Tallinn, Estonia — At the time of the Republican convention, the Baltic states became an issue in the presidential campaign. This was a surprise. No one was more surprised than people here in the Baltics. And no one was more concerned.
On the third day of the convention, Donald Trump gave an interview to the New York Times. One of the reporters questioning him, David E. Sanger, had just returned from the Baltics. He told Trump that people in the region were on edge about a “new Russian activism”: Vladimir Putin’s forces were harassing these states with military exercises, etc. Submarines were lurking off coasts; bombers were buzzing. If Trump were president, and Russia invaded the Baltics, would he come to their aid? Trump said, “I don’t want to tell you what I’d do, because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do.”
Sanger pointed out that the Baltic states were NATO members, like the United States. The U.S. was treaty-obligated to defend fellow NATO members. According to Article 5, an attack on one is an attack on all. Trump said, “We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.”
Reporter and candidate went back and forth for a bit. Trump laid stress on “payments.” Sanger pressed him for an answer: Payments or no payments, could NATO members, including the Baltics, rely on the United States to fulfill its obligations? Trump said, “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.” Sanger’s colleague Maggie Haberman asked, “And if not?” Trump said, “Well, I’m not saying if not.”
A word about payments: In 2014, NATO decided to beef up. This was in response to Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, and its threats to the Baltics. The alliance set a goal on defense spending: Each member would spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. At present, only five of the 28 members meet this obligation: the United States, Britain, Poland, Greece, and one of the three Baltic states: Estonia. The other two, Lithuania and Latvia, are on track to reach 2 percent by 2018.
This defense spending is not designed to make payments to America. There is no general bill due. The spending is designed to increase the overall strength of the alliance. Article 5 is the most famous part of the treaty. It has been invoked only once: after the terrorist strikes against America on 9/11. But Article 3 is worth knowing as well: “The Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
To be sure, NATO without the United States would be nothing. Without American participation, the European states would be utterly vulnerable. And Europeans have often been loath to spend on defense, knowing that Uncle Sam was always in their corner. But American presidents, along with other Americans, have never thought of NATO as charity. They have held it to be in the U.S. interest.
After Trump’s interview with the Times was published, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, amplified it. He is a supporter of Trump’s, and a sometime surrogate for him. “Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg,” said Gingrich. And “I’m not sure I would risk nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg.” He further said that Trump “thinks there ought to be a very serious conversation about us being the people who defend people who won’t defend themselves.”
Gingrich’s comments were very surprising, not to say shocking, to people in the Baltics. Trump may be largely innocent of the region, NATO, and other relevant matters. But Gingrich is not. He knows the history, and he knows the stakes. He knows everything. Moreover, he was a great supporter of the eastward expansion of NATO. To some people, Gingrich’s comments had an air of “Why die for Danzig?” (This was a slogan in France before World War II, referring to a contested place on the Baltic Sea.) Remarks like Gingrich’s are highly interesting to the Kremlin. A green light seems to glow from them.
But such remarks should be of interest to all of us, and they perform this service: They impose the question “What would the United States be prepared to do? What should we be prepared to do?”
Gingrich talked of “people who won’t defend themselves.” If the Baltic states spent every cent they had on defense, they would still be hard-pressed to fend off their behemoth neighbor, Russia, which has a million men under arms, and another 2 million in reserve — and, as Gingrich suggested, nukes. The Baltics, like many other nations, depend on collective security. To be blunter: They depend on America.
Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, took to Twitter. He noted that his country was meeting the 2 percent threshold, and that it had fought in Afghanistan, in accordance with Article 5. Writing for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg said that Ilves had tweeted “in a cold panic.” Ilves answered, “Estonians don’t do ‘in a cold panic’. Phlegmatic, slow, non-reactive, yes. Panic, no.” Still, Baltic heads are worried, as anyone would be.
A week and a half after the convention, Trump rationalized Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Or seemed to do so. He said, “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” Only eight states have recognized the Russian annexation — such states as Cuba, Syria, and North Korea. Speaking in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, President Obama said, “Just as we never accepted the occupation and illegal annexation of the Baltic nations, we will not accept Russia’s occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea or any part of Ukraine.”
