Would Putin ever dare consider attacking or invading the Baltic states next? Here is how to deter such actions now and in the future from a prominent defense expert: Now that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has passed the 60-day mark, the focus on the possibility that Russia might invade the Baltics next has lessened, but the risk may be no less heightened than in the war’s early days. The three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—are all at a geographical disadvantage to Russian aggression, and, as members of NATO, carry the highest possible stakes in the event of an attack.
Many neighboring countries are re-evaluating their own defense policies in the event that Russian aggression reaches their borders. Even Germany, which had a default policy of non-aggression after the Second World War, has committed to buying the F-35 fighter jet from the U.S., anticipating the need to defend itself. Finland and Sweden, which had a policy of neutrality when it came to joining NATO, are now seriously considering membership.
In response to Finland and Sweden‘s statements, the Kremlin threatened to reposition nuclear weapons in the Baltic region. While the threat may be empty, and not one that is going to stop Finland and Sweden from joining NATO, it is still a reminder that the Baltic countries are in the crosshairs of hostile rhetoric between Russia and the alliance, not to mention actual war.
There are several reasons why the Baltic states are uniquely vulnerable to Russian invasion. The prime reason why they might be the Kremlin’s next target is that each of them, particularly Estonia and Latvia, has an ethnic Russian minority population. Moscow’s justification for prior invasions, including the ongoing one in Ukraine, is that ethnic Russians have to be “liberated” from oppressive non-Russian governments.
However, geography plays a significant role in adding to the Baltics’ vulnerability. More so than Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, and countries such as Poland, which borders Russian ally Belarus, are relatively disconnected from allies by geography.
As of now, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania do not have allies in close proximity in the Baltic region. The three countries are essentially trapped between Russia and the Baltic Sea with few NATO allies close by. In terms of logistics, this means that it will be difficult to send troops and supplies to the Baltic states on short notice in the event of a Russian attack. Estonia and Lithuania share a border with Russia; potentially worse is the fact that Latvia is hemmed in by Kaliningrad, the heavily armed Russian enclave loaded with nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles.
Finland and Sweden, the two countries that would be able to deliver military support most quickly, are not NATO members yet and have not been since the alliance was established. Thus, until they decide to join, if that does indeed happen, the Baltic countries will remain stuck with the status quo.
Those geographical disadvantages could end in the whole region being squeezed like a vise if the Russian military becomes more sophisticated in the time between the current invasion of Ukraine and a future invasion of one of the Baltic countries. However, that scenario is looking less likely than it did prior to February 24th, as the Russian army has shown that it is not the invulnerable fighting force the world once thought it to be, suffering casualties in troops and in equipment at the hands of the Ukrainian army that are becoming increasingly hard to explain away at home. The sinking of the warship Moskva is one such example.
To make up for that geographical disadvantage, the Baltic countries should probably be reinforced with additional military support from NATO allies as soon as possible, whether in the form of extra troops or weapons systems. As of January, there was already some discussion of this within NATO. As Russian forces were observed massing on the Ukrainian border, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told Reuters that her government was currently “discussing with our allies to increase their presence here to act as a deterrent” and voiced worries in Tallinn that the Baltics were a “NATO peninsula.”
However, those discussions have largely appeared to take a backseat as the Russian invasion progresses, more is learned about Russian atrocities against civilians, and millions leave Ukraine for safety abroad. About 2,700 additional U.S. troops, as well as extra NATO forces, have been distributed across the three countries, but Baltic leaders have been pushing for a more substantial solution.
In March, NATO’s summit in Brussels did not produce a permanent agreement that would fortify any of the Baltic countries and create a credible deterrent. Rihards Kols, chair of the Latvian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, stated afterward that “We welcome these reinforcements, but it’s not enough — absolutely not enough.”
Another reason the Baltics could look like an easy next target for the Kremlin is because of their small size; Lithuania, the largest of the three, has a population of only 3.7 million. Moscow may very well assume that its advantage in numbers would allow it to overwhelm any local defenses in an invasion. But additional weapons systems as deterrents in the Baltics are more likely to make Russia think twice before repeating its invasion of Ukraine in one of the three countries.
At least temporarily, Russia could be deterred if NATO delivered the same systems to the Baltics that are already scheduled for delivery to Poland: the F-35 fighter, the Patriot missile system, and the M1 Abrams tank. Likewise, given that the U.S. has sent 100 surplus towed 155mm howitzers to Ukraine, mobile 155mms would be a realistic, quickly deliverable option for Baltic defense. Other systems such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), Iron Dome missile defense system, and Predator missiles should also be considered.
This would require bypassing two obstacles. First, the process of approving the sale and the schedule of delivering the systems would have to be massively accelerated. Poland, which ordered the F-35 in 2020, only began to receive them this year, and has yet to receive the other systems. Second, the U.S. and the Baltic countries would have to agree to a plan that ameliorates the cost to the three countries’ governments. The current system of rotating troop deployments and other reinforcements from NATO exists because Tallinn, Vilnius, and Riga do not have the budget to purchase systems like the F-35 on their own. And in addition to making the decision to deliver these weapons systems, the logistical challenges of delivering them have to simultaneously be addressed.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania may need military support now more than ever, as all three have depleted their own weapons reserves in order to aid Ukraine. There is no more opportune moment than the present to prepare for a second onslaught of Russian aggression in Europe, and there is no place where NATO’s credibility is more at risk than in the Baltic countries.
Sarah White is Senior Research Analyst and Editor at the Lexington Institute.