It’s time for NATO to help the Baltic countries
A new flashpoint between NATO and Russia’s new expansionism erupted after Lithuania banned the transit of sanctioned goods from Russia to Kaliningrad, its enclave on the Baltic Sea, under the sanctions regime. of the EU which entered into force on 17 June. Russia called Lithuania’s actions “hostile” and threatened “serious” consequences.
Undeterred, Lithuania this weekend blocked an EU motion that would have reversed the restrictions. Vilnius said the EU should not give in to Russian pressure and compromise on its sanctions package.
NATO leaders meeting in Madrid this week are expected to support Lithuania’s decision to put Russia on the defensive. As a broader strategy, NATO should follow Lithuania’s lead in pressuring Moscow and shouting at Moscow’s hollow threats.
The Kremlin has already responded to Lithuania’s restrictions with information warfare and cybersubterfuge. On Monday, a Russian-speaking hacking group known as Killnet claimed responsibility for part of what the Lithuanian Defense Ministry calls an “intense and continuous attack”. cyber attack against government and private sites.
This cyberattack follows Russian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova’s warning that Russia’s response would be “not diplomatic, but practical”. Kremlin spokeswoman Dmitry Peskov also criticized the transit restrictions, calling them “illegal”.
But the restrictions are strictly in line with EU law. Lithuania only blocked the transit of EU sanctioned goods, such as “metals, coal, construction materials and high-tech products to the Russian seaport”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania released a statement on Monday claiming that “the transit of unauthorized passengers and goods to and from the Kaliningrad region via Lithuania continues uninterrupted”.
The Kremlin threats come as Putin is increasingly open about his expansionism. On June 9, in a new justification for Russia’s war on Ukraine, Putin drew an analogy to Peter the Great’s 21-year war with Sweden. He said: “Obviously it was incumbent on us to come back and strengthen [ex-Russian lands] as well.” A week later, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Reform, Putin asked the world, “What is the Soviet Union? This is historical Russia.
Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union disintegrated into Russia and 14 separate countries. Today in Moscow, pro-Kremlin media commentators are increasingly referring to these 14 nations, including Ukraine, as “quasi-states.” Ruining a fight, Putin looks around the map for a feud – or a conquest. By keeping Russia on a war footing, Putin justifies his dictatorship, keeping Russia governable with emergency decrees.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan is particularly vulnerable, a nation four times the size of Texas with a large ethnic Russian population along its virtually undefended northern border with Russia. Without ties to NATO, Kazakhstan could lose land without provoking a stronger global reaction than a few words of lamentation at the United Nations.
Konstantin Zatulin, a member of the Russian Duma specializing in relations with the nations of Moscow’s former land empire, warns: Ukraine today, Kazakhstan tomorrow. He said Radio Govorit Moskva last week: “[The Kazakhs] know only too well that a certain number of regions, agglomerations with a majority Russian population, had little to do with what is called Kazakhstan. We are everywhere. With regard to Ukraine, we say: if we have friendship, cooperation and partnership, then there are no territorial issues. Otherwise, anything is possible.
The best response to such incendiary rhetoric and aggressive Kremlin actions is to increase NATO’s forward operational presence in the three Baltic states. The NATO meeting this week is the perfect opportunity to do so.
The Estonian Prime Minister last week revealed that a Russian invasion could wipe out Estonia in a weekend. Then, NATO’s response would focus on reconquering the country, rather than preventing its conquest. The Baltic countries are asking for a division of NATO troops, between 20,000 and 25,000 soldiers, to be divided between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This week, NATO leaders are expected to grant their request and consider forward deploying heavy weapons like artillery and additional aircraft so they can be quickly equipped in the event of a Russian invasion.
There is a precedent: For nearly 70 years on the Korean Peninsula, US military bases between Seoul and the DMZ acted as a “human thread,” forcing North Korea to think twice. before invading from the North.
Recently, Western leaders have expressed concern about the escalation of the conflict with Russia. In reality, Russia should be worried about an escalation of the conflict with NATO. The deployment of additional troops and heavy weapons is sure to draw the Kremlin’s wrath in its public statements. But, in reality, the Kremlin cannot do much to react. Europe is weaning itself off Russian oil and natural gas. Moscow’s army is bogged down in eastern Ukraine. Western leaders must regain their courage and protect their conventional allies from Moscow’s new expansionism.
James Brooke is a visiting scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on Ukraine. Ivana Stradner is an advisor at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.