The Baltic Sea…Europe’s South China Sea equivalent

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The Baltic Sea...Europe's South China Sea equivalent

BAL­TOPS 2018 participants

As NATO cel­e­brates its 70th anniver­sary, the media focus con­tin­ues to be on whether Pres­i­dent Trump will leave NATO. I don’t view that as highly likely, but I do think he is going to con­tinue his march towards reward­ing coun­tries that con­tribute to the alliance, while con­tin­u­ing neg­a­tive rhetoric towards those that don’t. This is fairly obvi­ous when you notice that Poland and Roma­nia are meet­ing defense spend­ing tar­gets, and both places have US AEGIS Ashore bal­lis­tic mis­sile defense sys­tems installed in those countries.

One less obvi­ous place this is hap­pen­ing is in the Baltic Sea region. The Baltic nations of Esto­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia, along with Poland, were some of the first to break away from the Soviet Union when it col­lapsed. Despite their small size, those nations have seen huge gains in their econ­omy due to their embrace of democ­racy and cap­i­tal­is­tic eco­nomic reforms, although for a while that didn’t trans­late into increased defense spending.

These nations watched in hor­ror as Rus­sia paved over Ukraine in the name of “pro­tect­ing Russ­ian cit­i­zens.” They took notes. Lithua­nia has a Russ­ian pop­u­la­tion of around 9%, while Latvia and Esto­nia are almost 25% Russ­ian, many of whom are retired from some sort of Soviet mil­i­tary ser­vice. All these coun­tries real­ize that NATO is the only chance they have of main­tain­ing inde­pen­dence from Russia.

This, com­bined with Pres­i­dent Trump’s tac­tic of openly express­ing dis­may at NATO, has worked in our favor. All three coun­tries are rais­ing defense spend­ing. In return, and some­thing that should have received more media cov­er­age, the United States recently signed a new Defense Coop­er­a­tion Treaty with Lithua­nia, and will likely do sim­i­lar with the other Baltic States. Even bet­ter, the US recently announced that the newly cre­ated Sec­ond Fleet will lead the BAL­TOPS mar­itime exer­cise this summer.

The Baltic Region is impor­tant because if Rus­sia does choose to expand there, it will no longer be nib­bling along the edges. It is the equiv­a­lent of the South China Sea for the Pacific. If we won’t make a stand for small NATO mem­bers here, then the alliance is very likely to crum­ble. Pres­i­dent Trump’s rhetoric is work­ing, and in kind he is reward­ing states that take their own defense seri­ously. Instead of focus­ing on Ger­many and the pos­si­ble Brexit, we should be ask­ing how we will stem Russ­ian intru­sion into our most vul­ner­a­ble NATO allies.

This post rep­re­sents the views of the author and not those of the Depart­ment of Defense, Depart­ment of the Navy, or any other gov­ern­ment agency.

BALTOPS 2018 participants

As NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary, the media focus continues to be on whether President Trump will leave NATO. I don’t view that as highly likely, but I do think he is going to continue his march towards rewarding countries that contribute to the alliance, while continuing negative rhetoric towards those that don’t. This is fairly obvious when you notice that Poland and Romania are meeting defense spending targets, and both places have US AEGIS Ashore ballistic missile defense systems installed in those countries.

One less obvious place this is happening is in the Baltic Sea region. The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, along with Poland, were some of the first to break away from the Soviet Union when it collapsed. Despite their small size, those nations have seen huge gains in their economy due to their embrace of democracy and capitalistic economic reforms, although for a while that didn’t translate into increased defense spending.

These nations watched in horror as Russia paved over Ukraine in the name of “protecting Russian citizens.” They took notes. Lithuania has a Russian population of around 9%, while Latvia and Estonia are almost 25% Russian, many of whom are retired from some sort of Soviet military service. All these countries realize that NATO is the only chance they have of maintaining independence from Russia.

This, combined with President Trump’s tactic of openly expressing dismay at NATO, has worked in our favor. All three countries are raising defense spending. In return, and something that should have received more media coverage, the United States recently signed a new Defense Cooperation Treaty with Lithuania, and will likely do similar with the other Baltic States. Even better, the US recently announced that the newly created Second Fleet will lead the BALTOPS maritime exercise this summer.

The Baltic Region is important because if Russia does choose to expand there, it will no longer be nibbling along the edges. It is the equivalent of the South China Sea for the Pacific. If we won’t make a stand for small NATO members here, then the alliance is very likely to crumble. President Trump’s rhetoric is working, and in kind he is rewarding states that take their own defense seriously. Instead of focusing on Germany and the possible Brexit, we should be asking how we will stem Russian intrusion into our most vulnerable NATO allies.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.