The year 2018 marked the hundredth anniversary of the the independence of the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Since 1918, the three nations suffered triply by brutal occupations: first by the Soviet Union, then by Nazi Germany, followed by the Soviet Union again. Despite these hardships, the three small nations endured, gaining their independence once again following the fall of the Iron Curtain. And remarkably, they have thrived, transitioning from Soviet republics to productive members of both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The euphoria of “Fourth Wave” democratization following the collapse of the Soviet Union underscored the drivers and timeline of NATO expansion eastwards into the former Warsaw Pact nations and European Soviet republics, including the Baltic States. It is important to remember that even after the Baltic States acceded to NATO membership, no actual plans for their defense were developed until 2010. Arguably, the costs of guaranteeing the Baltic States’ security would not have been accepted by the Western public or political elites in any time other than the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, which induced a widespread sentiment of democratic victory. At the time, the prospect and promise of Baltic democratization seemed more important than Alliance vulnerabilities. However, the events since then have significantly shifted the mindset of key NATO members.
There is much to celebrate as the Baltic nations enter their fifteenth year as NATO members, but there is still work to be done. Despite the successes of the Baltic States, many challenges still remain, several of which not only undermine the security of each state, but also the region and the NATO alliance as a whole. Just as NATO has fulfilled its obligation to uphold the sovereignty of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania through Article 5, so too should the Baltic community seek to fulfill its obligations in its own backyard. Doing so not only addresses regional vulnerabilities, but can serve as a model for other NATO members, particularly those in the direct crosshairs of Russian aggression.
The Baltic Porcupine: Regional Military Cooperation
It is hardly a surprise that none of the Baltic States possess conventional military strength to match the Russian Federation in the event of an all-out conflict. Any scenario that includes a major incursion by Russia into the region presumes that follow-on NATO forces would have to fight a “breakthrough” to relieve local military and Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) forces. Despite this reality, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania should continue investing in their defense forces, with an emphasis on regional interoperability. The Baltic nations may be unable to go toe-to-toe with a Russian aggressor, but through combined and coordinated efforts, they can make any desire or attempts to use force in the region too unpalatable for the Kremlin to consider. Like a porcupine’s quills, defensive efforts are mutually dependent and enhanced by uniformity and coordination; a single barb is a nuisance, a combined effort can be deadly.
A recent report from the Estonian-based International Centre for Defence and Security highlighted the trend of Baltic nations pursuing bilateral military relationships with their EFP partners, in some cases at the expense of regional capacity building. A recent example is the affiliation of Lithuania’s Iron Wolf Mechanized Brigade with a German Army division (Germany also leads the EFP Battlegroup in Lithuania). While such affiliations help broaden operational experience within NATO exercises and real-world operations, it is in some respects a missed opportunity to reinforce trilateral military institutions in the Baltic States, namely NATO’s Multinational Division North. Further, bilateral engagement has the potential to create confusing, competing, and redundant command-and-control structures, while diluting the value of regional and NATO ones.
The Baltic States can learn from their larger European counterparts by conducting permanent unit affiliations in their own backyard. A good model is the German Army’s 414th Panzer Battalion. Though not expected to be operational until 2019, the 414th will incorporate a Dutch tank company, which will be permanently stationed in Germany. Concurrent with this move, Germany will upgrade Dutch Leopard tanks to the A7 model, ensuring identical platforms across the unit. Other examples include the Franco-German Brigade, a three-decade-old binational military unit that has conducted operational deployments to Mali and Lithuania. A Baltic version of the integration seen by German and Dutch military forces would maximize limited defense resources, establish clear formations to respond to any threat in the region, and create a permanent culture of interoperability that could bleed into other areas of defense, such as procurement. Further, this model could be expanded to reserve and territorial defense units of each of the three nations, expanding interoperability to auxiliary forces that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would rely upon in the event of any significant military operation embarked upon by the Russian Federation.
The Baltic States have seen several missed opportunities in procuring uniform military resources. Each state fields a separate infantry fighting vehicle and self-propelled artillery system. Such diversity between three small militaries creates significant logistical and maintenance challenges in peacetime that would only be exacerbated during a crisis. Further, individual procurement by each state is financially costly, and none of the three Baltic nations have the defense budgets to justify frivolous spending. While the Baltic States are unlikely to alter the course of ongoing fielding of major systems (e.g., Lithuania’s purchase of Pzh 2000 self-propelled howitzers or Estonia’s fielding of CV90 infantry fighting vehicles), trilateral resource pooling should be enshrined in the future defense strategies and spending plans of each country.