Two days after he made his comment on Crimea, Trump spoke to a rally in Jacksonville. He said that the press had accused him of wanting to get rid of NATO. “I don’t want to get rid of NATO,” he answered. “But you always have to be prepared to walk. It’s possible. Okay?” He did a comical reenactment of his interview with the Times. “They said, ‘What happens if one of these countries’ — take a smaller one that nobody in this room’s ever heard of — ‘gets attacked by Russia? Are you saying you’re not gonna protect ’em?’ I say, ‘Well, let me ask you: Have they paid? Have they paid?’ Right? ‘Have they paid?’” The crowd laughed and cheered. “So, we’re gonna save a fortune. They’re gonna pay. And if they don’t — sorry.”
When Trump spoke of smaller countries that “nobody in this room’s ever heard of,” he was probably alluding to the Baltic states. He may have been underestimating his room. But it’s true that the Baltic states are little known in America. More than a few thought of Neville Chamberlain, that good but misguided man who, in September 1938, spoke of “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” He was talking about Czechoslovakia. The Baltic states are very keen not to be served up as the next Czechoslovakia — which is one reason they were intent on joining NATO, as well as the European Union.
The three states have a combined population of 6.1 million — about the same as Missouri. In area, they are again about the same size as Missouri. I will record a few simple historical facts.
Between the world wars, the Baltics enjoyed independence. Then came August 23, 1939 — the most infamous date in the region’s history. That’s when the Nazi–Soviet pact was signed. Hitler and Stalin divided Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence,” one of them German, the other Russian. The Russians would get the Baltics. They marched in and brutalized the countries. About two years later, Hitler double-crossed Stalin, invading Russia. He took the Baltics. There followed more brutalization. Finally, the Germans were defeated, with the Soviets retaking the Baltics, inflicting a brutality that lasted for decades. “We lost two generations behind the Iron Curtain,” as Andrejs Pildegovics, the Latvian secretary of state for foreign affairs, says.
During these decades, Moscow worked hard to Russify the Baltics. They moved Russians in and Balts out. They suppressed Baltic languages and other cultural expressions. By the end, the Latvian share of Latvia’s population was down to almost half.
The Balts’ experience of independence, between the wars, was of rudely short duration: about 20 years. They are now up to 25 years of “renewed independence,” as people here say. They tend to be proud of what their states have accomplished: from oppressed Soviet “republics” to fairly normal European countries in the span of a generation or so. In 2004, they joined NATO and the EU. Talk to people in the Baltics, and you will find them refreshingly serious about liberty and democracy, and wise to dictatorship and appeasement. They have not had time to grow complacent and fuzzy.
They have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have gone even farther afield, too. Pildegovics puts it catchingly: “Can you imagine the Latvian parliament, here at the 56th parallel north, giving unanimous approval for our soldiers to go to sub-Saharan Africa to fight Boko Haram?” Latvians have been to Mali and the Central African Republic on U.N. and EU missions. They are also back in Iraq, as trainers. They remain in Afghanistan, for that matter. “We are not shy about fighting shoulder to shoulder with Americans,” says Pildegovics. “We consider it a matter of burden-sharing.”
Never far away, mentally and physically, is Russia. And since 2000, Russia has been led by Putin. In 2007, he gave Estonia a jolt. The Estonians had relocated a Soviet war memorial; Putin responded with cyberattacks, paralyzing the country. But the real jolt came in 2014, when Putin moved on Ukraine. This reawakened fears and memories in the Baltics, fears and memories that had barely ebbed. “There were conversations around many dinner tables,” says Janis Kazocins, the national-security adviser to Latvia’s president. “People wondered, ‘Whom do we know in Germany or the U.K.? Where are we going to stay, if worse comes to worst?’”
