The long-term pursuit of having US boots on the ground in the Baltic region has so far not borne fruit. But while Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania lost out to Poland in the latest round of US troop deployments, the overarching trend shows it may happen sooner rather than later.
When President Donald Trump first floated his plans to drawdown US forces in Germany, the Baltic states immediately sprang into action in an attempt to lure some of the reassigned troops within their own borders. The permanent housing of American military personnel has long been a strategic objective of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
“We are ready to invest in this and we would be extremely happy,” Latvia’s defense minister pitched his proposal to Washington in a well-choreographed message. Given that the Baltics are currently spending 2 per cent of their GDP on defence, a metric that in Trump’s mind separates “good” allies from “delinquent” ones, Baltic lawmakers had hoped that this, in turn, could lead to a more robust US footprint in the region.
The details of the planned US force structure realignment in Europe are still trickling out. Reportedly, the US military presence in Poland will be beefed up with additional 1,000 US troops. According to US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, additional service members may also eventually land in the Baltics, but only on a rotational basis, however. The bulk of re-positioned forces are in fact heading either home to the US, west towards Belgium or south to Italy; not the direction the Baltics had hoped for.
The Baltic republics have fervently courted a permanent US military presence on their soil ever since joining NATO in 2004. Their rationale behind this is simple: when it comes to believable deterrence, the Baltic states trust the United States. While they have genuinely welcomed the arrival of alliance’s multinational force formations on their territories, which are currently led by Canada, the UK and Germany, they equally attach an entirely different quality to the company of US armed forces.
As the Lithuanian Defense Minister bluntly put it: “The US is the most powerful ally and its deterrent effect is not comparable to other allies.” This sentiment, that America occupies an indispensable position atop the NATO hierarchy and is the only one capable of deterring Russia in NATO’s frontier region, is widely shared among Baltic officials. In the words of Jüri Luik, Defence Minister for Estonia, “the American flag has a great deterrence effect against Russia.” For these reasons, the Baltics desire to see the US firmly implanted in the region.
From time to time, the idea of permanent American troop basing in the Baltic has received backing of prominent US national security figures. The late Republican Senator John McCain, for instance, favoured having US “soldiers assigned to Estonia full-time.” Former US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, during his confirmation hearing, equally voiced support for this proposal. Still, while the US-Baltic relations have matured into a multifaceted partnership and the Pentagon has constantly cycled rotational battalions and special operations forces in and out of the region, Washington has remained unwilling to permanently place forces on Russia’s doorstep.
Standard arguments against such move have been that this would only irritate the Kremlin and worsen already toxic US-Russia relations. Other sceptics have taken a more legalistic approach by submitting that permanent troop stationing in this part of Europe would be in violation of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. When speculation began to swirl regarding redeployment of US forces, the former head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Aleksey Pushkov, was quick to remind US officials on Twitter that a troop transfer east would run afoul of this agreement.
The announced reshuffle of US forces in Europe is, without doubt, a setback for Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. Estonian Defense minister summarised it as “not a positive move.” However, if one pulls back the historical curtain here and looks at the developments of the past fifteen years, then it becomes obvious that the arc has bent towards greater US involvement in the security architecture of Eastern Europe. It is useful to remember that when the Baltic states initially joined NATO in 2004, there were not even contingency plans to defend its newest members.
“For quite some time, our NATO membership was something that was more de jure than de facto,” recalled a high-level representative of the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The only NATO presence on the Baltic territory, he adds, consisted of four NATO planes that scrambled when Russian military airplanes approached their airspace. In the wake of the Russo-Georgian war, official defence plans, tailored to the needs of the Baltic nations, were finally put in place in 2009.
Moreover, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014, both NATO and the US have substantially augmented their presence on the alliance’s eastern flank via so-called Enhanced Forward Presence missions. While the United States does not lead a battle-group in the Baltic region, it was the one who got this initiative off the ground, rallied others to participate, and now anchors it with its military presence in Poland.
If for a moment we subtract President Donald Trump from the picture, then the general trend lines actually point in the opposite direction. To each external pressure, Washington has responded by bringing forward-deployed forces further east. The long view suggests that a permanent US flag will be one day flying over the Baltic states.
- Dr Andris Banka is an international relations lecturer and a researcher at the Universität Greifswald's Interdisciplinary Centre for Baltic Sea Region Research in Germany
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