, the fifth largest city in Ukraine. Growing Russian aggression, if left unchecked by NATO, could result in serious aggression in the Baltic States, which will come as a major blow to the Baltic policymakers along with the US. The United States must monitor the possible scenarios which could result in Russia’s aggression toward the Baltic States.
However, there are still reasons to maintain optimism. As stated in the report of the Army War College, “It was the unanimous view [of academics] that overt military action by Russia against the Baltic States…is unlikely in the extreme. The common view is that Russia would prefer to use its soft power, its economic power and its position as a major energy supplier to the region…to undermine the Baltic States and pull the Baltics back into the sphere of Russian influence.” The Baltic States may likely face aggression similar to Georgia and Crimea, although it is only a matter of when. Now, it is up to the NATO to decide the outcome and assure a strong Baltic politically, economically, militarily and culturally.
The Baltic nations are more economically, socially and commercially developed than they were back in the 1990s. But with growing Russian aggression in Europe, the sovereignty of the Baltic States poses a serious question to NATO and the Foreign Policy of the United States. There are many questions that NATO needs to answer, most importantly the growing aggression of Russia and failure to protect the sovereignty of not one, but three nations.