The Baltic states are NATO’s most impassioned supporters, thanks to Russia

Some are big fans.
Some are big fans.
Image: Reuters
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President Donald Trump’s about-face on NATO today (July 12) only emphasizes the extent to which the US has become an uncommitted member of the alliance. The Baltic states, on the other hand, will always be amongst its most passionate supporters.

That’s almost entirely because of Russia. The country’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 put other post-Soviet states on high alert, and Russia has made increasingly hostile moves in the Baltic Sea.

On Monday (July 9), Defense One reported on satellite imagery that showed Russia has fortified military structures in Kaliningrad, a Russian province sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania in the Baltic Sea. In April, Russia conducted a dramatic three-day missile exercise near NATO territorial waters, something that forced a partial closure of Latvian airspace.

Trump’s response to questions about Crimea at today’s press conference at the alliance’s summit—“I’m not happy about Crimea, but that was not my watch; that was Obama’s”—won’t bolster anyone’s confidence, and he gave a non-answer to a question about whether he’d tell Russian president Vladimir Putin, who he meets on Monday, to stop its military exercises in the Baltic region.

On the campaign trail, he famously told the New York Times (paywall) that he would have to review whether the Baltics had met their defense-spending commitments before he’d consider defending them from a Russian invasion.

This is why all three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—spend so heavily on defense. By next year, all of them are expected to meet NATO’s 2% target.

But Dr. Christian Mölling, a NATO expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Quartz that on its own, the defense spending of the Baltic states is not enough: “Because they are so small, even in peacetime, the Baltic states are dependent on other allies from NATO, the EU, and the US.”

Latvia and Estonia took matters into their own hands this week, by announcing plans to establish a NATO multinational divisional headquarters in the region with Denmark.

That, Mölling said, is “quite a significant thing.” It was also one of the things that the leaders of NATO’s 29 members noted in last night’s 23-page declaration from the summit. “It’s something everyone can cheer to,” Mölling said.