The Other Russian Front: Baltic Reactions to the War in Ukraine
As Russia continues with its invasion of Ukraine, other nations are finding themselves caught in the crossfire, namely the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. While relatively small and geographically isolated from the core of the Western alliance, the Baltic states are NATO member states who share direct borders with Russia and represent NATO's frontline against an increasingly aggressive world power.
All three have done their fair share to support the alliance, going beyond their regional interests. Baltic troops served actively in Afghanistan, each country spends above the 2% required by NATO on military spending, and they jointly pledged in late January to arm Ukraine with anti-tank and anti-air missiles to enhance its defenses. Furthermore, Russia seems to view these efforts and the Baltics' overall relationship with the West as strategically threatening. They have continuously demanded NATO return to its 1997 borders, a configuration that would exclude the three countries from the alliance.
Image Source: Independent News
However, the Western states of NATO do not seem to reciprocate a similar level of commitment. In a telling faux pas, UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss forgot where the Baltics were located on a map, much to the amusement of the Kremlin, whose deputy ambassador at the United Nations responded by deeming British diplomacy to be “absolutely worthless”. This episode aside, one must seriously consider the position and value of NATO's Baltic bastion, given the increasingly dire situation in Eastern Europe.
Since they came into existence, the Baltic States, like Ukraine, have shared a fraught relationship with Russia. In 1917 and 1918, in the midst of the chaos of the Russian Civil War and World War I, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania declared their independence from the defunct Empire. That short breath of true autonomy ended on the eve of Soviet entry into World War II. In one fell swoop, Soviet leadership annexed all three via ultimatum in 1940. With a single maneuver, the Baltic nations were swallowed into the Russian-led collection of Soviet Socialist republics until 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, where they once again broke free from Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In reviewing this history, it should not be concluded that the Baltics passively accepted Russian dominance during this part of the twentieth century; all three fought off Russia’s initial invasion in the Baltic War of Independence (1918-1920). Their exit from the Russian Empire was fiercely contested by the Red Army, whom the Baltic states viciously repelled several times before the Soviets finally recognized the states. When the Soviet Union finally did absorb these states in 1940, it was not without thousands of Baltic citizens taking up arms in partisan groups like the Forest Brothers and the Union of Lithuanian of Freedom Fighters in response, with tens of thousands of people losing their lives as a result.
Friction did not cease once the Baltics exited the Union. One consequence of their messy divorce with the Soviet Union was the new presence of substantial Russian ethnic minorities in each Baltic nation, with roughly 25% of Latvia and Estonia’s populations still identifying as Russian in 2021. While internal ethnic tensions have generally been subdued since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has used these diasporas as rhetorical justifications for potential aggression, most notably in the 2014 invasion of Crimea. In that instance, Russia claimed annexation was a necessary step to prevent anti-Russian violence they accused Ukraine of perpetrating in Crimea.
In their efforts to protect against these modern-day incursions by the Russian State, the Baltic states have significantly relied on their NATO membership and an all-around embrace of the West. As of 2004, all three have been full members of the European Union and NATO. Moreover, all three have rejected Russian offers of security assurances in favor of NATO protection. Yet, while the Baltic states share a similar history and the common foreign policy goals of resisting Russian re-absorption, they have had different reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
President Alar Karis; Image Source: AFP via Getty Images
Prior to the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Estonian president, Alar Karis, directly called for an increase in NATO military presence in Eastern Europe to deter Russia, stating “we want more NATO troops in Estonia'' to maintain “a strong presence to make sure we are not going to be attacked.” The United States appeared to respond to this request by deploying six F-15 fighter jets to an airbase near Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Kaja Kallis, the Estonian prime minister, being more blunt than President Karis, asserted that “[t]he biggest deterrence [sic] to Russia is an American flag.” Both senior officials also expressed a desire for a diplomatic resolution to the situation in their statements, though neither elaborated about what that may entail besides dialogue.
In response to Russia’s invasion, Estonia pledged to send howitzers to aid in the defense after receiving approval from both Germany and Finland, who had to accede to the transfer of arms due to the initial sales contract. President Karis simply tweeted that “evil is real” in reference to Russia. Following this, Prime Minister Kallas stated that Estonia “condemn[s] in the gravest manner Russia's large-scale military attack against Ukraine.”
Lativan President Egils Levits; Image Source: President of the Republic of Latvia
In the case of Latvia, it had initiated an expansion of its national guard, increased military presence along its border with Russia, and begun the process of increasing its defense expenditures from 2.3% to 2.5% of its GDP prior to the invasion, later passing the raise into law on March 1. Latvian President Egils Levits lambasted Russia for “[intending] to rebuild the Soviet Empire,” accusing Russian “political thinking [of being] stuck in the categories of 19th-century imperialism.”
Latvia’s parliament responded to Russia’s escalation of the conflict by unanimously voting to permit Latvian citizens to fight in the Ukrainian armed forces if they so desire. The nation has also authorized 30 truckloads of medical supplies, food, and helmets to ship to Ukraine to bolster those defending the country against Russian assault. President Levits stated that “Russia has violated international law and undermined the rules-based international order,” further pointing out that “Latvia relies on NATO solidarity and NATO can count on [Latvia].”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius; Image Source: Financial Times
In the lead-up to the Russian invasion, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius urged his European allies not to underestimate the threat Russia poses to NATO. Landsbergis warned at a conference of European diplomats that "Russia is really gearing up for war and is doing it seriously." On February 3, Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda ramped up rhetoric by labeling current circumstances as the "most dangerous situation [the Baltics have faced] since regaining independence" and called for an increase of German troops in his country to respond. President Nauseda continued, succinctly summarizing the general anxiety of the Baltic nations in relation to Russia: "Russia has all the possibilities to deploy military capabilities in the territory of Belarus, threatening the neighbors [sic], not necessarily Ukraine but also Poland, the Baltic countries.”
In recent days, Lithuania has pressed the International Criminal Court to look into potential “war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.” President Nauseda declared a national state of emergency, arguing that the Russian build-up in Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad represent a risk to Lithuania's national security. The Lithuanian president also advocated that the European Union provide Ukraine a “much more visible and transparent road to membership” in the Union going forward, requesting harsh sanctions be slapped on Russia in response to their aggression.
While many elements of the crisis in Eastern Europe are still playing out, the statements of the Baltic nations make one aspect absolute: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are intent on resisting Russian incursions. They view NATO protection as vital to preserving Ukrainian and their own independence. In a joint statement presented to the UN Security Council in response to Russian forces entering Ukraine, the three states offered their “unwavering support” for “Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders,” unequivocally affirming their support for their Eastern European neighbor.
Russia had previously been investing in kinds of "hybrid threats," otherwise known as the utilization of non-conventional military tactics such as cyberattacks and supporting separatist groups to destabilize target nations. The Ukraine crisis, however, has revealed ways in which these investments can turn into very real, conventional conflict. NATO's troop presence has increased in Eastern Europe these past weeks, but who has the upper hand in the situation is still difficult to gauge. For the Baltic nations, the fight between Ukraine and Russia represents a pertinent and immediate threat to their national security. Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia have all followed through on their commitments to the ideals and structure of the NATO alliance. They now hope that the rest of their allies will do the same at a time when it matters most.