Despite enjoying over thirty years of independence from the old Soviet empire, the shadow of Russian influence is still hanging over the Baltic states. Elina Morhunova and Yannis Karamitsios devise a short but precise plan to stem any further influence by Moscow in the Baltic regions.
The Russian challenge for the Baltic states
For almost forty years, NATO devoted enormous military, political and financial resources to deter a potential Soviet attack on Western Europe yet despite this, the expansion of modern Russia’s economic and military power and the adoption of a competitive agenda in its foreign affairs has become the replacement and the reality. And while Russia does not claim the role of a global super-power, as the Soviet Union used to be, it certainly insists in controlling the former Soviet territory in its periphery. For Russia, this is not only a matter of prestige, but also a geopolitical buffering against its perceived adversaries.
However, there is one exception in regional geo-strategic picture of Russia: the Eastern Baltic region. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia not only moved away from the Russian influence, but in 2004 joined the two main institutions of the “western camp”, namely the EU and NATO. This is most probably a shock that the Russian ruling elites have hardly managed to absorb.
Based on its current military deployment in the region, it seems NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of the Baltics against a Russian invasion. The longest it would take Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian or Latvian capitals is sixty hours. In such a scenario, the United States and its allies would not only be outranged and outgunned, but also outnumbered.
In order to avoid such a scenario, NATO would need to increase its presence substantially to provide a formidable defence perimeter for the three coastal states on the Eastern Baltic. One study which was conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2016, proposed deployments of around 35,000 personnel, with an additional reinforcement capability of up to about 70,000 personnel. Air power, land-based deployments, and other enablers on the ground should adequately support that force. It should be capable to immediately react and engage at the onset of the hostilities. While this deterrent posture might seem costly in absolute terms, it is affordable, especially in comparison with the potential costs of failing to defend NATO’s most exposed and vulnerable allies.
Russian speaking minorities constitute a significant proportion of the populations of Latvia and Estonia, and to a lesser extent, Lithuania. The largest percentage of this minority is in Latvia, where about 35% of the population are Russophones. The situation is shaping up similarly in Estonia where 29% of the population can be counted as part of the Russian language community.
Political support from the West has been gradually weakening with the Trump administration only recently sending signs of disengagement. The Baltics need a wholehearted and unequivocal political support of the West, which is sometimes lacking and the EU and NATO should be aware that any threat against their territorial integrity or any form of sovereignty will be answered by tough equivalent measures. It could be in the form of support to Baltic media to develop their own counter-narratives to Russian disinformation.
Despite the robust economic growth of their economy over the last 15 years, the Baltic states are among the bottom half of the least wealthy EU members in terms of GDP per capita. They remain dependent on EU funding for many sectors of their economies and rely on connections with European networks to stay independent from Russian grids. Russian direct investments have declined significantly over the last number of years. On the other hand, Russia is always in a position to hit key economic sectors of those states as part of a hybrid series of threats: attack of infrastructure, manipulation of key-stocks, disruptive sanctions or trade restrictions allegedly for safety or environmental protection.
European financial institutions should invest in the energy infrastructure of those countries. It could contribute to the preparation for the eventuality of hybrid war, but also to pacifying social tensions. What would be the most important factory here would be to focus on the production of energy from renewable sources and build the necessary grids to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Economic support will be needed to protect the Baltic states by strengthening security systems and creating reserve solutions in cases of any alien malevolent infiltration into their vital networks.
Russia claims to have no interest in invading other surrounding countries, but its unpredictable threat remains on the table. With more than thirty western countries backing the Baltic states against a possible invasion, Russia would dare not risk any kind of aggression. On the other hand, it might be emboldened to repeat its regional adventures if the military, political or economic support from the west proves lacklustre. The three-pronged strategy that we presented above would make such a scenario much more unlikely.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by the authors in this text are strictly personal and do not necessarily express the positions of their employers.