Baltic defence in the shadow of the war

  • 2023-07-29
  • Tomas Jermalavicius

Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine feels almost personal in the Baltic States, as if one of us has become a victim. Historical experience of the Soviet occupation and its atrocities mean that we are just a generation or two away from having our own memories of atrocities by the Russian troops. War is also a next-door reality in a physical sense, as Vilnius is the closest NATO and EU capital to Kyiv, while all three Baltic States have long land borders with the aggressor state and, in the case of Latvia and Lithuania, with its subservient client state, Belarus. 

This reality means that defence is now among top priorities of the governments and societies, determined, in concert with the allies, to deter and, if necessary, defeat Russia’s aggression. They know they could be the targets should Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin miscalculate and underestimate NATO’s cohesion and resolve. All three nations raised their defence spending to well over 2% of the GDP – the Alliance’s benchmark that many other allies are struggling to meet – and made pledges to reach 2.5% or even more. According to a recent SIPRI report, Lithuania’s annual defence spending growth (22%) was among the fastest in the world in 2022. One after another, new equipment acquisitions are being announced – from the famous HIMARS missile systems and self-propelled howitzers to infantry fighting vehicles, combat drones and medium-range air defence batteries. This builds on the already extensive modernisation programmes initiated after Russia began its aggression against Ukraine in 2014. The three countries are also rushing to replenish their armouries after handing over significant amounts of their equipment, weapons, and munitions to Ukraine to support its defensive efforts.

Just as importantly, the Baltic nations show strong societal will for self-defence, with military conscription and reserve training at the heart of their preparedness for total defence. Voluntary territorial defence organisations have also been witnessing a surge in membership, strengthening this pillar of national defence. Their armed forces are among the most trusted state institutions, consistently scoring close to 80% in public trust and support surveys, and more than half of the citizens are prepared to join military defence in the event of war, with even greater numbers willing to contribute with non-military efforts. The three nations are busy weaving a web of whole-of-society resilience that underpins much of Ukraine’s success in withstanding Russia’s onslaught and is indeed required by Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Resourceful and resolute as they are, the Baltic States, however, are still just three small nations in a vulnerable geographical position. But they have an enormous strategic advantage that Ukraine does not (at least not yet) – membership in NATO. The Alliance is mobilising and adapting itself to confront Russia’s threat in ways that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago, including accepting Finland and, hopefully soon, Sweden into its ranks. One of the central thrusts of its adaptation is building a robust forward defence posture along its eastern flank, especially in the Baltic States. Having promised, at the Madrid Summit last year, to defend every inch of the territory of the allies, it is now putting in place detailed plans and measures to enable this posture, to be reviewed and approved at a crucial summit in Vilnius. 

The Baltic States already host almost 5 000 allied troops, with more expected to arrive in the coming years, supported and enabled by more potent weapon systems and more effective command and control arrangements than before. The three capitals would probably like to see that happening sooner and on a larger scale, but they also must do a lot of homework by investing into host nation capabilities, training infrastructure expansion and military mobility improvements. What is clear by now is that the new NATO model does not necessarily mean the Cold War-type arrangements that we saw in West Germany back in the day, but rather rests on the ability to bring the Alliance’s technological edge to bear at the right time and place – and in sufficient amounts – to deny Russia any chance of success in realising its aggressive intent against NATO allies in the region and beyond. 

Tomas Jermalavicius is Head of Studies/Research Fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security. His areas of expertise: defence strategy and planning; regional defence cooperation; disruptive technologies, defence industry and innovation; societal resilience; energy security.