In the Shadow of Russia: NATO, the Baltics, and the United States

By Courtney Kayser, April 26, 2018

CSPS Student Fellow Courtney Kayser interviews Dr. Colin Dueck, Dr. Michael Hunzeker, and Dr. Alexander Lanoszka on their recent work in the Baltic States to assess the present security concerns presented by Russia.

This past summer, two Schar School professors traveled to the Baltic states to assess their security concerns regarding Russian intervention. Dr. Colin Dueck traveled on behalf of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), and Dr. Michael Hunzeker and his co-author, Dr. Alexander Lanoszka, did so on behalf of the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) at the US Army War College. Dr. Dueck specializes in foreign policy, international relations, and US politics and is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government. Dr. Hunzeker, likewise from the Schar School, studies international security and military innovation. Dr. Lanoszka researches alliance politics and nuclear strategy at the City University of London. Dr. Lanoszka is also a regional expert on Central and Northeastern Europe.

For one and two weeks respectively, both Schar School professors traveled to the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, interviewing diplomatic and military officials, along with academics. Dr. Hunzeker was also able to visit Poland on his tour, while Dr. Dueck interviewed non-government organizations and private citizens alongside government officials. On behalf of the Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS), I interviewed both Dr. Dueck and Dr. Hunzeker about their trips, and from these talks, several common themes arose.

1. The Legacy of Ukraine

Although the Russian Federation has a history of intervening in the affairs of the states in its near abroad, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 caused the international community to shift its focus back to the Kremlin and Eastern Europe. Russian reasons for annexing the peninsula included geopolitics (continued access to Sevastopol) and protecting ethnic Russian populations. The two separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine also have large Russian-speaking populations. The Baltic states and Poland have all expressed concern over Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the region, given their shared history of rule by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, their inability to survive a Russian offensive without aid if one were to occur, and the large ethnic Russian populations in the Baltic region. In Dr. Dueck’s interviews, many officials viewed Ukraine as the front line of their conflict with Russia, and many officials spoke of future partnerships with Ukraine. Many were aware of Russian actions in Ukraine and the response from NATO and other states would set the precedent for the future of Russian hybrid warfare.

2. The Baltic States are Not Identical

Although it is common to discuss the Baltic states as a unit, the Russian Federation poses different security threats to each of the states. For instance, due to Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave, being located on its Western border, Lithuania is more concerned about a potential Russian land grab. In Dr. Dueck’s interviews, Lithuanian officials requested the most American ground troops. Estonian and Latvian officials, however, would prefer air and naval support. Estonian officials, in particular, were interested in naval support due to its coastlines and the ease with which it can be cut off from the mainland.

In Latvia, there are active pro-Russian parties that regularly receive seats in parliament. In 2014, the center-left party, Harmony, secured the largest share of the vote and the most seats in the Latvian parliament; Harmony has a formal cooperation agreement with Putin’s party, United Russia as well. Both Estonia and Latvia have large Russian minorities, accounting for roughly 25 and 27 percent of their populations respectively. Ethnic Russians account for only about 6 percent of the Lithuanian population. Of the three Baltic states, Latvia is the most reliant on Russian energy sources and the Russian-controlled electric grids. The power of pro-Kremlin groups in Latvia translates to less aggressive policy positions towards the Russian Federation compared to Estonia and especially Lithuania. In Dr. Dueck and Dr. Hunzeker’s interviews, Latvian officials are outliers, as the only ones who did not wish to have more troops stationed in their country. Additionally, Latvia has no draft and no popular defense force initiatives like its peers. While constrained by its domestic audience, Dr. Hunzeker argues that Latvia could still be the location of a Russian land grab if one were to occur, as its defense forces are less prepared by nature and would serve to cut the Baltic states in half, making a coordinated response more difficult.

3. Credible Deterrence and Continued American Support

In Dr. Hunzeker’s interviews, officials were concerned with the credibility of American commitments to Baltic defense. Both reassurances and threats rely on clarity to allies and enemies to be credible, but this is not seen in many American and NATO pronouncements. For instance, are the NATO troops in the Baltics there as a tripwire – placed there to ensure a larger response after a Russian incursion – or are these troops a legitimate fighting force meant to stop a potential incursion as it transpires? The multinational Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), consisting of about 5000 troops, could either function as a tripwire or act as the spearhead the response force. To be effective, tripwires must be distinguished from a fighting force. Yet, according to Dr. Hunzeker, we do not know which function the VJTF serves, and if we do not know, neither do Kremlin officials.

