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Drawing a red line

Will NATO defend the Baltics if Russia attacks? As signs of imminent warfare grow, the Ukraine example breeds fear and frustration

Drawing a red line

Lithuanian soldiers take part in a NATO field training exercise at the Rukla military base. (Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images)

Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

Lithuanians walk with a national flag during a parade in Vilnius March 11 to mark the 25th anniversary of their independence from the Soviet Union.

Associated Press/Photo by Maxim Shipenkov

Putin enters a hall for a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Moscow’s Kremlin.

Handout photo

Masek and her niece, Gabija, fly the Lithuanian flag.

Handout photo

Rima Masek has lived in Orange County, Calif., for more than two decades. But she still proudly flies her Lithuanian flag on Independence Day and offers chocolates from her motherland to guests. Deeply disturbed by Russia’s growing aggression, she chooses her kvass carefully. “I almost didn’t buy this because I thought it was from Russia,” she explains as she shows me a bottle of the fermented rye drink with a monk on the label. To her relief, the beverage—called Monastyrski—was bottled in Ukraine and poses no risk of supporting the Kremlin’s imperialistic ambitions, she said.

All Lithuanians are worried. A 96-page wartime survival manual recently published by their government tells citizens to avoid panic and keep a sound mind if their country is invaded. “Gunshots just outside your window are not the end of the world,” it says. Other tips: Use social media to organize protests, and if all else fails, “do your job worse than usual.”

As tensions between the West and Russia reach their highest level since the Cold War, concern is growing that Moscow’s ambitions may not end with Ukraine. The former Soviet Baltic nations—Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia—have sizable Russian minorities and have watched with alarm as Russia has redrawn its neighbors’ borders through “hybrid warfare.” Russian snap military exercises are on the rise, rattling Eastern Europe and forcing NATO to bolster its presence in the region.

“Lithuanian history was always a little nation in the path of big nations. Whoever goes through tramples it,” said Masek, adding, “Lithuanians survive, so we are resilient.”

Lithuania has real reason to fear a Russian invasion: This young democracy of 3 million spent much of the last century under the control of the Soviet Union. Memories of oppression are fresh. Masek remembers her patriotic father hanging the Lithuanian flag in his bedroom where it had little chance of being spotted.

“After Ukraine, we will be next,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite warned in February. The government is reinstating compulsory military service for young men and is considering a bill that would require bomb shelters in new buildings.

The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad borders Lithuania and is home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet. Large-scale naval exercises in December featured 9,000 Russian soldiers and more than 55 naval vessels—a daunting presence for a country with little military might.

Hostilities with Moscow increased when Lithuania sent military aid to help Kiev fight Russian-backed separatists in its eastern Donbas region. Now Russia is dusting off history books from the Cold War era and threatening to prosecute Soviet-era desertions. Lithuania was the first to declare its independence in 1990 and absolve its soldiers from serving in the Soviet army.

Masek’s 22-year-old niece lives in Lithuania and says her friends and family aren’t panicked, but they are nervous. The school her 16-year-old brother attends recently held wartime preparedness training, and social media conversations have turned toward the Russian threat.

When her grandmother goes to market to buy food now, said Gabija Lukoseviciute, she asks the price and the shopkeeper answers her in Russian. “My grandmother doesn’t speak Russian and she gets real angry about that.”

“If Russia attacks Lithuania, is NATO really going to help us fully, like 100 percent?” Lukoseviciute asked.

According to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, it should. An attack against any of NATO’s 28 members is an attack on all. Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, along with Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. For Moscow, that moved NATO’s borders from over 1,000 miles away to within 100 miles of St. Petersburg. For Lithuania, it meant an active military alliance: Its air base at Siauliai, taken over by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, now hosts 400 NATO military personnel.

From Siauliai, NATO Eurofighter jets defend the Baltics already, with crews from two countries monitoring Lithuanian airspace at all times. NATO commanders say they need to: In 2014, NATO scrambled planes 400 times to intercept Russian planes flying too close to NATO airspace—the Russians actually violating Baltic airspace at least eight times last year—a marked increase over 2013.

THE REAL QUESTION is how NATO members would vote in situations involving ambiguous attacks such as cyber warfare or “little green men” with unmarked uniforms, as Russian-backed fighters appeared in Crimea, and later eastern Ukraine. Article 5 has been invoked only once in NATO’s history: after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

“I am sure [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to destroy our alliance, not by attacking it but by splintering it,” U.S. Army Europe Commander Ben Hodges said to military and political leaders in Berlin in early March.