A useful vehicle for pooling resources and capabilities is the European Union’s Permanent Structured Cooperation Cooperation (PESCO) framework. PESCO’s projects are undertaken jointly and voluntarily by twenty-five member nations, though commitment is legally binding. Projects are also eligible for partial or full funding from the European Defense Fund, incentivizing collaboration. The projects themselves are geared towards broader military interoperability between European military forces, and range from the development of shared military platforms such as artillery systems to the establishment of cyber response teams and mutual. Estonia and Latvia (together with eight other EU members) have committed to a project focused on the development of modular autonomous ground systems, complete with a common control system and sensor suites. Such systems would be welcome for Baltic militaries, whose small manpower pool can be offset by increased investment in unmanned defense capabilities.
Lingua Baltica: Linguistic and Doctrinal Interoperability Challenges
An often overlooked but critical vulnerability in Baltic security is the fact that the three Baltic countries do not speak the same language, both figuratively and literally. The depth of military cooperation between Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia that would measurably enhance collective defense requires an unprecedented level of trust. This level of trust can only be achieved if all the participants are guided by uniform principles and doctrine, both in perception of threats and in employing military force. While all three nations agree that Russia presents the most significant threat to regional security, their defense and national security documents provide little more than aspirational guidance for cooperation on addressing this challenge. For example, Lithuania outlines increased strategic partnership and cooperation with its fellow Baltic States in its 2017 National Security Strategy, but does not mention specific efforts to increase trilateral defense planning or a shared military operational plan for addressing a crisis within the Baltic region. Latvia’s 2016 National Defence Concept makes note of similar regional cooperation, but stops short of recommending concrete solutions to achieve this, nor does it discuss leveraging existing and planned defense capabilities from their Estonian and Lithuanian neighbors.
A serious consideration of issues both at the tactical and operational levels for the Baltic nations is imperative. Absent such consideration, serious vulnerabilities and degradation of effectiveness could likely emerge, with further consequences at the strategic and regional echelons. Ostensibly simple issues such as spoken language have a significant impact on trilateral military coordination. Though NATO has adopted English as the operational language of choice for the organization, it is unclear what level of English-language aptitude exists within the military forces of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Linguistic interoperability is a challenge not confined to NATO’s Baltic members, of course. But it is compounded by the fact that the Baltic is a frontline region. Should a military crisis occur between NATO and Russia in the region, clear and rapid communication between Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian military units will be crucial, especially at the tactical levels. Both Estonia and Lithuania operate conscription models for force generation, with around 3,000–4,000 conscripts recruited a year in each country, yielding a substantial portion of military personnel with a mixed range of English aptitude. With uncertainty surrounding the extent of English aptitude in each military across the ranks, additional efforts should be made to assess existing skills and codify what constitutes “military fluency” in the English language. NATO should also look to European Commission as a model, as they have made English one of the chief working languages of the European Union’s sprawling bureaucracy.
Holistic Defense: Fostering National Resilience
While trilateral military cooperation requires significant development beyond promises by politicians and military leaders, it should not come at the expense of the continuing process of democratization. Regional security is not exclusively predicated on military investment and expenditure; rather, it must address vulnerabilities in the spaces of economy and civil society. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have so far avoided the troubling degradation of political institutions seen in Poland and Hungary. Despite this, the Baltic States have not been entirely immune to the negative aspects of the resurgence of European populism. The ruling party of Lithuania, for example, has made successful steps towards entrenching governmental control over national media channels, prompting the state broadcaster’s oversight body to release a counter-statement. It is important to underline that significant deterioration in democratic processes in these countries would seriously undermine NATO’s will to defend them. If the values underpinning NATO are not upheld within member states, it becomes difficult if not impossible for the alliance to defend interests based on the ideology of a values-based security community. Moreover, the weakening of democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary or state regulatory and anti-corruption agencies creates fissures within governments that are easily exploited by adversaries adept at political warfare—like Russia or China.
