*Lithuania waves a red cape towards the Russian bear.
The smallest NATO members are often the most aggressive. They know that they won’t be asked to fight in any conflicts they cause. It’s simply too little to make any difference.
So Lithuania, with an army of just 8,850 active-duty personnel and 5,650 reservists, is now enforcing a blockade of sorts against Russia through Kaliningrad. After the Second World War, Germany seized the latter and it was later seperated from Russia by the Baltic States. Vilnius has banned the transport of metals and coal to Kaliningrad. The governor stated that about half the country’s imports are on the ban list. Lithuanian officials said was only following orders from an higher authority. “We just apply the sanctions which were imposed at European Union level and this has absolutely nothing to do the bilateral relations between Russia, Lithuania and Lithuania,” stated Gitanas Nuseda, Lithuanian president. With Russian flights above the E.U. Resupply to the isolated oblast can only be done by sea, as it is prohibited on Russian territory. Moscow could consider blocking transit through third countries, or any internal transit at all, a casus belli . Russian officials spoke out in a dark tone about the possibility of retaliation. Baltic countries have been wailing for years about Russian aggression and demanding more from NATO and the U.S. Some officials in Lithuania feel like they are preemptive martyrs. For instance, Laurynas Kasciunas, who handles national-security issues in Lithuania’s Siemas, or parliament, asserted: “We are in a sense a modern-day West Berlin.” That reflects a highly inflated sense of international importance–Berlin was a Cold War flashpoint because the U.S. and Soviet Union were sparring over the future of Germany, a once and future dominant continental power. Lithuania’s role? It is not so.
Why would Russia strike any Baltic countries if they didn’t provoke? How would Russia expect to reap the benefits of capturing three smaller nations that lack historical significance like Ukraine? They are already members of NATO, so an invasion would likely trigger war. Moscow’s problems in Ukraine indicate that they might not be as easy prey. However, Russia will likely seek to correct its errors and achieve a decisive outcome.
It is foolish to give the Putin government cause of war. Officials from the Alliance acknowledge that given their current deployments, it is likely that three countries will be overwhelmed before any assistance arrives. The Rand Corporation reported:
As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. Across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants in and out of uniform playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours. This rapid loss would give NATO only three options: to wage a bloody counteroffensive to free the Baltics, which is fraught with danger, or to surrender to the Alliance, which has the potential to cause irreparable harm to the Alliance, and the Baltics, not to be overlooked.
With its military deeply engaged in Ukraine, the Putin government is unlikely to open a new front, either by blasting through Latvia and then Lithuania, or using Belarus as a base to seize the 40-mile Suwalki Gap to link up with Kaliningrad. Moscow appears to be lacking the required troops without full mobilization. However, many Western observers found Russia’s aggression on Ukraine surprising. Many believed Moscow did not have enough forces to continue its offensive in Donbas. There could be more surprises in store.
At the minimum, Moscow’s threats will increase. Kaliningrad is already heavily armoured. Moscow conducted military drills that involved a simulation of launching a missile at Estonia. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukasenko met over the weekend to announce the transfer of Iskander M missiles with nuclear capability to Minsk. The possibility of a Baltic war is not something anyone should wish to see happen.
Why is Lithuania deliberately provoking tensions?
It is possible that Lithuania wants to force NATO (meaning America) into direct military confrontations with Russia. This is a good time, as the Madrid summit of NATO’s alliances takes place this week. Vilnius has seen some support for war. In March, the Siemas unanimously passed a resolution urging the imposition of a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine, which would entail an air war over Ukraine and require strikes against air defenses in Russia. This operation could only be mounted by the United States, which is convenient. Although Lithuania’s prime minister criticized the idea, Nauseda called the measure “a good declaration,” while expressing caution. Vilnius has become impatient since then?
As you can’t sow the wind, it is risky to reap the storm, but a smaller goal might be possible. Vilnius may hope to incite a frenzy of Russian threats that would increase pressure on the Baltic States to accept permanent U.S. forces deployments. What better way to advance Nauseda’s earlier proposal for a U.S. garrison, which he argued “would be the best boost to security and deterrence that NATO could provide not only to Lithuania but to the whole region”?
