The Baltic states: No easy target

The Baltic states are again worried about Russia’s intentions, but this time they are ready to defend themselves.

Welcoming ceremony for the first troops of the NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battalion group
German soldiers attend a welcoming ceremony for the first troops of the NATO enhanced Forward Presence battalion group at the Rukla base in Lithuania on February 7 [Valda Kalnina/EPA]

On February 16, Lithuania celebrated the 99th anniversary of its restoration of independence in 1918, which was cut short by subsequent Soviet annexation after World War II.

However, since Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014 and its shadow war in eastern Ukraine, policy-makers and pundits have been asking whether the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are again at risk in face of Moscow’s rising ambitions.

The three European Union and NATO members share a border and a difficult history with Russia, and conflict in any of these states could lead to a direct confrontation between Russia and the West. As a result, both the Baltic states and their western allies have been trying to mitigate any potential threat and to bolster defences. 

The Baltic states have reason to be worried about their large neighbour. They spent almost 50 years as forcibly annexed states of the Soviet Union – although most western democracies did not acknowledge the Soviet occupation – after having been conquered earlier by the Russian empire.

Their independence was recognised in 1991, but Russia has nonetheless tried to use its dominance in the energy sector to have economic influence over them, has sought to meddle in their domestic politics and has tried to stoke discord among their Russian ethnic minorities.

Russian intimidation

Unlike countries in which Russia has played a part in the creation of separatist territories and frozen conflict zones, such as in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, the Baltic states benefit from a completely different geopolitical standing.

As EU and NATO member states since 2004, they are firmly integrated into western institutions. Most importantly, as NATO members, they benefit from the collective defence clause of Article V of its charter, which means that an attack against one NATO member is considered to be an attack against all NATO member states.

Despite their firm integration into the West, the threat from Russia remains potent. In fact, in recent years Moscow has kept continuously intimidating the Baltic states by violating their airspace, launching snap military exercises near their borders, and even kidnapping an Estonian security official. Moscow has declared their independence from the Soviet Union illegal and even sought to persecute thousands of Lithuanians who avoided or hid from the Soviet draft following Vilnius’s declaration of independence in March 1990.

Furthermore, as I discussed in my earlier work, there is an ever-present risk that Russia will try to use the Russian speakers and other minorities within the Baltic States for its own territorial ambitions. In all three countries, especially in Estonia and Latvia, there are sizable concentrated ethnic Russian populations living close to the borders of the Russian Federation.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will not be easy targets for Russia but it does not mean that their governments and western allies will not worry about their defence in the years to come.


While Lithuania’s Russian population falls just below 6 percent, with some living around the city of Klaipeda near Russia’s Kaliningrad territory, in Estonia and Latvia ethnic Russians represent about 24 percent and 27 percent of the population respectively.

In these two countries many of the minorities are concentrated near the Russian border – in Ida-Viru county, in Estonia, and the Latgale region in Latvia.

The Balts are keenly aware of all these risks and, as a result, they have pursued a number of measures to strengthen their territorial defence.

Bolstering defence

First of all, based on the perceived Russian threat and due to increasing calls by US President Donald Trump for NATO members to meet their commitment and spend 2 percent of GDP on defence, the Baltic States have been rapidly increasing their defence budgets.

Estonia is already one of the five NATO member states that spends 2 percent on defence, and Tallinn plans to spend even more.

Although Latvia and Lithuania currently spend 1.7 and 1.8 percent of GDP on defence, both countries have pledged to spend at least 2 percent by 2018.

To put their efforts into a perspective, over the past years Latvia and Lithuania have maintained the world’s fastest growing defence budgets.

OPINION: For Eastern Europe, Moscow is an existential threat

Furthermore, the military forces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have witnessed notable changes. For example, in 2015 Lithuania has reintroduced conscription and has since enlisted some 3,500 young adults aged 19 to 26 to the military annually.

Although Latvia has no plans to reintroduce conscription and Estonia has never abandoned its mandatory conscription, both countries have witnessed a surge in popularity of voluntary defence organisations such as the Latvian National Guard and the Estonian Defense League.

Also, Lithuania has been gradually preparing for hybrid warfare scenarios. Since 2014, the Lithuanian government has issued lengthy manuals each year for its citizens, which explain what to do in the event of war, hybrid war, or another emergency situation.

These manuals provide advice on how to use simple camping and scouting equipment, how to spot landmines and even how to identify Russian military hardware.

Although not explicitly formulated, the strategy echoes the concept of “total defence” where the whole population could be mobilised to repel the aggressor.

READ MORE: US accelerates troop deployment to Poland and Baltics

The Baltic states have also seen support from their allies – particularly NATO. Earlier in 2016, NATO members agreed to deploy three multinational battalions of up to 1,200 troops each in the Baltic states, with Britain, Canada and Germany being the lead nations.

These multinational battalions will bring heavy military equipment, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers, fighting vehicles and other hardware with them.

In addition, the United States is conducting separate NATO missions in these countries, and hundreds of US troops and their equipment can now be found throughout the three Baltic states.

With a changing international environment and an increasingly aggressive large neighbour, the Baltic states are wise to be cautious.

Though they benefit from NATO membership and the security guarantees of its members, they have shown that they are serious about self-defence and bolstering their security.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will not be easy targets for Russia, but it does not mean that their governments and western allies will not worry about their defence in the years to come.

Agnia Grigas, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, is the author of The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas and Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.