From Forward Presence to Forward Defense: NATO's Defense of the Baltics

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Feb 14, 2024

A U.S. Army soldier and members of the Lithuanian Parliament take a close-up look at M1A2 Abrams tanks during a tour of Camp Herkus, Lithuania, January 4, 2024, photo by Staff Sgt. Oscar Gollaz/U.S. Army

A U.S. Army soldier and members of the Lithuanian Parliament take a close-up look at M1A2 Abrams tanks at Camp Herkus, Lithuania, January 4, 2024

Photo by Staff Sgt. Oscar Gollaz/U.S. Army

This commentary originally appeared on RealClearDefense on February 14, 2024.

The Baltic states, NATO members that have long been concerned about the military and human cost of resistance behind enemy lines and of regaining occupied land, are watching closely as the alliance begins pivoting its posture of deterrence by punishment to deterrence by denial.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and particularly the horrific scenes of mistreatment of civilians, has triggered a renewed recognition of the horrors of war for civilian populations in occupied areas. In the Baltics, and other countries this is a reminder of the atrocities experienced during World War II under German and Soviet occupations, and after the war as the Soviet occupation continued.

The war in Ukraine demonstrates anew the cost of war on civilians. Russia managed to occupy up to 54,000 square miles—more than twice the territory of Lithuania—in the first months of the expanded invasion. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Landsbergis summed up the feeling of many in the Baltics when he said in March 2023: “When we see Bucha, Irpin, civilian buildings destroyed, we think about our cities, we think about our people.”

The will of the Baltic people to fight any potential occupation has remained steadfast since the war in Ukraine began in February 2022. According to a poll conducted by the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defense, between 2021 and end of 2022 Lithuanian will to resist by peaceful means grew from 51 to 61 percent, while 53 percent said they would engage in armed resistance. But, like NATO, Baltic leaders have a new focus on preventing an occupation in the first place in addition to building readiness to fight and resist behind enemy lines.

Baltic leaders have a new focus on preventing an occupation in the first place in addition to building readiness to fight and resist behind enemy lines.

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Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania remain vulnerable to a potential Russian military attack due to their geography. The so-called Suwalki gap, a relatively narrow strip of land wedged in between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia that links Lithuania and Poland, is their only land access to the rest of NATO.

The Baltics have been pushing for the NATO tripwire battalion battlegroups in the region to be expanded to combat-ready brigades in each country and for NATO to commit to a permanent presence, and a division ready to deploy to each country to help them defend against an invasion from day one. But the development of regional military plans has been slow and Baltic anxieties climaxed earlier this year when Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas caused a stir by criticizing the alliance's defense plans. These plans, she said, would “allow [the Baltic states] to be overrun before liberating them after 180 days,” leading to a “complete destruction” of the small coastal countries.

The first NATO defense plans for its Baltic members were approved in 2010 but were not enough to defend the Baltics rapidly and against a serious Russian threat. Then in 2020 NATO adopted the Graduated Response Plan (aka Eagle Defender), regional military plans for the Baltics and Poland that had been drafted already in 2014, but the adoption of which had been stalled by Turkey over a demand for NATO to recognize the Kurdish YPG militia as a terrorist organization

NATO has been gradually coming to terms with the need to ensure a rapid and committed defense of its Baltic eastern flank as well as more robust deterrence measures in peacetime to counter efforts by an adversary to achieve military advantage. Most conceptual military changes have taken place within the last several years under the Concept for Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area. The new NATO Strategic Concept, adopted in 2022, establishes the alliance's strategic vision of itself and the world, and affirms its commitment to the security of all of its member states.

The Vilnius summit in 2023 was a watershed moment in NATO returning to full-on commitment to the defense of its member states following a gradual recognition that Europe could again witness military conflict on its territory. NATO leaders approved regional deterrence and defense plans for the High North and Atlantic, NATO's central region and the Baltics, and southeast of NATO. The plans allocate tasks across land, air, maritime, cyber, and space domains to specific allied units, and in specific areas. These plans will change NATO's approach from forward presence to forward defense, which entails moving from the potential need to regain occupied territory to defending against incursion in the first place. In the worlds of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, NATO would “protect every inch of NATO territory.” At the minimum, these plans should allow NATO to “respond faster and at a greater scale.”

The new defense plans signed in 2023 seem to satisfy the Baltic fear of having to claw back their territory while witnessing their civilians suffering under Russian occupation. Estonian Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur acknowledged that “previously deterrence centered around NATO's ability to defend and if necessary retake its territory, new defense plans concentrate on not having the luxury of surrendering territory in the Baltic region that lacks strategic depth.”

Witnessing atrocities in Ukraine is making it clear that relying on unprepared civilians to take up arms against a well-trained and equipped invading force is not a workable model. Instead, the Baltic states are investing in the development of their regular and voluntary defense forces. However, with limited resources and human power, Baltic capabilities alone would be insufficient to realize this goal. Nationally, the Baltics have been investing in their defenses: their budgets exceed the NATO 2 percent GDP requirement, all three countries now have a conscription system, and all three have been building their air defenses and fires capabilities.

Witnessing atrocities in Ukraine is making it clear that relying on unprepared civilians to take up arms against a well-trained and equipped invading force is not a workable model.

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What will NATO need to do to create new deterrence? On paper, NATO commitment looks ironclad. In practice, the new NATO defense plans may take years to implement. The necessary funding, troops and their readiness, and even political will of some allied countries to implement the new regional plans is uncertain. NATO is working to muster a 200,000-person (PDF) rapid-reaction force that could be deployed within 10 to 30 days with even larger forces when fully implemented.

That would be a great start, though implementation is hardly certain since some NATO countries may not be up to participation in a large-scale, conventional war. After years of neglected defense investment, and a focus on expeditionary operations outside of Europe, many European nations are only starting to build more robust conventional warfare capabilities and reinvigorating their defense industries. In addition, European countries have been donating their ammunition and equipment to Ukraine, while replacement has been slow.

One Estonian defense expert expressed concern that NATO today is militarily weaker than it was prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine because it has “given away a lot of ammunition and equipment,” donations that have not been fully replaced. Therefore, NATO and its member states need to ensure that they replenish the key capabilities required by the new regional plans as soon as possible, and that the plans meet the reality of available military power.

NATO's new defense plans require capabilities that are still in the process of being procured and developed. So even as allies make commitments that will be in place in 2024–2026, they will need to sustain and renew these investments over the coming decade.


Marta Kepe is a senior defense analyst at nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND.

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