The three Baltic states and Poland have taken a strong stance against Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, but other countries in the region are showing signs of allegiance to Moscow. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban—called “little Putin” by his critics—signed a gas deal with Russia last month, and Cyprus recently agreed to allow Russian Navy ships to dock in its strategic Mediterranean port.

Lithuania isn’t the only country on edge. Latvia and Estonia have sizable Russian minorities—28 and 25 percent respectively. Latvia’s capital city of Riga is nearly 50 percent ethnic Russian, and the government is working together with its Baltic neighbors to launch a Russian-language television network to counter the onslaught of Kremlin propaganda on its airwaves.

Few skirmishes have occurred among the Baltic states’ ethnic Russians—but Baltic residents are quick to note: Crimea and Donbas were relatively quiet prior to Russian-backed separatists taking up arms last spring and launching Ukraine into an ongoing war that has left more than 6,000 dead.

Estonia may be the most prepared of the three Baltic countries. Martin Hurt, deputy director of Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security, says Lithuania and Latvia should have spent more money on national defense during the past decade. Estonia is one of four NATO countries that spends the recommended 2 percent of its GDP on defense, and much of that has been used to bolster NATO bases on its turf.

Hurt, who has worked for Estonia’s Ministry of Defense as well as for the armed forces of both Estonia and Sweden, says Estonians are not surprised by Russia’s aggression and never assumed the country was making great strides toward democracy during the past 10 to 15 years. “What we see now is not a different Russia. It’s just wealthier and has more resources than it did 10 to 15 years ago. And because it’s richer, it’s also more aggressive,” he said.

Russia has increased its defense spending by 80 percent since 2010, while NATO on average has decreased defense spending by 20 to 40 percent.

In 1994 the Russian armed forces left Estonia, but the Russian security services stayed, Hurt added. The Russian FSB (the KGB’s successor) has been actively trying to recruit politicians and people in the defense sector and has become “more and more active as a result of their more aggressive behavior” and increased resources, he said.

That aggressive behavior reached Sweden, which is not part of NATO, during a submarine hunt in the Baltic Sea last October. Multiple reports claim a Russian submarine surfaced just kilometers away from Stockholm’s city center, leading the country’s prime minister to create a national security council.

Russia’s provocative snap exercises near NATO’s eastern and northern borders have increased in size and frequency, along with incursions into NATO airspace running more than double the 2013 rate. Russian pilots fly with transponders switched off and don’t file flight plans, creating several close calls: Russian warplanes nearly collided with Swedish passenger jets twice last year.

Europe is beginning to sound the alarm. British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said Russia poses a “real and present danger” to Europe and called Putin “as great a threat to Europe as Islamic State.”

IN DECEMBER 2013, Russia expelled an American journalist for the first time since the end of the Cold War. David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent and author of several books about Russia and the Soviet Union, traveled to Kiev to renew his visa and was informed by the Russian embassy that “his presence on the territory of the Russian Federation was no longer desirable.” This was a common Cold War tactic but a surprising move for a country preparing to host the Sochi Olympics.

The risk for Russian correspondents is far greater. Russia is the fifth most dangerous place in the world for journalists, and any truth-tellers risk their lives. The recent murder of Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s liberal opposition leader, has brought these alarming statistics into the spotlight once again as questionable circumstances point to the possibility of a government-sanctioned kill.

Satter, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, says we give Russia the right to control events in Ukraine at our own peril. “We reinforce a corrupt regime in Russia, which in the long run is a danger to everybody,” he said. “It’s a danger to the Russians and it’s a danger to the world because it is so completely criminalized.”

Putin portrays Russia as the victim of Western encroachment in its backyard and as the innocent party in a Russia-Ukraine war he says doesn’t exist.

“Russia has engaged in a rather remarkable period of the most overt and extensive propaganda exercise that I’ve seen since the very height of the Cold War,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during a February Senate hearing. “And they have been persisting in their misrepresentations—lies, whatever you want to call them—about their activities [in Ukraine] to my face, to the face of others, on many different occasions.”

At the same time, the Russian leader—who could potentially be in power until 2024—boasts of Moscow’s might: Russian troops could take Kiev in two hours, he said during a September conversation with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and reach the capitals of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Romania—all NATO members—in equal time.

WHILE SOME DISMISS Putin’s comments as intimidation tactics (and a full-scale invasion is unlikely given NATO’s strength), world leaders are troubled by the growing Russian land and air patrols in Eastern Europe and Moscow’s undeniable involvement in Ukraine’s war.

