Recently the Baltics have risen to prominence due to the debate over Russia and its recent moves towards a more militarist foreign policy. Candidates, especially on the Republican side, have sounded the alarm about potentially nefarious Russian action in the region. After all, Russia has shown a penchant for aggression through its 2008 invasion of Georgia as well as its more recent escapades in Ukraine and Syria. Moreover, there exist significant Russian minorities in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It was the need to protect “Russian speakers” that was the nominal excuse for many of Putin’s interventions, so some analysts believe that he might re-employ that excuse to intervene in the Baltics.
These fears are not just political posturing either. Recently, the RAND Corporation released a report detailing the ease with which Russia would be able to seize the Baltics, saying “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” Just last year Russia illegally seized an Estonian intelligence operative from Estonian territory and jailed him, and the constant Russian war games right across the border from these NATO allies are also concerning.
Nevertheless, the odds of a war in the Baltics seem vanishingly small for a number of reasons.
- Russia’s economy is in dire straights. Western sanctions coupled with low oil prices and general international market woes are significantly straining the Russian economy. The Ruble is at record lows, and economic sanctions are limiting Russian firms’ access to Western capital. Of course, this hasn’t stopped Putin from intervening in Syria, but it will likely prevent him from trying something that might actually trigger a major conflict. Syria is largely a diversionary war used to rally the Russian public while also securing Russia’s interests in Syria, an important ally due to Russia’s naval base in Tartus. The key to diversionary wars, though, is that they be limited and quick so as to generate nationalist sentiments without risking dire consequences that might turn the populace against the regime. As much as Putin has invested in Syria, it is still a relatively small conflict and has given Russia clout through its participation in organizing the upcoming ceasefire. An invasion of a NATO member state would likely be far more costly and dangerous for Putin’s regime than the domestic benefits he would garner in return.
- For all the hand-wringing, there is very little counter-balancing among the Baltic states. Anyone who has taken Intro to IR knows that threatened states engage in internal and external balancing to ensure their security. Yet, only Estonia spends over 2% of GDP on defense (2.04%), with Latvia and Lithuania spending 1.06% and 1.14% respectively. If these countries truly feared Russian aggression, they would be significantly increasing defense budgets while also pressuring the U.S. and NATO to deploy more forces to the region. The fact that they believe a relatively small U.S. force presence is enough indicates that none of the Baltic states are concerned about an imminent attack, even if they are more uneasy than before.
- Russia wouldn’t gain anything from a Baltic invasion. Russia’s invasions of Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria all had concrete, limited strategic goals. Georgia was actively hostile to Russia and Ukraine was about to pivot into the E.U.’s sphere of influence. Even when Russia did intervene in these countries, it never occupied either country outright. In Syria too, the Russian strategy was to bolster Assad and prevent his fall from power to ensure an ally in the region and negotiate an inevitable cease-fire from a position of strength. An open-ended conflict with NATO is anathema to the limited goals Putin has had in his other foreign adventures.
Ultimately, Russia is in a dire situation. The Baltics are more vulnerable than I would like, and it is not inconceivable that a desperate Putin attempts to meddle there. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence suggests that we won’t see Russian tanks rolling down the streets of Tallinn anytime soon.