Baltic security in the age of Trump

Donald Trump
Reuters / Scanpix

The election of Donald J. Trump as US President on November 7, 2016 has brought a year of living dangerously for the Baltic States, as the region nervously awaited the arrival of a new Republican administration in Washington. Trump’s election brought a degree of psychological trepidation that in many ways may have been one of the most severe tests to regional security since the admission of the Baltic states into NATO.

Certainly, questions about Trump were well deserved, as the new President elect’s key advisers on the election trail were Paul Manafort, a key Republican strategist and former adviser to Ukrainian President Yanukovych, and national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was widely viewed as a key Kremlin confidant and champion of stronger US- Russia relations inside the inner Trump circle. Even long-time hawks on Russia, such as the former speaker of the House of Representatives, New Gingrich, appeared to question the issue of whether the Baltics were worth defending when during the Republican Convention last August, he referred to the Estonian capital of Tallinn as being a suburb of St. Petersburg.

Fears in the Baltic of the US commitment were well deserved, but such is the unpredictability of America’s electoral politics. To the surprise of many observers, Trump unseated the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton due to her strategic oversight of the American rust-belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio who voted overwhelmingly in favour of Trump. The famous New York Times interview with Trump by David Sanger on July 22, 2016, had the misleading title “Trump Says US May Abandon Automatic Protections for NATO Countries” and from this interview arose a lot of hand wringing by the Baltic States. According to the New York Times and Trump’s critics, this interview indicated that the Republican Presidential candidate would not uphold Article V. In reality, however, this became a form of fake news as Trump never questioned Article V, but was instead trying to make a point about NATO defence spending and the all-important issue of burden sharing in NATO, which has been a core point of US diplomacy towards NATO since the time of Ronald Reagan, who made this issue a key feature of his foreign policy when he was elected President in 1980.

Trying to focus on economics, Trump sought to make an economic point rather than a military point about the NATO alliance, which the US media repeatedly emphasized throughout the election. When questioned by David Sanger of the New York Times about meeting the 2 percent commitment, Trump was specifically asked: “Can the member of NATO including the new members of the Baltic count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations?” Trump diverted the conversation away from Article V to the need to meet the 2 percent obligation and by noting that if the country spent 2 percent and met the threshold then it was fine, and if it didn’t then he indicated it would be a problem.1

From this one interview, all the debate ensued about Trump not willing to be ready to defend the Baltic States, who never once mentioned the Baltic states but spoke of all states “needing to fulfil their obligations,” meaning 2 percent. Since at the time of the interview only Estonia was spending 2 percent of GDP on defence, while Lithuania and Latvia were on the road to meeting 2 percent by 2018, this statement should not have been taken as seriously as the media or policymakers in the Baltics did at the time. By addressing this issue, Trump was thinking first as a businessman seeking to introduce his concern over alliance defence spending and his well-rooted fear that the United States was assuming too much of the economic burden of defending Europe. Well into the fi st year of the Trump presidency, this interview is nothing more than a historical footnote, as what started as a potential nightmare for the Baltic States virtually changed overnight with the appointment of major hawks on Russia to Trump’s national security team, such as H.R. McMaster, the President’s new National Security Adviser and James N. Mattis the new Secretary of Defense.

With the arrival of Mattis, the Trump administration sought to enact a policy of strategic reassurance as Mattis made a visit to NATO a key priority early on in his tenure as Defense Secretary. In his first trip to NATO, Mattis emphasized his support of President Trump and spoke of the strength of America’s allies and alliances and how NATO remains a pillar of US thinking in the Trump presidency. Mattis later backed up his words with deeds, travelling to Lithuania on May 10, 2017, in a major effort to demonstrate the US commitment to the Baltics, using the opportunity to meet with the defence ministers of all three Baltic states in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. These developments greatly reversed the psychological shock of Trump’s election as the Baltic states slowly recovered from the fear of Trump to realise that the United States was committed more than ever to their defence. Moreover, the July 2017 visit by Vice President Pence to Estonia reiterated US support for the Baltic states in yet another demonstration of US commitment early in the first seven months of the new Trump administration.