Hodges, the U.S. army commander in Europe, believes Russia has around 12,000 troops in eastern Ukraine and could be making a push south to create a land bridge to Crimea and then west to the mouth of the Danube river, threatening southeastern Europe. Moscow could also have its sights on Zaporizhia, Ukraine, home to the largest nuclear power station in Europe and the fifth largest in the world.

Western leaders are mobilizing for response: The United States will deploy 3,000 troops to the Baltics for NATO exercises over the next three months both to reassure its allies and to send a clear message to Moscow. At the end of February, U.S. and British NATO contingents paraded through Estonia—a mere 300 yards from the border crossing with Russia and Moscow’s own gathering of troops. The display of force was symbolic: It took place on Estonia’s Independence Day.

Sanctions are beginning to take their toll on the Russian economy—but not on Putin’s approval ratings. This could change. The Kremlin says Russian citizens fighting in eastern Ukraine are “volunteers,” but stories of soldiers returning home in body bags, secret burials, and unexplained deaths are seeping into Russia’s state-controlled media. Eventually they will be hard to deny.

So will the effects of sanctions. “If we really believe that the sanctions eventually will work, it is a long-term mission, so we need to buy time,” Hurt said.

“The West does not have a clear long-term strategy to address Russia, and I think what we see here is a bad strategy. It is made up of politicians hoping that Russia, after taking its next step, will be completely satisfied and will not become more and more aversive,” said Hurt.

The best way to buy time, he said, is by arming Ukrainians with lethal weapons. What’s needed are “relatively high-tech but still simple weapons like anti-tank missiles and communications equipment,” he said. It’s not possible to train military personnel to use modern sophisticated weapons systems in one or two days, said Hurt: “It takes months and years, and there’s no time to do that.”

One of Masek’s most vivid memories of her three decades living in Soviet-controlled Lithuania is the long line of people snaking out the stores, down the street, and around the block. When she asked what they were in line for, they would reply, “We have no idea, but whatever it is, it will be gone soon. Just get in line.”

Moscow has assumed its neighbors should be within its sphere of influence. What it seems to have forgotten is that many countries next door prize their independence and want nothing to do with Russia’s autocratic kleptocracy. That’s why they joined NATO in the first place.

Praying for peace

In Ukraine, war is driving a wedge between friends, family members, and fellow believers, as polarized political views ruin relationships. Now Baltic believers face similar challenges as ethnic background and political alliances are suddenly magnified by Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine.

“What isn’t fully realized in the West is that the information and propaganda war which preceded the military action against Ukraine is very much underway here, too,” Archbishop Gintaras Grusas, president of the Lithuanian bishops’ conference, told Catholic News Service. “There’s a high degree of tension, and everybody here knows how dangerous the situation has become.”

This tension reached a prominent Christian university in Klaipeda, Lithuania, last December when a college student hung a Russian flag from his dorm window. A neighbor reported the incident and within hours the largest Lithuanian online news portal made it front-page news.

Marlene Wall, president of LCC International University (formerly known as Lithuanian Christian College), said readers posted a thousand comments within two hours of that post, including many that were hostile. The university hosts students from 27 different countries—including 71 from Ukraine and 53 from Russia—and tries to avoid political entanglements.

As the university scrambled to craft a response to the media firestorm, students created their own political statement by hanging a variety of flags from their dorm windows. One particular window, Wall said, portrayed the unity the campus is striving for: Students hung both a Ukrainian and a Russian flag with a heart in the middle. “LCC exists for Ukraine and for Russia and for the region,” Wall said. “This region needs a new generation of leaders. May we continue to be a Christ-centered institution that can help make a difference in Ukraine and beyond.”

Archbishop Grusas emphasized the importance of praying for peace in the region but also the need for being well-informed. “The Cold War may be a part of history, but we shouldn’t be naïve or allow ourselves to forget about the past. One of the greatest dangers is being lulled into complacency, thinking we no longer have to work for peace.”

Catholics comprise 79 percent of Lithuania’s population, 20 percent of Latvia’s, and less than 1 percent of Estonia’s population. Estonia is labeled one of the least-religious countries in the world, with 54 percent claiming no religious affiliation. —J.N.

Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters. Follow her on Twitter @WorldNels.


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  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:40 pm

    It would seem it is not about the amount of power a country has it's about the will to use it.  I do not remember a time when the United States looked so weak and appearance is important.   

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 05/23/2020 10:19 pm

    I can tell you the US looked far weaker under Obama! I don't know what news media you read but it surely isn't the right one!