2018 is a symbolic year for the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, because it marks the centenary of their independence from the Russian Empire. The last century has been less than easy for the trio of small countries, because independence was quickly followed by occupation, first by the Nazis and then the Soviets. The three republics spent five decades under the USSR, only regaining independence between 1990 and 1991. When I visited the region last month, I couldn't help but think that the past few years have probably been the best in their troubled century as republics, because they have never been so prosperous, so democratic and so open to the world. Nevertheless, the ghosts of the past have not completely vanished, and the Baltic states are once again looking at the world around them with concern.
The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are enjoying unprecedented prosperity and a vibrant democracy, 25 years after gaining independence from the Soviet Union. But they are also concerned about how Russia's growing assertiveness, as well as friction between Moscow and the West, could affect their security.
Threats on the Doorstep
When listening to government officials, academics, business leaders and think tank experts from the Baltic countries, one common theme rapidly emerges: Russia is still widely seen as a threat. This fear is the result of history and geography, because Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are small, flat and easy to invade. Their position by the Baltic Sea, and their strategic location at the crossroads of the European, Nordic and Russian markets have made these lands an attractive place for invaders, which explains why they have spent so many centuries under foreign rule. Regional powers such as Germany and Sweden invaded the region in the past, but the freshest memories obviously stem from the Soviet occupation after World War II.
The late 1990s and early 2000s offered temporary relief to the region, as the three states joined the European Union and NATO, and Russia — for the first time in decades — did not look as aggressive as it used to. But the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, and especially the Russian annexation of Crimea and its backing of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine in 2014, reignited the Baltic region's traditional fears of Russian aggression. Those fears do not necessarily stem from a potential invasion, but from other forms of aggression, including cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and support for subversive domestic groups.
In recent years, the Baltic countries have increased their military spending and sought to reduce their dependence on Russian energy. Still, these countries continue to import significant amounts of its natural gas and conduct a great deal of trade with it. At the same time, Russian money is present in their banking sectors, and in the case of Estonia and Latvia, ethnic Russians represent about a quarter of the population. And while NATO membership ostensibly protects the region from any formal military attack, the leaders of the Baltic states are fretting about the challenges of preventing and deterring other forms of economic, political and social aggression.
Tensions Between Friends
Questions about Russia's intentions tie into a second concern in the Baltic region: the stability of the Atlantic alliance. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president created uncertainty in the region, especially after he criticized Europe's low levels of military expenditure and, at least for a while, raised doubts about the White House's commitment to NATO's principle of collective defense. But what America does is more important than what it says, and the reality on the ground is that the United States remains committed to Baltic security. For example, U.S. fighter jets remain an important part of NATO's air policing mission in the area, and U.S. forces periodically participate in military exercises in the region.
In early September, Trump even said the White House was contemplating a permanent military base in Poland. Even if the idea never materializes, the musings provide a clear message of support to the region. This, however, does not mean that there's a whole lot of warm sentiment between the United States and Europe these days. In fact, relations between the United States and Germany have deteriorated since Trump took office, as the White House has denounced Germany's massive surplus in bilateral trade while also accusing Berlin of spending too little on defense. The war of words puts the Baltic states in an awkward situation, since their main military ally, the United States, is sparring with one of their main economic and political partners, Germany.
In addition, Germany's foreign policy is ambiguous when it comes to Russia. While Berlin has spearheaded economic and political sanctions against Moscow due to the conflict in Ukraine, it has also defended the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which would transport Russian natural gas to Germany across the Baltic Sea — thereby bypassing Ukraine as a transit state. German officials insist that Nord Stream 2 is a purely economic project, but history has taught the Baltic countries to be skeptical of pacts between Berlin and Moscow.
German officials insist that Nord Stream 2 is a purely economic project, but history has taught the Baltic countries to be skeptical of pacts between Berlin and Moscow.
There are additional factors complicating the picture for the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian governments. For one, relations might be good between the Baltic states and the European Union, but the same does not ring true for some of the Baltic nations' allies. Poland and Romania share the trio's sense of urgency regarding Russia, including a desire to reduce the region's dependence on Russian energy and keep NATO as engaged as possible in the region, but Warsaw — and to a lesser degree, Bucharest — are currently experiencing tension with the European Commission because of what Brussels perceives as the deteriorating rule of law in those countries.
Brussels has threatened to cut development funds and agricultural subsidies for countries that fail to respect its principles and values, while the French government has suggested that the next stage of continental integration could include a smaller group of countries rather than the entire bloc. Even if Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are not directly affected by such initiatives, a potential downturn in relations between the Baltic countries' main allies would only increase their sense of insecurity.
Finally, Brexit is also a source of concern for the region, especially because the United Kingdom is a key ally in deterring Russia and often acts as a bridge between the United States and Europe. To be sure, the United Kingdom is only leaving the European Union — not NATO — and London wants to retain close defense and security ties with the Continent, but the country's divorce from the European Union compounds the problems in the political, economic and military structures that have kept the Baltic region safe for the past two decades.
Hopes and Fears
This intricate geopolitical environment creates challenges and opportunities for the Baltics. Among the difficulties is the fact that Russia can exploit tensions within Europe, as well as between the Continent and the United States, to its own advantage. From the Kremlin's perspective, if Moscow can't make NATO and, to a lesser extent, the European Union, go away, then it must ensure they remain as fragmented as possible, lest they threaten Russia.
The Baltics, however, have the opportunity to harness these tensions to attract American interest to the region, such as through the Three Seas Initiative. Created in 2016, it is a discussion forum for 12 countries from the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas, and its goal is to increase economic and political cooperation in the region, especially on infrastructure projects. The group has sought American approbation from the start. Trump was the guest of honor during last year's summit, while U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry attended the summit in 2018.
So far, America's support for the forum is mostly symbolic, but Germany is becoming increasingly worried that itcould become a framework for cooperation between the United States and Central and Eastern Europe that bypasses Western Europe. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas duly attended this year's summit, noting that Berlin wanted to become a formal member of the group. The request is a reminder that, at the end of the day, Germany is a Central European power with interests that lie in both the east and west of the Continent.
The debate over whether to accept Germany as a member will be intriguing to follow. German involvement entails political support and financing for infrastructure projects (after all, the forum's members are small economies that would be happy for every penny), but it would also provide Berlin with a means to steer the region's agenda. Germany's actions present a particular challenge for Poland, which aspires to consolidate its own sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
One hundred years have passed since Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia declared their independence, but the countries' external challenges — as well as their strategies — in 2018 are much the same as they were in 1918. For small countries surrounded by powerful neighbors, developing as many international alliances as possible is essential. NATO and EU membership will remain the cornerstone of their foreign policy, and keeping the United States (which they see as the ultimate guarantor of their security) engaged in the region will be key. By the same token, friction within the Atlantic alliance and the political fragmentation in Europe represent serious threats to their security. Faced with such challenges, the Baltic nations will continue to develop as many political, economic and military partnerships as possible to ensure their hard-earned independence becomes the norm — instead of the exception — in a history marked by so much turbulence.