Why Are the Baltic States Reckless Drivers in NATO? (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Robert Clarke, Spring 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The war in Ukraine has startled much of Europe, but none more so than those states closest to Russia’s border. Finland has joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), eschewing decades of neutrality – a model that has commonly been referred to as “Finlandization,” after its most prominent Cold War example. Poland is approaching 4% of GDP spending on its military. And the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have declared Russia to be a state sponsor of terrorism. Lithuania has blocked Russian goods transiting into its enclave in Kaliningrad. Estonia has proposed a plan to deliver frozen Russian assets to serve Ukraine’s war effort and reconstruction.

These actions by the Baltic states far exceed those undertaken by larger military and economic powers like Germany, France, the United Kingdom, or the United States. In fact, they are significantly more provocative in scope and rhetoric. Deep-seated animosity in the Baltics towards Russia explains some of this behavior. Soviet rule was unkind in the Baltic Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs), with deportations to gulags leaving lasting scars.

But despite widely-held opinions that Russia is a serious threat across the populations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, any concern that these actions could provoke a violent response from Moscow seems to have gone out the window. This is largely explained by a strong sentiment that the United States can and will, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “defend every inch of NATO territory.”

This blanket claim provides both political and military cover to Baltic policymakers to enact assertive and provocative policies towards their Russian neighbors. But these policies amount to “reckless driving” for the NATO alliance and the United States in particular. If Baltic state policies lead to a militarized response by Moscow, then all of the members of the NATO alliance – America included – will find itself in a difficult situation.

It is essential that the United States starts pursuing policy changes that encourage the Baltics to adjust their actions and de-escalate tensions with Russia. By adjusting Baltic integration efforts with ethnic Russians, re-orienting NATO’s forward posture in the Baltics, and shifting the burden of European and Baltic defense to Europeans instead of American forces, Washington can shape the behavior of Riga, Vilnius, and Tallinn.