NATO fighter jets fly over the Baltic states – Public Domain
By Robert Clarke
The war in Ukraine continues grinding into its sixteenth month this June. Moscow’s unjust and brutal war of aggression against the Ukrainian people has shocked the world and shaken other states near the Russian border. Finland, a nation long known for its military neutrality, has joined NATO. Sweden is attempting to do the same. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – already NATO members – have also stepped up their activity.
As tensions and risks of an escalation spiral that draws American forces into combat remain strong in Ukraine, it is critical that policymakers in Washington reduce risks elsewhere. Sending strong policy signals to the Baltic capitals could help defuse the danger of unintended conflict between the Baltics and Russia that would lead the U.S. into war.
Baltic states have been among the most vocal proponents of aid for Ukraine. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has said, “We should be doing everything to make sure that no country will be next.” Her country is doing its part to back up that claim, having sent every piece of 155mm artillery equipment it owns to Ukraine to help push back the Russian war machine.
Yet the policy choices the Baltics have made often exceed what their Western allies are comfortable with. When Lithuania blocked the rail transit of Russian goods into Kaliningrad, Germany stepped in to try to defuse the situation as Moscow threatened a military response. The European Union ultimately had to issue a clarification of its sanction regime to convince Lithuania to step down.
All three of the Baltic states have labeled Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Few other nations have joined them in this endeavor, and most notably the economic powerhouses of the NATO alliance – the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany – have deliberately declined to do so. Estonia has implemented a plan to seize frozen Russian financial assets and give them to Ukraine for its war and reconstruction effort, a move which may run afoul of international law.
The sentiment behind these policies is understandable – the Baltics bear deep scars from Soviet rule and rightly fear the threat of Russian aggression given their vulnerability. But that doesn’t make stepping out of line with their allies’ policies a good idea. As Ukraine churns through Western military supplies, and as the United States shifts its military investments to the Indo-Pacific to contend with a rising China, the willingness and ability of the Baltics’ military allies to come to their aid if their actions provoke an armed response are waning.
Leaders in the Baltics should know better, but the perception that their American champion has their back is a strong motivator. As a result, Washington runs the risk of being party to a Baltic-triggered conflict that doesn’t serve American security interests.
Much like a child that misbehaves at school but is coddled and defended by a bad parent that isn’t willing to lay down punishments, the Baltics find themselves getting away with their actions again and again. Policymakers in Washington need to set the record straight and be willing to put their allies in time out. A key option to accomplish this would be rigorous burden-shifting within the NATO alliance – drawing down American forces while European nations, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, invest more in their own force posture and defense.
Leaving European security to European forces first, with American forces acting as a “balancer of last resort,” would shake Baltic trust that the United States will respond to every situation, regardless of who instigates it. It would also encourage Europe as a whole to step up its security investments and enable America to focus efforts on bigger priorities in Asia – a key policy objective of the Biden Administration.
As the risks of spiraling escalation continues to grow, American national interests demand serious scrutiny of our friends’ behavior. When serious risks present themselves that could put American lives on the line, our policymakers in Washington owe it to the American people to pursue options that defuse those risks. Anything less is negligent.
Robert Clarke is a Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society, and the Director of Marketing for Foreign Policy at Stand Together, a philanthropic community of organizations promoting realism and restraint in American foreign policy.