With the Pentagon planning to send heavy weapons and artillery to the Baltic states and Eastern Europe, will the stance help counter Russia’s policy in Ukraine?

Estonian troops parade in Narva, Estonia on Feb. 24, 2015. Troops and vehicles from U.S. and NATO regiments took part in the military parade to mark Estonia’s Independence Day near the Russian border. Photo: AP

Last week the Pentagon announced about its plans to send heavy weapons and artillery to the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. Will the move help protect these countries against what they describe as Russian aggression?

Back in September 2014, during a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Tallinn and at the NATO summit in Wales, the governments of the Baltic states and Poland showed concern about the growing threat from Russia. Referring to the conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s “lightning-fast” incorporation of Crimea, Warsaw, Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn demanded an increase in NATO’s combat readiness on its eastern borders.

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Although in Wales the decision was made to set up a 10,000-strong rapid reaction unit, it was not enough. The leaders of the Baltic republics insisted on reinforcements from NATO countries with the most mission-capable armies.

Then on June 22, a symbolic date for Russia [the start of Nazi Germany’s operation against the Soviet Union – editor’s note], the Pentagon decided to deploy a significant military contingent, including 250 tanks and other heavy equipment, in the Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. What was initially behind the demand for military aid from these powerful allies, and why was there such willingness to provide it?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic states effectively built up their own armies from scratch. Casting off their Soviet past, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius actively pursued NATO standards through the purchase of Western military equipment and the hiring of military trainers from the United States, Britain and Germany. In contrast, Poland and other former Warsaw Pact countries already had sufficient combat-ready forces, which, on the contrary, had to be cut.

Poland’s entry to NATO in 1999, followed by Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2004, was tacit recognition that these countries were considered capable of bringing their armies into line with NATO standards. However, some Baltic republics were essentially lacking military aviation and heavy machinery. Only by the end of 2014 were these countries able to fully motorize their troops by purchasing a large number of Dutch and British armored vehicles.

In 2004 the North Atlantic allies provided an “air umbrella,” launching a mission to protect the airspace of the three Baltic republics. It involved stationing NATO fighter jets on a rotational basis at the Siauliai (Lithuania), Ameri and Tapa (Estonia) military airbases, tasked with guarding the Baltic skies. Since 2004 the number of NATO warplanes in the region has increased from four to around two dozen.

At the same time, work was carried out on the reconstruction of Soviet-era infrastructure to ensure the rapid deployment of troops and heavy amphibious aircraft, and to create a new network of radar stations. A substantial portion of the expenses were incurred by the Baltic republics themselves under the “Smart Defense” concept, which assumed, as the name implies, that the Alliance was able to allocate its forces wisely.

How the Ukraine crisis is spurring a new arms race

The start of the Ukraine crisis caused Russia’s Baltic neighbors to declare all previous measures inadequate. Baltic and Polish politicians began to argue that NATO assistance would simply not arrive in time in the event of a Russian offensive. Latvia and Estonia, both with large Russian-speaking communities, even voiced fears that Moscow may try to incite rebellion in their eastern territories, where Russian speakers make up the majority of the population, on the model of the “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine. That was one of the factors in setting up the rapid reaction force.

However, the proposal for a 10,000-strong contingent was deemed short of the mark. In February 2015, NATO defense ministers agreed that the force would number 30,000 troops, 4,000 of whom would be on constant high alert, with command centers manned by a small staff of permanent employees based in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

But even that did not suffice. On April 12 Estonian President Toomas Henrik Ilves stated that in the present circumstances, NATO would not be able to come to the aid of the Baltic states in time, since “everything could be over in 4 hours.” He requested Germany to deploy military units on Estonian soil.

Tellingly, this past year Tallinn has been actively demonstrating its role as the Baltic leader in NATO. This is because Estonia is an “exemplary member of the Alliance,” spending 2 percent of GDP on defense as required, taking an active part in NATO missions, and possessing the most combat-ready army of all three countries. That is largely why Obama chose Tallin as the venue for his meeting with the leaders of the three Baltic countries in September of last year, as if to emphasize its leading role in the region.

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Moreover, Estonia proved its defense capabilities during “Siil 2015” [Hedgehog 2015], one of the largest military exercises in the country’s recent history, in which 13,000 troops took part. Estonian media were quick to tell the world that the number of service personnel involved exceeded the contingent of Russian forces on the other side of the border. At the same time, although the mobilized reservists had been warned a year in advance, Tallinn showed that, if necessary, it was able to “call to arms” a significant number of trained fighters in real time.

Against this backdrop, the May 12 request of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to send additional NATO troops seemed somewhat strange. After all, at least one of these countries had already shown high combat capability and the ability to achieve parity with the potential adversary in a timely manner.

As already noted, the Baltic states have NATO air cover and will soon see a new rapid reaction force, in addition to which Estonia hosts the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Center of Excellence to combat Russian cyber threats. NATO’s new military units will impose a heavy burden on the budgets of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser has stated that the cost of basing the allies will be added to the 2 percent of GDP that Estonia is obliged to spend on defense as a NATO member.

At the same time, it is still unclear precisely how much heavy equipment will be located in which country, although it can be assumed that one of the tasks of the new contingents will be to retrain Eastern European troops. Looking further ahead, Washington sees these countries as a market for US armored vehicles and hopes to wean the Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles off the Soviet T-72 and T-55, which presently make up more than half of their tank divisions.

Why Europe seeks a new arms race 

A new wave of arms proliferation is not in the interests of the small Baltic nations. Hosting other countries’ military forces will not come cheap, even with additional funding from NATO . However, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia’s logic is simple. On the surface it is about election promises.

Ahead of Estonia’s parliamentary elections in March, Prime Minister Taavi Roivas shot a campaign video at Amari airbase, where, to the roar of a fighter jet, he promised to protect his country. Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, Latvia elected as its new president Raimonds Vejonis, who in his former capacity as defense minister beefed up the army with second-hand British armored vehicles.

The ruling political establishments of the Baltic republics are generally exploiting the “Russian threat” to improve their ratings.

Another obvious aim of the redeployment of heavy weaponry to the Russian border is NATO’s desire to provoke a response from Russia. In particular, the Alliance hopes that by being forced to send troops to its north-western borders to maintain parity with NATO, Moscow will be unable to continue supplying hardware to the rebels in the Donbas, which the West believes is happening.

Meanwhile, the Baltic region’s defense spending is becoming ever more tangible. For instance, the new Estonian government was forced to adopt a set of unpopular laws to increase excise taxes, which led to a significant drop in the ruling Reform Party’s ratings.

However, the widely touted success of “Hedgehog 2015” and the creation of new jobs required to service the body of NATO troops will, according to the so-called reformists, help counter their already declining popularity.

Despite the fact that a direct conflict between Russia and NATO leading to nuclear Armageddon is hardly likely, the war games on Russian borders benefit all of the organizers.

It should not be forgotten that the brunt of the burden falls on taxpayers, who are forced by their elected politicians to feed someone else’s army.