Compounding the lack of clarity as to what purpose the forces in the Baltic states will serve is the fact that many officials doubt continued American attention. The United States has many strategic interests across the globe, and while Russia presently holds the attention of US officials, this is not guaranteed to be the case indefinitely. Georgia and Ukraine, who both have experienced Russian-backed separatist movements, quickly dropped out of the media’s eye. Russia’s cyber harassment against the Baltic states does not receive media attention, and American officials could easily be distracted by other crises that are perceived to have a greater bearing on US security interests. The fear of losing Washington’s attention was brought up in both interviews, and this fear is one of the factors why many Baltic leaders are keen on securing the stationing of American troops in the region. Russia enjoys has the geographical advantage, so if American and NATO officials are not vigilant, they could easily be at a disadvantage if an armed conflict were to occur.

4. Baltic Coordination and Belarus

One of Dr. Hunzeker’s recommendations for US officials is to encourage greater multilateral coordination among the Baltic states. There is a lack of regional defense policies that holistically address Baltic security, and adding regional centers for lessons learned could vastly improve Baltic security. Presently, American and other NATO forces consistently perform exercises in the region, but local units are not learning from one another or sharing the lessons from various exercises with the other Baltic states. The US military has extensive experience with establishing lesson learned centers and could easily port these methods over to the Baltics. Poland is also well positioned to take a leading role in regional initiatives, a position aided by the fact that the majority of American troops in the region are stationed in Poland. There was also talk in Dr. Dueck’s interviews of treating the wider Baltic sea region as a security unit, bringing in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. While coordinating between these new states would certainly be more difficult, for while Denmark is a NATO member, Sweden and Finland are not. Yet, these states all border the Baltic Sea, which is key for Russian naval power projection in Northern Europe.

Regional initiatives also must consider Belarus. If there were to be any armed conflict, the Russian Federation would need to coordinate with their neighbor, and this coordination should be easy to spot if NATO officials are watching for it. There is also evidence that Belarusian officials are not in lock-step with their Russian counterparts, especially after 2014. While Belarus has been closer to Russia in the post-Soviet era policy-wise than Ukraine, both states occupy a similar type of space, attempting to balance Western and Russian influences. There is space, Dr. Dueck argues, for Baltic officials to explore diplomatic relations with Belarus. It is also feasible, Dr. Hunzeker asserts, to tailor deterrence threats specifically towards Belarus to dissuade Belarusian officials from collaborating, or at least resist collaborating, with the Kremlin.

Future of Baltic security and the role the US will be determined through the careful assessment of these factors. While a potential Russian land grab is certainly one of the more extreme possibilities, it is also one of the least likely. Rather than outright attack, the Baltic states face near constant, low-level harassment from the Russian Federation, usually in the form of cyber-attacks. Still, it is important that officials continue to pay attention to the region, especially given their inability to counter a Russian offensive without outside support. Greater understanding of the nuances of the internal politics of the Baltic states is crucial for developing regional coordination and establishing credible deterrence. But, to craft credible deterrence American and NATO officials must be clear on the exact purpose of the forces they deploy and remain attentive to the evolving security arrangements in the region. There are opportunities and means to improve the region’s security without directly antagonizing the Russian Federation, but exploiting these will require the issue to not be a ‘back burner’ issue for American officials.

Dr. Dueck’s piece for CEPA on his speaking tour can be found here.
Dr. Hunzeker and his co-author, Dr. Alexander Lanoszka, have a forthcoming monograph with SSI. They also have an article in The RUSI Journal on confronting the A2/AD challenge in the Baltic region, which can be found here.

 

Courtney Kayser is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Along with CSPS, she works as a section editor for the Journal of Mason Graduate Research and as the graduate representative on OSCAR’s Student Scholarly Activities committee at GMU. Additionally, she graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Philosophy, a Certificate in Russian and East European Studies, and a minor in Russian language from Seton Hall University. She is proficient in Russian and French and has an elementary proficiency in Ukrainian. Her research focuses on Russian foreign policy, post-Soviet space, and alliances.

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