Trump’s Baltic Advisers

After finally dispelling Baltic concerns with these visits, the Trump administration now must get to the important challenge of filling key administrative positions in the mid to upper levels of policymaking at State Department and the Pentagon to oversee key policy developments. Now, the delicate strategy for the Trump Administration must be the creation of a new national security strategy to fit its vision for defending the Baltics and deterring a revisionist Russia. Central to this effort will be Dr Nadia Schadlow, who was appointed to the National Security Council by McMaster to be his Senior Director for Strategy. Schadlow will be in charge of directing a multi-agency effort to develop a new US security strategy.

Schadlow is an avid supporter of Baltic security and has written extensively in the well-known blog War on the Rocks where she wrote about Europe being a petri dish for Russian-backed hybrid warfare. In her essay,

Schadlow voiced concerns about the fact that NATO might use the threat of hybrid warfare to avoid its commitment to defend the region should Russia remain under the radar of NATO’s Article V. Although Schadlow has never visited the Baltic region, she has been a long-time observer of Russian policy in the region and is a fervent sceptic of Putin. Through her former employer, the Smith Richardson Foundation, she worked with long-time board members Jack Keane, Jim Woolsey, the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director, and the now deceased Zbigniew Brzezinski. In her position at Smith Richardson, Schadlow supported foundations like the Jamestown Foundation and various like-minded think tanks in Washington, as well as funding reputable Russia scholars in their research on the dangers of Putin’s Russia.

Elsewhere in Trump’s National Security Council (NSC), we have seen the appointment of Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution as Russia Director at the NSC. Hill possesses tremendous experience working in the US government. Her arrival at the NSC provides McMaster with a seasoned strategist to assist him in his day-to-day policy on developing a strategy to counter Russia. Hill previously served in the George W. Bush administration as the head of Russia policy at the National Intelligence Council and has vast experience in dealing with Russia at various levels of the US government. She is also the author of the well-received book: Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, co-authored by Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution.

In the US State Department, US Baltic strategy will have an equally important advocate in Wess Mitchell, the President of the Center for European Policy Analysis. Mitchell is awaiting appointment as the new Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.4 Mitchell and Jakub Grygiel are the co-authors of the book Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies and the Crisis of American Power.5 A major champion of the book is, in fact, H.R. McMaster, who wrote a review of the book for the Wall Street Journal when it first appeared in mid-2016 and described the fallacy of allowing Russia to probe along its periphery.6 Mitchell is known to be a champion of Baltic security and his addition to the State Department will play a key intellectual role in helping the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the rest of the Trump Administration in defining its policies and approaches for the Russian periphery.

Enhanced Forward Presence

With these key personnel additions, the Trump Administration will be able to return to the core issues driving NATO’s security approaches towards the Baltics, namely the strategy of Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) for the forces arriving in the respective Baltic states as part of the NATO EFP initiative. First adopted at the 2016 Warsaw Summit, EFP has matured slowly with the deployment of German units to Lithuania, Canadians to Latvia, and British units to Estonia as part of the anchor forces of multinational units that will serve as trip wire forces to deter a Russian military attack on the Baltic States. These forces are modelled after the Berlin Brigade that was based in West Berlin during the Cold War which consisted of a brigade of British, French and US army forces. Any Soviet attack on Berlin would have immediately resulted in a direct attack on all three countries and served as a form of deterrence throughout the Cold War should Moscow decide to occupy the German city.

Using the multi-nation Berlin Brigade as a model, the Obama Administration began working with NATO allies to develop the idea of the Enhanced Forward Presence following the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Financially constrained, President Obama sought and received additional financial resources from the US Congress in June 2014 to support the

initiative through the US$ 3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative (ERI). Not restrained by the cumbersome process of NATO decision-making, the United States unilaterally deployed a 150-person company-size unit of US army forces to each of the Baltic capitals to back up its verbal commitment and to give some credibility to the notion of Article V. What was far from clear from the Obama Administration was whether the US military commitment would go beyond this temporary deployment and move to a permanent US basing of forces in the Baltics. In this regard, the Obama Administration remained hesitant to go beyond this commitment and privately urged its NATO allies to meet their commitments to Article V by deploying their own units to the Baltics, rather than let the United State shoulder this burden. Privately, however, President Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice objected to further US deployments to the region out of fear of provoking Russia, and more importantly objected to the US pre-positioning of heavy equipment in the Baltics, such as the M-1 tanks.

