By Linas Kojala*
(FPRI) — It was a chilly spring afternoon in downtown Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Curious passersby crowded around a dozen or so American soldiers, who were displaying their military equipment. While a bit reserved at the beginning, soldiers became much more comfortable after a couple of “selfies” with local kids. The atmosphere was both cheerful and typically relaxed; Vilnius is a slow-going city. Yet, the question posed by a journalist to a senior citizen watching the event quickly brought reality back: “Aren’t you afraid of a war in your country?”
The heads of the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, with a combined population of six million, roughly the same as Maryland—will come to the White House for a summit with President Donald Trump on April 3. Many things have changed since those American soldiers engaged with friendly Lithuanians in 2016; yet, the essential fears about security remain.
It is especially relevant now, when Russian public opinion polls place the Baltics among the top six enemy-countries for Russia—just below the U.S. And the fears are even more significant because Vladimir Putin reaffirmed just before his reelection in mid-March that the collapse of the Soviet Union is a historic event the outcome of which he would like to change. If even the United Kingdom has become a Russian target with the poisoning of a former spy on British soil, could the Kremlin try to directly challenge NATO on its Eastern flank?
In recent years, NATO made important steps to reassure its Eastern allies that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine will not spread. Perhaps most importantly, multinational rotating battalions of Alliance soldiers have been stationed in each of the Baltic states. These deployments, while low in numbers, are not merely symbolic; NATO’s combat-ready troops have enhanced the three countries’ rapid-reaction capabilities to avoid Ukraine-like scenarios.
Yet, one issue remains: the still somewhat ambivalent personal position of the American president on NATO’s principle of collective defense.
On the one hand, Trump’s administration did not make Russia happy with some recent decisions. For instance, the United States also recently provided lethal defensive weaponry for Ukraine to fight Russian-backed rebels. Senior Trump administration officials have left no doubt on multiple occasions since 2017 that America will not turn away from its allies. Even American natural gas exports to Europe have finally begun, sending a message to Gazprom and benefiting countries such as Lithuania, which has a liquefied natural gas terminal.
Yet, Trump’s personal position remains unclear, if not skeptical. His Twitter account—arguably an unfiltered source of insight into his own mind—has already targeted institutions and individuals as diverse as Meryl Streep and Macy’s, but, puzzlingly, never Russia.
Sure, decisions are more important than words. But in the context of American commitment to NATO, and especially for countries like the Baltics, words do matter. There are not many things the Kremlin likes to see more than the uncertainties or weaknesses of the West, especially on matters related to NATO.
Up until this point, Trump’s personal rhetoric was not helpful. When asked in 2016 what he would do if Russians attacked the Baltics, the then-candidate responded: “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.” Luckily, the Baltics do fulfill their obligations and, as of 2018, spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Moreover, the three countries also participate in U.S.-led international missions (e.g., Afghanistan).
By making a forthright commitment to NATO in general and Russian-facing frontline states in particular, the president could also help himself in at least three areas. First, it would show that the rhetoric by senior administration officials is completely in keeping with the president’s position; second, it would send a message to Russia about the indivisibility of the Alliance.
Finally, and most importantly, Trump would provide an argument for those who say that he is not just constantly trying to please Putin. Trump’s White House has already set the stage for an event that goes beyond small talk by calling the visit of President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, President Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia, and President Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia a Summit; the last time the leaders of these countries came together in 2013, during Obama’s time in office, it was officially “only” a “meeting.”
Hence, Trump has a great chance to do what George W. Bush and Barack Obama didn’t: reaffirm U.S. commitment to the security of the Baltics and, quite literally, go into the history books of these states. Bush’s speech in Vilnius about its commitment to Lithuania is now on a plaque on the city’s town hall; Obama’s rhetoric on collective defense in Tallinn will never be forgotten in Estonia. For Trump, even a tweet could work.
About the author:
*Linas Kojala is Director of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, a think tank in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Lecturer at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University. He is currently serving as a research fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University.
This article was published by FPRI.