The three Baltic states have called for NATO to reinforce its presence on their territories as the alliance for the first time activated its rapid response force of thousands of troops to bolster its eastern flank.
Lithuania on Thursday announced a state of emergency in response to Russia’s assault of Ukraine that began in the early hours, while Latvia and Estonia convened urgent national security talks.
The Russian attack was launched not only from occupied eastern Ukraine but also Belarus, which neighbors Lithuania and Latvia, and where Russian President Vladimir Putin had stationed 30,000 troops. Putin spoke with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko before the assault, according to Minsk.
The Baltic states, which were illegally annexed by Moscow after the second world war, are the only former Soviet nations that have joined the EU and NATO – something Russia has long viewed as a provocation.
A particular concern is Russia’s ability to cut the Baltic states off from the rest of Europe via the narrow Poland-Lithuania border stretch between Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The 65km Suwalki gap is viewed as one of NATO’s most vulnerable points.
The Baltic states also rely on other NATO members to defend their air space on a rotation basis.
The three states and Poland on Thursday called for immediate consultations at Nato under the so-called Article 4, which allies can invoke whenever “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened” /
Putin this week suggested that all nations that declared independence from the Soviet Union were “ticking time bombs” infected with the “virus of nationalist ambitions”, suggesting his territorial ambitions extended beyond Ukraine.
Nato allies have over the past few months sought to reassure the Baltics, as alarm grew over the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders. The UK, Germany, Norway and Denmark sent additional troops to reinforce the multinational battle groups of about 1,000 each in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – although the Baltics would like more.
The US, which has a battalion on rotation in Lithuania, sent reinforcements to its base in Poland.
Ingrida Simonyte, Lithuania’s prime minister, said before the invasion that an assault on Ukraine would be a “complete game changer” for Europe that would require a need “to rethink the whole security situation if these Russian troops and weapons are here to stay”.
Nato said on Thursday it was deploying “additional defensive land and air forces to the eastern part of the alliance” to protect its allies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Our measures are and remain preventive, proportionate and non-escalatory,” it said after convening an emergency meeting.
NATO has also agreed to activate for the first time its Response Force, a roughly 40,000-strong multinational group, of which up to 5,000 troops are ready to deploy immediately.
“In the coming days and weeks there will be even more [troops] . . . in the eastern part of the alliance, ”said Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, without providing figures or detailed locations for the new deployments.
Estonia said before the NATO emergency meeting that it would present its views on how to strengthen the alliance’s deterrence and defense stance in the Baltic region. A gathering of NATO leaders has been scheduled for Friday.
The Baltic countries have for weeks been pushing for tough sanctions on Russia. Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, on Thursday retweeted a call by his Ukrainian counterpart for “devastating sanctions” on Russia including cutting off the country’s banks from the Swift banking communications network.
The option of severing Russian banks from Swift is on the table for discussion among EU capitals on Thursday, even though diplomats said it was not initially expected to be in the current round of sanctions.
Lithuania also joined with Poland in a joint statement with Ukraine this week proposing candidate status for Ukraine in the EU.
Jonathan Eyal, associate director with the Royal United Services Institute, said that “what is happening before our eyes is what eastern and Baltic states have been warning for 20 years, only to be dismissed as unnecessarily alarmist and obsessed with Russia”.
The Baltic states “have succeeded in improving their defense arrangements substantially, but they are basically non-defensible without a permanent presence of western forces”.
He said that once Putin finished what he started in Ukraine, “his attention will turn to countries in NATO facing him”.
He said NATO should look to permanently reinforce its eastern flank from the Black Sea to the Baltics, particularly given Belarus’s de facto integration into Russia’s military machine.
“The Russian attack on Ukraine through Belarus is [a] huge warning for the Baltics, ”said Eyal.