Indeed in April, General Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) advocated for permanent bases to be established in Eastern Europe. He suggested making U.S. forces rotational, but once facilities were established, a permanent presence would be the logical next step. Indeed, CNN reported that “the Pentagon recently announced replacement troops for those temporary rotations, signaling the increased U.S. presence will be maintained for some time to come,” noting that “The Pentagon announced that approximately 10,500 US Army personnel would be deployed to Europe in the coming weeks and months to replace forces that are already there.”
Others in Washington back this approach. For instance, last week the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon contended: “NATO should establish enough combat punch in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that it could credibly fight to protect these countries’ territories in a future war against Russia, while awaiting reinforcement from points further west.”
Why should the U.S. provide these troops? The Europeans announced that they were spending more money on defense after seventy years of American cheap-riding. Once you’re a freeloader… always you’ll be a freeloader! This is apparently what the Biden administration desires. The U.S. does more to help the Europeans than the Europeans do. Since February, the Biden administration added 40,000 troops to Europe. Reported CNN: “The US is expected to keep 100,000 troops stationed in Europe for the foreseeable future…. These numbers may temporarily rise if NATO conducts more military exercises within the region. The officials also added .”
that the U.S. is expected to keep troops stationed in Europe for the foreseeable future. Yesterday, during the NATO summit, the Pentagon announced numerous “long-term commitments to bolster European security,” including the installation of permanent forces in Poland, enhanced rotational units in the Baltics and Romania, and various personnel and materiel elsewhere around the continent. Moreover, the Defense Department stated that “All of these combat-credible forces and enablers are supported by significant investments in the long-term U.S. presence in Europe,” adding that the Department of Defense “continues to execute $3.8 billion in European Deterrence Initiative funding (with another $4.2 billion requested in FY23) for rotational forces, exercises, infrastructure (construction of storage facilities, airfield upgrades, and training complexes) and prepositioned equipment.”
That figure is for the U.S., which continues to hike its military outlays. In contrast, despite modest European expenditure increases after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas, most NATO members continue to lag badly in their military outlays. Last year, only one member state allocated a greater share of its GDP to the military than did America: Greece, which edged Washington by . 02 percent, and focused its military efforts against fellow NATO member Turkey, not Russia. Only seven European countries met the 2 percent threshold.
This number is shockingly low for Poland and the Baltics, who have tirelessly advocated for greater American involvement in their countries. How could countries that were convinced of their independence would spend a few cents on every euro or zloty to defend themselves? Ukraine proved the value of having a strong territorial defense. Anyone expecting another person to help them should put in their best effort from the beginning, and not focus on lobbying Uncle Sam for more subsidies.
Where is Europe on Lithuania’s incendiary plot? The European Union’s foreign affairs “High Representative” Josep Borrell–someone with a great title but little useful to do–said he was “always worried about Russian retaliations,” but defended Lithuania, explaining that “it is not guilty, it is not implementing national sanctions, it is not implementing their will.”
However, behind the scenes, E.U. Officials wiggled nervously. Politico observed “a thinly veiled but pretty solid contradiction between Lithuania’s statement, which claims the E.U.’s sanctions include a ban on transit of metals and therefore Lithuania must block such transit to Kaliningrad, and the Commission spokesman, who said Lithuania merely has to perform ‘proportionate’ checks ‘while allowing free transit’.” Indeed, an unnamed “senior official” told Politico that “certain Balts profited to ramp up the pressure.”
No doubt they did. Vilnius recklessly and knowingly stoked Europe’s East fire by doing this. Russian aggression has wronged Ukraine. The United States supports Kiev’s right to defend its sovereignty and independence. The United States has a greater interest in preventing this conflict from escalating and spreading. Although no one wants it, at its worst, a conventional war between major industrialized countries topped with nuclear exchanges. The longer hostilities continue to escalate the more likely they will be.
Washington needs to privately send a strong message to Vilnius, and all capitals in Europe, particularly the East. Inciting Moscow into action would free the U.S. from any duty to defend them even though they may be NATO members. America and Europe must keep their dogs out of the warzone.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He was a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and is the author of Foreign Follies, America’s New Global Empire ..