Last week, President Trump welcomed the leaders of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the White House to address ongoing tensions with Russia. The three presidents — Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia and Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania — met with President Trump to urge the United States to bolster its defense of Baltic countries against Russian aggression.
Despite the magnitude of the occasion for the Baltic leaders, President Trump said at a White House joint press conference, “I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin. And if I did, that would be a great thing.” Such remarks not only do little to quell the fears of the Baltic states but put our alliances in jeopardy.
Make no mistake, the man who President Trump suggests he could have a great relationship with is the same individual who has carried out a deliberate plan to destroy European unity, divide the United States and its allies, particularly NATO nations, and restore Russian global power. We have seen Vladimir Putin’s efforts through social, political and military means.
Most recently, Putin ordered an egregious covert attack on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia within the borders of the United Kingdom. Indeed, Putin seeks to restore the power and influence of Russia at every opportunity. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have every right to be concerned given Putin’s appetite for territorial aggression.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing territorial disputes in western and central Georgia since 2008 are evidence enough that Putin has no respect for the borders of his neighbors. Ahead of her visit to Washington, President Grybauskaite said she hoped that the “United States and other allies understand that the airspace of the Baltic states must be better protected and defended.”
With U.S. and NATO troops in Baltic countries and Russia’s military buildup in neighboring Belarus, this region is rife with tension and the stakes are high. Baltic leaders are appealing to President Trump to address the situation from a position of strength. Recent actions such as tougher sanctions and the decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats are heartening but largely symbolic and must be reinforced with decisive action.
In order to effectively counter Moscow’s aggression in Baltic states, the United States must bolster NATO rhetorically, politically and militarily. Instead of continuous pointed comments that “delinquent” NATO nations do not pay their fair share of the defense budget, President Trump must focus on utilizing the power of our NATO allies. The United States must lead the charge to tighten sanctions, and increase economic and military assistance to Baltic nations.
Specifically, the United States must urge NATO allies to honor their troop commitments in the Baltics. In the past year, NATO has deployed multinational troops in each of the Baltic states in an effort to counter possible movement from Moscow. This is a step in the right direction but is not robust enough to convey a clear message.
Indeed, President Grybauskaite has emphasized the need for troops on a “permanent rotational basis in all Baltic states.” Such a presence would clearly convey to Moscow that further military intimidation will not be tolerated. Recent research reinforces the need for such deployment.
Last month, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issued a report on how to successfully prevent escalation in the Baltics. The report recommends that the NATO allies send an additional battalion to the Baltics, but strategically organize deployments so as to avoid what could be seen by some as a provocation toward Russia.
This plan would be welcome and effective, but military strategies are only one area where we must address the threat posed by Russia. We must also bolster cybersecurity, which remains critically weak in the face of Russian meddling throughout Western democracies.
The creation of cybersecurity partnerships among NATO members must be a priority. In recent years, Estonia has designed a compelling model for cybersecurity cooperation that has helped to block Russian interference in the region. Indeed, if the United States does not take swift action to reassure the Baltic states that we will fulfill to our obligations to the region, we will only play into Putin’s hand.
If we do not signal to Putin that we take these commitments seriously, the Baltic region is potentially ground zero for a military conflict. The stakes are incredibly high and every move is critical. NATO is the key to deterring Russian mobilization. We have promised to protect our Baltic allies and we must demonstrate that, if necessary, we are prepared to do so.