Russia’s aggression makes the Baltics think they might be next. Here is how to avoid it

Linas Kojala
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
People walk with a giant many meter-long Ukrainian flag to protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a celebration of Lithuania's independence in Vilnius, Lithuania, on March 11, 2022. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

An elderly man in Vilnius was recently looking at the military vehicles parked on the city’s main street as a part of the Independence Day celebrations. Some of the vehicles were of the Lithuanian military. Others came from the U.S.

He was approached by a journalist who asked whether foreign military on Lithuanian soil was causing anxiety. “Why would it?” responded the man, who appeared to be in his 80s. “I have been waiting for them to come for 70 years of my life.”

The allied troops were not deployed to the Baltics during the guerrilla struggle against the Soviets immediately after World War II. Yet they are present now because the Baltics are members of NATO.

More:Putin puts Russia's nuclear forces on alert, cites sanctions

More:$100 monthly check proposed to cover high gas prices

More:Dickerson guilty in 2019 murder of Dover Area student, jury decides

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have long felt that Russia’s revanchism was bound to return. Such concern was not entirely shared by other European nations. In 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin even flirted with the idea of cooperating with NATO.

The Baltic states might think now is the time to say, “We told you so.” But there is no point in doing this. It is essential to focus on avoiding the scenario of the Baltics being the next target of Russia, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy already warned. For that, three steps have to be taken.

First, the West must maintain strong support for Ukraine. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry matters the most now. In the future, a new Marshall Plan will have to be adopted to rebuild the country and restore its economy, which has already suffered damage worth around $100 billion.

Sanctions on Russia also play a role in this regard. They will harm Russia’s economy, as well as the economies of the West. However, any costs incurred by the people in the free world are negligible compared to the suffering of Ukrainians. The West must avoid falling into the trap of returning “back to normal” as soon as the first signs of a cease-fire or political settlement appear. The impact of war is going to be lengthy.

Second, the bravery of the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland must inspire proponents of liberal democracy. For more than a decade, democracy has been deemed to be “under siege’ and ‘in decline,” yet it proved to be resilient at the time of a catastrophe in Ukraine.

Zelenskyy, a comedian elected president, has proved to be an inspirational leader. Western democracies have also shown unprecedented unity in response to the Russian aggression. Yet if fatigue kicks in or attention span declines, and Ukraine ultimately struggles to defend itself, democracy and freedom will also suffer. The ramifications will go beyond the borders of Ukraine.

Third, NATO must adapt. Before Russia’s invasion, limited deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank was sufficient. Yet Putin increased his risk tolerance significantly, and nobody knows the new limit. As Ukrainians warn, there are no guarantees that he might not test NATO countries next.

History may teach us a lesson. The Baltics nowadays resemble West Berlin during the Cold War era. Situated near Russia and the similarly belligerent Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have become an island of democracy surrounded by aggressors.

Deterrence must switch to a much more defensive posture, resembling that of the allied presence in West Germany during the Cold War. The current level of allied troops — around 10,000 in Baltic states combined — is inadequate. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had 20 times more troops in West Germany.

Moreover, the situation in Ukraine has shown the need for adequate air defense. Yet the Baltics are vulnerable in this regard. Two U.S. Patriot missile batteries were recently deployed to Poland; the Baltic leaders have been calling for the permanent deployment of Patriot batteries for years.

Deterrence and strong defensive posturing are much more appropriate — and cost-effective — options than tackling any hybrid provocation. People in the Baltics who waited for allies to arrive for decades would undoubtedly approve.

— Linas Kojala is director of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, a think tank in Vilnius, Lithuania.