Flowing from these privately held reservations emerged the idea of rotational deployments of American units to the Baltics as a means of reassuring the Baltic States of our own commitments and also signalling to our NATO allies that the United States was prepared to defend the region by its own temporary deployments. In the case of Latvia, it was the deployment of the US Army’s 3rd Armored Brigade combat team of the 4th Infantry Division to Latvia in March 2015 as part of a rotational deployment that included 87 M1 Abrams tanks and over 300 armoured vehicles, the largest ever American military deployment to Latvia. Rotational deployments, albeit temporary, still failed to resolve the underlying larger issue affecting Susan Rice and her reluctance concerning the 1997 NATO- Russia Act and the permanent stationing of US forces in East Central Europe.

According to the NATO Founding Act, the United States agreed that the expansion of NATO would not result in the permanent deployment of NATO units east of the Oder River. While Russia ignored all international norms by invading and annexing Crimea, NATO continued to adhere to the NATO Founding Act at face value. The interim solution was to introduce temporary deployments in the form of rotating NATO units among the new member states of NATO. By avoiding the issue of permanently basing NATO units in the Baltic the United States managed to sidestep the issue of outright violating the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, but it still did not resolve the issue of permanent deployment.

Whereas the constant rotation of units is not the best military solution for defending the Baltics, it does create a sense of NATO obligation to defend the region and allows NATO to demonstrate its resolve and allows military units within key member states to become familiar with operating in the Baltic region. One retired Bundeswehr General reassured this author on the eve of the Warsaw Summit in 2016 that the constant rotation of German units to Lithuania would reinforce the notion inside Germany that it had an obligation to defend the Baltics and with 9-month rotation periods it would, over time, allow thousands of German soldiers to constantly rotate in and out of the region and return to Germany. The psychological dimension, he noted, of understanding Germany’s Baltic commitment was a threshold of sorts for Berlin to overcome in how it would meet its obligations to NATO.

Deterrence by Rotation

For most of its history as a member NATO, Latvia’s role and responsibilities within the Atlantic Alliance have focused on performing out of area operations in faraway places like Afghanistan and Iraq, in which special forces requirements for assisting the US and NATO were the definition of Latvian contributions to the Alliance. Homeland defence simply has never been a high priority until Putin’s “Anschluss” of Crimea in 2014, when territorial defence became the number one objective among Latvia’s national security priorities. In the age of Enhanced Forward Presence, Latvia now finds itself trying to meet the security requirements of providing host nation support for its NATO allies, such as preparing facilities to house the Canadian military units, while also rebuilding the Latvian National Guard and modernizing the Latvian ground forces.

The key reality for Latvian strategic planners is that NATO’s ability to fight its way to relieve Latvia will come either by land from Poland or by sea past the Russian Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) corridor in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Known as Russia’s Gibraltar of the Baltic, Kaliningrad and its array of 30,000 Russian forces is larger than the military forces of all three Baltic states combined. With its array of Bastion anti- shipping missiles, Kaliningrad presents a major challenge to NATO naval forces, and any future efforts to transfer troops or supplies to relieve the Baltic States in a future conflict with Russia.

By land, there is the challenge of the Suwalki Gap that separates the Baltic states from Poland. During the Cold War, the definition of holding off a Soviet invasion of West Germany was the Fulda Gap. Today, in the age of Putin, the new Fulda Gap is the Suwalki Gap, the 104 kilometres of territory is bordered by Kaliningrad on one side and Belarus on the other side, which separates the Baltic states from Poland. In a potential conflict, any allied relief force would have to transit the Suwalki gap and would expect heavy artillery fire from both sides of the gap as Russian forces based in Belarus could form a pincer and sever the only land corridor that NATO has to the Baltic States. Suwalki is a long way from Riga, 965 kilometres to be exact, while Zagan Poland located on the other side of the Oder river is even further distance at 1,200 kilometres from Riga. Any effort by the United States to come to the aid of Latvia militarily will come from its “rotational” base in Zagan Poland. Due to the 1997 NATO Founding Act, NATO committed itself to avoid creating permanent military bases east of the Oder river. This has forced the United States to honour the spirit of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act by using rotational military deployments as a means of deterring a potential Russian invasion of the Baltics.

