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Russian aggression marks critical moment for U.S.–Baltic partnership

President Trump meets the Baltic heads of state during a summit at the White House on April 3, 2018.
Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian presidents hold a joint press conference with President Trump in the White House on April 3, 2018. Photo: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Since regaining independence from Soviet rule in 1991, the Baltic states have become some of Europe's most dynamic economies, joined NATO and embraced the democratic commitments to openness, human rights and the rule of law. Yet they're now being tested by a revanchist Russia intent on sowing division and mistrust.

The big picture: As Russia threatens to undermine the Baltic states with dangerous brinksmanship, the U.S. faces a historic window of opportunity to fortify the U.S.–Baltic partnership.

Recently, Russia has taunted the U.S. and its regional allies with a variety of provocations:

  • A return to nuclear saber-rattling
  • Military buildup and attack simulations across the Baltic NATO border
  • A disregard for arms control, including the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaties
  • Aggressive flybys of U.S. military vessels and consistent violations of Baltic airspace and sea lanes

The Baltic states all stepped up their own commitments: each of the three will reach its defense spending target (2% of GDP) in 2018. But even their best response is not commensurate with the challenge they face and thus merits U.S. assistance.

The U.S. currently allocates $2 million in financing and $1 million in training and education to each Baltic nation's military. It could now take two additional measures: (1) ensure a continual U.S. military presence in the region, as part of NATO’s deployment and (2) contribute more to the Baltics' existing defense investment, through a combination of loans and grants. After the passage of the $700-billion defense spending bill, Congress would have both the resources and the bipartisan support to do so.

The bottom line: While it's unlikely that a Ukraine-like scenario will unfold in the Baltics, it can't be ruled out. To check Russian aggression and secure the Baltic alliance, the U.S. will need to move beyond its current strategy.

Damon Wilson is executive vice president for programs and strategy at the Atlantic Council.

Go deeper: Read more at the Atlantic Council's New Atlanticist blog.

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