LONDON — Amid fears they could be Russia’s next target, the Baltic countries hope Britain can amplify their calls for more military support from NATO.
Security cooperation between the U.K. and the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — has long been regarded as strong and unaffected by the drama of Brexit.
But since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, this relationship has taken on a new dimension, and become a clear axis in Europe’s wider security debate.
The Baltics have compiled a “wishlist” of demands to better protect their borders, including permanent NATO bases and air defense systems, which the region does not currently have. They are painfully aware that Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded in December that NATO withdraw all its forces from the region, once part of the Soviet Union.
Their requests have met with a sympathetic response in London, where the government is happy to support their case.
Echoing the Baltics’ worst fears, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace warned last month Putin “will use everything” in the Baltic states. “He doesn’t believe the Baltic states are really countries,” he told the BBC.
A British defense official described the Baltics as “the frontline of NATO security” and said: “We share their concerns that, now more than ever, NATO’s eastern flank needs to deter a Russia that has no regard for international law and sovereign borders.”
In a sign of the importance with which Britain now views the Baltics, the U.K’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss traveled to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius last week in an attempt to reassure governments it has their back.
“What we have to do now is we have to strengthen NATO, we particularly have to strengthen the eastern flank,” she told the House of Commons Monday. “We have to be serious about defense spending, right across NATO.”
Even with the U.K.’s support, however, the rest of NATO will take some convincing to meet the Baltic demands — and especially to pay for them. For years, NATO hesitated over having significant troop numbers in the Baltic countries amid concerns this could antagonize the Kremlin. Members also worried about the cost of establishing permanent bases in the region and carrying out military exercises.
Edward Lucas, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Britain is playing a “very important role” in helping to sort the “mess” that is security in the Baltic region. The current situation, he said, is characterized by “a very complicated command structure, a lack of military clout on the ground, a lot of wishful thinking about how things would sort themselves out in a crisis and a real lack of exercises to tests how things should actually work.”
One reason Britain is well-placed to do this is its leadership of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) of 10 Northern European countries, which includes non-NATO members such as Finland and Sweden as well as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Launched in 2012, the JEF is seen as more agile than NATO and could provide a rapid response in the first 12 hours should Russia attack one of its members. Rapid deployment of additional troops in the event of an attack is crucial for the Baltics, which are close to signing an agreement among themselves for mobilizing national forces to assist a fellow Baltic country without waiting for a NATO decision, said Rihards Kols, chair of the Latvian parliament’s foreign relations committee.
Through JEF, Northern European countries have already agreed to carry out maritime and air exercises.
“We see the U.K. as very important for our region,” said Kols. “Overall, the U.K. has shown really outstanding leadership in this crisis. We can always say that when it comes to these kinds of situations, the U.K.’s head is on the right place, on the shoulders.”
Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s minister for foreign affairs, said the Baltic states are approaching the situation as if they are Western Berlin during the Cold War.
“That means that we need … all the credibility to defend the territory as NATO would defend any other territory in its alliance,” he told a U.K. parliamentary committee last week.
As the most exposed Baltic state, Lithuania has requested a dedicated strategy, Landsbergis said. It fears the Kremlin might attempt to grab the Suwalki gap, a stretch of land connecting Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea with Belarus. British and Lithuanian intelligence forces are now working together to strengthen this area.
Latvia has asked Britain for more maritime and military industrial cooperation, and that aircrafts be placed on Latvia’s military airfields.
Estonia, as the host of a British-led battalion, has seen the number of British troops doubled in recent weeks, and it has received more Challenger 2 tanks and armored fighting vehicles from the U.K.
Long way to go
Although NATO has three such battalions in each of the Baltic countries — with Britain leading the one stationed in Estonia, Canada leading another in Latvia and the U.S. heading the group in Lithuania. These are not intended to withstand a Russian attack but to convey the message to Moscow that any assault would be an attack against the alliance as a whole.
“This relies very much on the idea that Russia wouldn’t want to kill Canadians, Germans or Brits,” Lucas said. “That’s better than nothing and it worked in Western Berlin during the Cold War. But we don’t have air missile defense for those and we need that. And we don’t have the intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and the maritime strategy that we need.”
“Ever since the early 1990s whenever Russia has done something unacceptable we’ve done the minimum to confront it at most or nothing — and then we thought it would go away,” he said. “But every time it comes back.”
Kols said the Baltics were often labelled “alarmists” by EU partners when they flagged concerns about Russia in previous years, adding cooperation with Britain is “paramount.”
Lucas is optimistic that supporting the Baltics is also good for the Brits, particularly since Brexit.
“This gets us back into very close cooperation with European governments,” he said. “Looking at it very crudely, it creates a sort of great pro-British lobby where you’ve got seven countries that are really, really keen and grateful for doing the stuff that we are doing. And that is a good antidote when the French start making fuss about other things.”