Zagan is the new, albeit temporary, home for the US Army’s 3rd Armored Brigade combat team of the 4th Infantry Division, and has been for the past nine months until its replacement by the 2nd Armored Brigade combat team from Fort Riley, Kansas for another 9 months. Then in another 9 months, another US combat formation will arrive. It is from this semi-permanent launching point on the Oder river more than a thousand kilometres from Riga that the United States will have to mount a relief of the Baltic in the event of Russian aggression. Closer to Riga, the US effort to defend the Latvian capital will be the single company of American soldiers. For the past two years, one company of American soldiers has been based in each of the Baltic capitals since early 2015. Highly symbolic, the small American presence in Riga is psychologically important and reassuring to Latvian policymakers, combined with a permanent rotational deployment of slightly over 1,000 troops in total, with Canadians making up less than half of the deployed units. The actual breakdown consists of 1 Canadian mechanized infantry battalion (450 men), 1 Spanish mechanized infantry company (450 men), 1 Polish tank company (160 men), 18 Albanians as part of an engineering unit, and 50 Slovenes as part of a platoon specializing in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear warfare support for the EFP.

Should there be a conflict with Russia, this tiny footprint of NATO is unlikely to hold off the massive number of Russian military forces deployed in its Western Military District. For this reason, some American generals have discussed war in the Baltics as being “a war of liberation” rather than a campaign of deterrence in the Baltic.’ This distinction is particularly important because in the minds of most strategists, fighting a war of liberation is when states are overrun, not when they are being defended from an outside force, a distinction some observers in the Baltic have failed to notice. Therefore, time and space remain critical in the defence of the Baltics, while Latvia’s ability to deter Russian forces long enoughuntil the “cavalry arrives” remains critically important.

Ben Hodges, the Commanding General US Army Forces in Europe, has constantly stressed the speed of assembly of NATO forces in Europe as being critical to European defence. Until his recent retirement, Hodges called for the creation of a military-style “Schengen system” for allowing American forces to move from one part of the European Union to another in order to deter a potential Russian threat.13 Issues such as troop and armoured vehicle transit by rail from permanent US bases in Germany to Poland takes weeks to execute due to enormous EU bureaucratic obstacles in moving American forces within Europe. Fortunately, with each American deployment and exercise, the United States has adapted and enhanced its ability to deploy its forces to the potential areas of conflict along Europe’s frontier with Russia.

What most experts fail to understand is that American military exercises such as “Dragoon Ride,” first launched in March 2015, were not just a morale-boosting display of the US commitment to defend its new NATO allies in Europe, but also served as a trial run aimed at testing the capacity of the regional infrastructure of the Baltic States, particularly bridges. It allowed the United States military to more deeply familiarize itself with the regional geography and determine what bottlenecks existed in regional transport for American forces in getting to and from the Baltics. In a way, Dragoon Ride was a modern-day form of a “staff ride” developed by the innovating thinking of General Hodges in order to familiarize US forces with the future Baltic battlefield.

During the Cold War, US army forces in Germany knew the dimensions, weight, and sizes of every critical bridge in Germany, which were clearly marked for the benefit of NATO forces, but because the United States has never entertained the idea of having to fight a war in the Baltics, the same could not be said for the Baltic States. In fact, this important detail was something that remained classified and known only to a few senior military officials in the respective Baltic states until the flurry of military exercises by NATO forces enhanced their understanding. Eliminating uncertainty in war is a major factor in mobility and this was one of the key goals of General Hodges when he initiated the US effort to deploy American forces along the potential periphery of conflict with Russia. For the reasons outlined above, Latvian security depends on a host of factors, not all of which are related to the fighting capabilities of its armed forces, but also the ability of NATO to deploy its forces fast enough to the Baltics to stop a looming attack.

For this reason, homeland defence and the historical legacy of what the Latvians achieved in defending the Courland pocket from 1944 to 1945 remain critically important as it signifies that the Latvian nation will defend every inch of their homeland until western assistance arrives. And if Latvia is overrun, it will resort to the guerrilla warfare of its forefathers. This was a central feature of Richard Shirreff’s marvellous book War with Russia 2017, which presents the idea of a Russian preemptive war being launched against Latvia that forces its armed forces to retreat to the forests once again and renew another Forest Brothers campaign similar to the one waged by Latvian resistance fighters in the late 1940 after the Soviet occupation.

