Vladimir Putin seems to be bent on resurrecting the Russian Empire using as his excuse the supposed mistreatment of Russian minorities in former Soviet republics. At least that was his rationale for the annexation of Crimea. It is not only Ukraine, which has already lost one province and has a sizable Russian-speaking population in other provinces, which has cause to be worried. So does Moldova, where Russia has already sponsored a breakaway province in Transnistria. Russian troops are maneuvering now on the borders of both countries.
Ukraine and Moldova might seem particularly inviting targets for Russian aggression given that neither is a member of NATO. But the really worrisome scenario, at least from our perspective, should be what would happen if Putin were to set his sights on the Baltic republics. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are postage-stamp size countries on Putin’s doorstep which are members of NATO–and they have significant Russian minority populations whose grievances could be exacerbated and exploited with Kremlin manipulation.
As this Reuters story notes, the Baltic republics are worried, and with good cause: “Russian speakers make up about 35 percent of Latvia’s 2 million population. In Estonia, around a quarter of its 1.3 million people are Russian speakers. In neighbouring Lithuania, which does not border Russia, ethnic Russians make up about 6 percent.” As these figures would indicate, Latvia has particular cause for concern. Reuters notes: “In the Latvian town of Daugavpils, where a Russian Tzarist-era fortress and barracks meet grey Soviet-era apartment blocks, you are more likely to be greeted in Russian than Latvian, with 51 percent of the city’s residents Russians.”
What exactly would NATO do if Putin were to move against the Baltics employing armed men with no insignia? This would be a crisis of the first order, which would confront the West with the unwelcome choice of either letting NATO’s collective security guarantees become a dead letter–or else getting embroiled in a war with a nuclear-armed Russia. The U.S., rapidly drawing down its military forces and especially its forces in Europe (where only two Army brigades will be left, if we are lucky), is not in a good position to defend the Baltic states. The other NATO states have more forces nearby but less willpower to act.
Putin knows this and it could well tempt him to further aggression. The best way to head off such a dire emergency would be to (a) increase the size of the U.S. army by cancelling a planned drawdown and (b) to position U.S. ground forces in the Baltic republics to act as a guarantee of American assistance in the event of invasion. By not doing this we are tempting Putin to exploit our perceived weakness–as he has previously done in Georgia and Ukraine.