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.