Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
In 2014, internal divisions in Ukraine led to the toppling of the Yanukovych government and later civil war. Though not entirely over ethnicity and language, these factors heavily affected the dividing lines. Naturally, countries with similar internal cleavages began to look at their own internal security.
The Baltic states in particular have the greatest potential for instability. Estonia and Latvia each have Russian minorities totaling about 25% of their populations, most of whom are not citizens and do not have the right to vote; this undoubtedly has a negative effect on civic nationalism among ethnic Russians in the region.
As a means of reassuring these NATO allies, the United States began a series of troop deployments to these countries. Russia increased its military activity in the Baltic Kaliningrad Oblast in response and is increasing ties with her security partners in the wider, post-Soviet space. Across the entire Baltic region, a new arms race is on, involving all the major regional players, even those without NATO membership.
Lithuania Reinstates the Draft
In late February, Lithuania decided to reintroduce conscription into the armed forces. President Dalia Grybauskaite said, in clear reference to the ongoing struggle for Eastern Ukraine, that "today's geopolitical environment requires us to strengthen the Army, and do it as fast as possible." According to the proposed plan, up to 3,500 men aged 19-26 would be recruited each year.
Lithuania has made several moves to expand her security network in recent months:
- Vilnius recently finalized the joint Lithuanian–Polish–Ukrainian Brigade together with Warsaw and Kyiv, a major project including NATO members (Poland and Lithuania) and a non-member state (Ukraine).
- Lithuanian Special Forces, with proven combat experience in Afghanistan, have increased joint training with American and other allied forces.
- American troops and heavy equippment have recently arrived in the country, reinforcing Lithuania’s own ground forces
- American troops participated in Lithuania’s National Independence Day parade, a clear message to Moscow.
Show of Force in Latvia
In neighboring Latvia meanwhile, United States has deployed more than 120 tanks and armored vehicles as part of new rotations. The Baltic nation also called for permanent NATO facilities to be built on its territory. Due largely to its central location, Latvia hosted Operation Silver Arrow last October, a military exercise consisting of 2,100 personnel from Latvia, Estonia, Greece, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Much like pre-Maidan Ukraine, Latvia has significant unresolved ethnic issues, a hold-over from WWII and the subsequent Soviet annexation of the country. On March 16th, veterans of the SS Latvian Legion marched in central Riga, commemorating Latvia’s struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. Much like members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Latvians who aspired to national independence saw Germany as possible leverage against Moscow. Genuine sympathy for National Socialism varied from member to member, but allying with Berlin was overwhelmingly seen as a means to an end. Most had no illusions that Germany sought to use them as imperial instruments of their own. The Ukrainians Insurgent Army eventually fought against the German occupation forces, reinforcing this point.
Regardless, the honoring of such organizations is widely regarded as unforgivable to many Russians and continues to stoke ethnic tensions throughout Eastern Europe.
Sweden Steps Up
Such tensions have even prompted traditionally neutral Sweden to increase her regional military footprint. Stockholm will redeploy troops to the strategic Baltic Sea island of Gotland in combination with military exercises involving the navy and air force. “Hunting submarines is a priority area," Sweden's defense minister explained, adding that "everything we do is a part of underlining Swedish sovereignty."
Rumors that Sweden (and possibly Finland) would soon seek NATO membership began to circulate last fall as fighting in Ukraine’s east intensified. Though no concrete steps have been taken, the fact that two historically neutral countries would consider joining the military alliance reflects the extent to which regional relations with Moscow have deteriorated markedly.
What to Look For
As assessed by Leksika last October, it is highly unlikely that Russia will show any direct military aggression towards the Baltic states given their NATO membership. A Crimea scenario is also highly unlikely, as Russian-majority areas in the Baltics lack the same strategic and historical importance. It is likely that symbolic deployments by the United States and other NATO members will continue as a means of reassuring allied states, and Russian drills in Kaliningrad will continue in a similar fashion. The establishment of a permanent NATO base in the Baltics is doubtful however, as it would contravene the 1997 NATO-Russian Founding Act. This being said the following trends are likely to continue in the coming months:
- Expanding NATO military presence in the Baltic states in the form of rotating deployments; equipment is likely to remain in the Baltics during personnel exchanges
- Increased security cooperation between the US and Poland, who looks to take on regional leadership role
- Sweden and Finland may continue to flirt with the idea of NATO membership, but are highly unlikely to make official commitments