Aside from these general trends, specific issues in certain national sectors persist. In the years since independence from the Soviet Union, the Baltic region has experienced pervasive corruption in its infrastructure sectors, specifically in transportation enterprises. State-led railway companies evolved into strong bastions of political influence with questionable ties to Moscow, and multiple scandals involving high-ranking officials risked undermining trust in national institutions. Recognizing this vulnerability, all three Baltic States have made robust efforts to reform the management of their critical infrastructure. Media exposure and pressure from civil society forced out the majority of corrupt officials, replacing them with apolitical managers holding international business experience. But corruption persists in other sectors. Logistics and transportation holdings, often close to the Baltic national security establishment, maintain business links in Russia rendering them vulnerable to Russia’s political influence. Private business often avoids the kind of scrutiny afforded to public enterprises. Meanwhile due to geographic proximity and persistent infrastructural dependence on Russia, it has been convenient for businesses to maintain extensive trade links with Russia (averaging around 10–15 percent of GDP).
Further concerning is the state of Baltic banking establishments. While hailed as the vanguard of Western investment at first, their reputation has recently soured a little due to a series of scandals of money laundering. Last February, the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network hit ABLV, a major Latvian bank, with restrictions, embarrassing Latvian and European regulators. The case of ABLV was not a one-off, as Latvia’s banking sector was long known as a “Wild West” region for money laundering, with numerous international warnings coming as early as 2007. Recently, a whistleblower revealed that nearly $235 billion worth of “suspicious” transactions were handled by the Estonian branch of Danske Bank between 2007 and 2015. In addition to handling the money of Russian oligarchs, the Estonian branch was used to launder money for the family of Russian President Vladimir Putin and members of the FSB. Money laundering is effectively a strategic threat. Without sustained progress it risks to undermine the fragile public trust in private banking and eventually rupture strategically important ties with Western businesses.
Finally, the Baltics have borne the brunt of Russia’s disinformation operations against NATO members, and as a result have built up resilience in their state institutions. The success or failure of Russian (or other foreign) malign influence, however, is also dependent on whether society can respond effectively. Sustained resilience to disinformation and more covert forms of influence will require the Baltics to maintain an engaged and responsive civil society. Baltic civil society actors, however, have long been struggling to maintain their health for different reasons. Notably, they struggle to maintain independent income (donations are a challenge in countries where average income averages around 900 euros*) and are therefore often forced to rely on government-sponsored project funds. Baltic media outlets also struggle to grow sales and retain readership—with levels still not reaching those from before the 2008 economic crisis that sent the Baltic economies into a downward spiral. This contrasts with the well-funded Russian state media, which pumps out high-quality, if heavily politically skewed, entertainment content and is able to reach to disenfranchised (and often Russian-speaking) audiences in the region.
From the Baltic Way to the “Baltic Way”: Modelling Small-State Security
Twenty-seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States have shown the world how nations can successfully transform from authoritarianism and communism to free and thriving states. Preserving this legacy of democracy in the Baltic States is reliant upon addressing security weaknesses, and passivity to these issues will only further expose Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to outside threat. Many of these weaknesses remain, but they can be remedied by proactive initiatives, especially those that foster greater cooperation between the three countries. In short, the three countries can only build a house of bricks together.
One way to achieve greater trilateral cooperation is to headline the concept through regular presidential and ministerial summits. By elevating its importance, the Baltic nations would be more easily poised to undertake meaningful cooperative efforts. Further, these summits should not be solely focused on “hard” security concerns. Heads of both government and state can use these opportunities to address vulnerabilities in the areas of banking, transportation, energy, corruption and civil society. Between the three nations, promises can be made to achieve measurable progress over a set period of time, not unlike the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Ultimately, these summits can evolve into a more permanent regional initiative—a “Res Baltica”—to promote trilateral initiatives, share best practices, and pool the aggregate power of the three Baltic nations. Such a model would not only increase the security of the Baltic region, but could serve as an effective model for smaller nations with shared interests and security concerns to come together in the face of similar geopolitical threats. It would be a fitting tribute for three former Soviet republics at the forefront of facing down tyranny to not just demonstrate to the world an ability to stand up to oppression, but offer a path for securing and sustaining the democratic ideal.
Adam Maisel is a military intelligence officer in the Army Reserve and veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel and a former civilian military intelligence adviser to US, NATO, and allied forces. He currently serves as Research Analyst in Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, and recently received his master’s degree in National Security Studies from King’s College London, Department of War Studies. Adam is also the co-founder of Dägr Group, a transatlantic initiative bridging the gap between national security practitioners and academia.
Laurynas Keturakis is an independent analyst on Transatlantic security. He has previously served as an associate analyst at the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and as a fellow at the Embassy of Lithuania to the United States. Laurynas recently completed his bachelor’s degree in International Studies at Leiden University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.