Here's what NATO is doing to protect the Baltics from a scarier Russia


Deterrence: Lithuanian special operations forces in an exercise with US and other NATO allies last month.


Petras Malukas

VILNIUS, Lithuania — There are poignant new additions to the monument honoring the defenders of Lithuania's parliament against Soviet troops who tried to snuff out the then-communist country's bid for independence in January 1991.

Amid chunks of graffitied concrete and rusting metal from the barricades two decades ago are more recent relics from Kyiv's Maidan square — homemade shields, paving stones, a yellow construction worker's helmet shattered by the bullet that killed its wearer.

The exhibition, which also features children's paintings expressing solidarity between Lithuania and Ukraine, is called "For our Freedom and Yours."

In Lithuania, along with its Baltic Sea neighbors Latvia and Estonia, long historical bonds with Ukraine were honed by their shared experience under decades of Soviet rule.

Now Russia's actions to destabilize Ukraine are engendering not just outrage and sympathy here but very real concerns that the Kremlin also has the Baltic states in its sights.

"A year ago, if I were asked 'is Russia a threat to Latvia?' I would have said militarily no, although politically and economically they are always trying to influence us,” says Latvian lawmaker Ojars Kalnins, who chairs his parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. “This year, because of Ukraine, suddenly we realize that they could be a military threat."

That fear has prompted NATO to move forces east to protect the three Baltic nations that joined the Western military alliance in 2007, along with other countries from the former Soviet Bloc.

Thousands of allied troops have been holding exercises in the region, NATO warships are stepping up patrols in the Baltic Sea and fighter jets have intensified air policing.

US President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a $1-billion "reassurance initiative" to bolster American military deployments in Europe. NATO defense ministers have agreed to improve the readiness of alliance rapid response forces.

Obama also stressed unwavering commitment to the mutual defense guarantee enshrined in Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty.

"Article 5 is clear — an attack on one is an attack on all,” Obama said during a visit to Lithuania's neighbor Poland this week. “And as allies, we have a solemn duty — a binding treaty obligation — to defend your territorial integrity. And we will."

"Poland will never stand alone,” he added. “But not just Poland, Estonia will never stand alone. Latvia will never stand alone. Lithuania will never stand alone. Romania will never stand alone."

Eastern Europeans are grateful and relieved for the backing.

"The reaction was immediate and we were really thankful for that," Lt. Gen. Arvydas Pocius, Lithuania's defense chief, told GlobalPost. "This is exactly what we need, this visibility, this reassurance. It's really the proper way forward."

Like many here, Pocius would like to see NATO go further by permanently stationing troops in the Baltic states and other eastern allies in order to deter Moscow from any thoughts of aggression.

Russia claims that would violate a 1997 agreement under which both sides committed to avoid "any potentially threatening build-up of conventional forces in agreed regions of Europe, to include Central and Eastern Europe."

But NATO counters that Russian President Vladimir Putin has effectively torn up agreements with the West by annexing Crimea and exerting military pressure on other parts of Ukraine.

Baltic political leaders are nearly unanimous in insisting the worst thing NATO allies can do now is to seek to appease him.

"The greatest provocation to Putin from the West is to fail to stand up to him," Lithuania's Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told a meeting of legislators from NATO members here last week. "The least costly time to resist Russia is now."

Russian experts are divided over whether Putin would risk conflict with the West by seeking to undermine the Baltic states.

Andrei Illarionov, a former leading economic advisor to Putin now at the Cato Institute in Washington, says Putin has the Balts in mind as he seeks to undermine the Western alliance and reestablish Russia's reach beyond its current borders.

"Putin's war against Ukraine is only the introductory chapter of a much larger event which is already being called a world war by the Kremlin propaganda machine," Illarionov told the conference. "It is being called a war ... against the rest of the world and it is being waged right now by the Russian regime."

Illarionov later added in an interview that Putin could use tactics tried in Ukraine against the Baltic states.

They might include propaganda to whip up internal dissent and international opposition, cyber attacks, economic pressure through Russia's control over energy exports, corrupting of officials and the use of agents infiltrated among the local population — particularly the three countries' ethnic-Russian minorities.

Baltic security officials say they’re already coming under pressure.

Russian troops have been building up in the region, including in Belarus, a close Russian ally that borders Lithuania and Latvia to the south. There have been regular incursions by Russian warplanes and maneuvers such as a Russian military exercise that involved at least 12,000 troops last September. Baltic officials denounced it as training for invasion.

The Balts are also confronted by less conventional pressure. "We are facing a huge propaganda flow from the east," says Col. Saulius Guzevicius, director of the Lithuanian military's Department of Strategic Communication. "We are under information attack."

He told members of NATO's Parliamentary Assembly that such pressure included claims that Lithuania is training Ukrainian "terrorists" and that NATO is planning to use to the Baltic states as a launch pad for attacks on Russia.

He also cited attempts to undermine Lithuania's historical identity by claiming Belarus is the true successor to the powerful medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and to highlight the role of Nazi collaborators during World War II.

As Ukraine’s crisis has deepened, Guzevicius says, internet portals and Facebook pages have appeared seeking to recruit "separatists" among ethnic Russians who comprise around 6 percent of Lithuania's population of 3 million. Only a tiny minority would be needed to cause problems, he warns.

"To create provocation, you don't need 100,000, you don't need 10,000 or even 1,000, you only need several hundred people who have been influenced and manipulated.”

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Such concerns echo in Estonia and Latvia, where Russians make up around a quarter of the population.

Latvian lawmaker Kalnins says although most Russians in Latvia wouldn’t support Putin’s attempts to undermine the country, the Kremlin could exploit extremists among them.

Politicians are particularly worried about the impact of propaganda from Russian TV, which frequently portrays NATO countries as supporting anti-Russian "fascists" in Ukraine.

Although the Baltic states admit they can't match Russia's huge budget in the broadcast battle, some are urging Western allies to back a response through new Russian-language media.

"This is a new type of invasion, let's say into minds," says Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Estonia's parliament. "If we believe that Russia can be a democracy one day, then we have to take a long-term vision, like during Cold War times with the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and so on. It should be truly part of a long strategy of changing mentalities."