Concluding Remarks

US defence posture toward the Baltics is entering a new stage of strategy and development that will likely distinguish itself from the days of the Obama Administration. After the Russian invasion of Crimea in February 2014, US policy under Obama focused on rallying NATO countries to back the actual forward presence of NATO forces in the Baltics that was officially adopted at NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit. This phase, which is still ongoing, is essentially a forward deployment phase that can be best described as “tripwire deterrence” through the creation and deployment of four multi-national EFP Battlegroups in the Baltic member states of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Small in size, these units are the first phase of fielding a tripwire military force similar to the Berlin Brigade that was deployed in Berlin after the 1961 Berlin Crisis that was discussed earlier in this paper. After Crimea, the United States and its NATO allies sought to move in a direction to reassure the Baltic states that would also send a powerful signal to Moscow about NATO’s intention of implementing Article V. By asking other NATO member states to step in and play a role in Baltic defence, the United States sought to avoid creating the perception inside the United States that it would assume the burden of defending the Baltics by itself. Instead, the US sought to create the public image that this responsibility would be shared by its NATO allies. To date, this commitment now involves such countries as Germany, Canada, Great Britain, Norway, Poland, Slovenia and even Spain as part of the multi-national forward presence now defending the Baltic.

Prior to the adoption of the EFP battlegroups initiative in Warsaw, the Obama Administration took the first step to defend the Baltic states by deploying three 150 man company-sized military units to each of the Baltic states capitals as a sign of its commitment. Additional financial resources were also added to improve the US defence posture in NATO by creating the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), a US$3.4 billion package that allocated major funds to reverse the decline of US military forces in Europe. Indeed, by April 2013, the United States had withdrawn its last armoured main battle tank from Europe, ending what had amounted to a 69-year history of basing armoured units in Europe, naively believing that the American military presence in Europe was no longer needed, or necessary. Attitudes in Washington DC, however, dramatically changed after the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in February 2014, when officials in the Obama Administration realized that the long held fears in the Baltics of a Russian threat to the region was real, not imagined.

With the emergence of the Enhanced Forward Presence, the Trump

Administration is now in a position to think beyond EFP to the level of grand strategy and the operational level of war in the Baltic theatre. Officials now are moving from the theoretical to the actual in assessing how NATO units can actually defend the Baltic region from a Russian attack. Personal correspondence with former and existing US military officials by this author indicates that the chief challenges ahead for NATO and the US are in coordinating all these disparate military units being deployed to the region. General Hodges, for example, has alluded to these challenges by characterizing these EFP battlegroups as “Franken-battalions,” due to the fact that these units are a mixture of different nationalities with no actual experience interacting with one another or cooperating in combat situations, much less with the military forces of the host Baltic nations. Military exercises in the Baltics with US forces once a year are not enough to create the environment for actual combat defensive operations.17 While many of the EFP battlegroups have experience fighting with US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Baltic region is a completely different strategic environment from Central Asia and is a place where combined arms operations against a modern day Russian army will be vastly different than the counter-insurgency warfare that dominates the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

With the extension of Commanding General Hodges tenure as Commanding General of US army forces in Europe to the end of 2017, and the appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser at the NSC, combined with the appointment James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, the United States has an impressive array of military intellectuals to direct the next phase of US military strategy towards the Baltics after the EFP phase.

H.R. McMaster is particularly suited to understanding the threat of Russian hybrid warfare, having led a US effort to study the military lessons of the war in eastern Ukraine and what it means for US forces as well as planning for a Russian threat. What this means for Baltic security in the age of Trump is more certain now than it was at the time of the US presidential election last November, as this team of experts directs US national security strategy and begins to develop their own vision of regional security for US defence of the Baltic. Even President Trump on August 29, when asked at a press conference in the White House about the recent Russian naval exercise with China in the Baltic Sea and the upcoming Zapad 2017, said that he considers the Baltic region to be a “very, very important part of the world,” noting that “we are very protective of this region…and have great friends there.” As President Trump shows more alertness to the security needs of the Baltics, in the final analysis, he has surrounded himself with a set of key advisers who possess a deep level of commitment to the security of the Baltics. It certainly indicates that American resolve to defend the Baltic States is stronger than ever, particularly as these advisers like H.R. McMaster have reintroduced the term “deterrence” back into the vocabulary of US policymakers and will back up American diplomacy with the assertion of American military power.

Glen Howard is the president of the Jamestown Foundation.

The original publication was published in the book “Security in the Baltic Sea Region: Realities and Prospects: The Rīga Conference Papers 2017”, eds. Andris Sprūds, Māris Andžāns (Riga: Latvian Institute of International Affairs, 2017), mention pages, link to the publication ( This project is managed by the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, supported by the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NATO Public Diplomacy Division, and carried out in cooperation with the Latvian Transatlantic Organisation. The Rīga Conference is co-organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia.

You may like

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.