Today, Balts are calmer. But Putin keeps them on alert with his “activism,” as the New York Times’s Sanger put it. This activism includes “snap drills”: military maneuvers in the dead of night. During the Cold War, these were avoided, says Juri Luik, a veteran Estonian diplomat. The Soviets did not want to risk misunderstanding or escalation. In addition to the snap drills, Putin’s forces have rehearsed the choking off of the Baltics, making them ripe for invasion. I remark to Kazocins, “It must be extraordinary and unnerving to see the invasion of one’s country rehearsed by a mighty and hostile foreign power.” “It’s very unpleasant,” he says.
Note that Kazocins grew up in England, where his parents found refuge. He speaks with British understatement.
Aside from the non-stop military harassment, there is non-stop propaganda. The Kremlin tries to stoke grievances in the Baltics’ Russophone populations, for example. These efforts are of limited effectiveness. With every passing year, Russophones, or ethnic Russians, are more integrated in these countries. The mayor of Riga is a Russophone. So is the Estonian foreign minister, or ex–foreign minister: She has just resigned to run for president. And yet the Kremlin is constantly at work, psychologically and otherwise.
What Putin would like to do, says Kazocins, is create an air of inevitability. He wants Baltic people to think that they belong with him, no matter how Western they feel. It’s going to happen regardless. Have a look at the map! Can you really escape our sphere of influence? Don’t count on the United States. Have you heard what Trump said? And the rest of NATO is a joke. You’re coming back to us, sooner or later. Wouldn’t you rather it happened without bloodshed? Be reasonable.
I am reminded of Beijing’s games with Taiwan. In that conflict, or potential conflict, the United States has a policy of strategic ambiguity: Will we or won’t we? Will the United States come to Taiwan’s aid, in the event of a Chinese attack, or not? Regarding the Baltics, however, the U.S. does not have a policy of strategic ambiguity: It has NATO.
Two years ago, Obama made a ringing declaration, in that speech he gave in Tallinn: “We will defend our NATO allies, and that means every ally. In this alliance, there are no old members or new members, no junior partners or senior partners — there are just allies, pure and simple.” He drove the point home: “The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.” Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, delivered the same message late this summer — on August 23, that pregnant day for the Baltics. He said, “We have pledged our sacred honor to the NATO treaty and Article 5.” He told the Balts that what they had heard from Trump was “nothing that should be taken seriously.”
Yet some do take it seriously, understandably: The Baltics depend on NATO, which depends on the United States, whose foreign and defense policies are in the hands of the president.
Next year, NATO will send battalions to the Baltic states. Germans will go to Lithuania. Canadians will go to Latvia. And Brits will go to Estonia. There will be an American footprint in the region, too. In the years following the Cold War, many of us asked, “What is NATO now for? What is it supposed to protect against?” The common answer was “instability” — a relatively vague concept. These days, the answer is more concrete.
In June, the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, Ben Hodges, spoke to Die Zeit, the German newspaper. He said, “Russia could conquer the Baltic states quicker than we could get there to defend them.” That is a bracing statement. Here is another bracing statement, from Ojars Kalnins, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian parliament: “If the Russians invaded, we could get wiped out. Someone said that if Russia had a war with NATO, NATO would win, but we would be lost in the debris. We would be the casualties. So the whole idea is to prevent war — to make it too costly for the Russians even to consider.”
Virtually everyone else in this region says the same thing: Deterrence is the name of the game. Deterrence is the great lesson of the previous, horrible century. Deter an aggressor before he aggresses some more. And some more.
To everyone, I put a stark question: Would NATO come to the Baltics’ aid, if Russia moved on them? Everyone says yes, with varying degrees of confidence. But no one would like to see the question tested. No one wanted such a test during the Cold War either. If the Soviets had rolled into West Berlin, what would NATO — what would the United States — have done? Perhaps it is better not to know.
Americans are perfectly within their rights to ask another question: Why should we care about the Baltic people, except on a humanitarian level? What is the connection between our security and theirs? Why should we commit our forces to their protection? You might even say, Why die for Danzig? The immediate answer is, “Better to deter, and commit to that — so that no one is ever asked to die for Danzig, including the Danzigers.” But there are answers beyond that one.
The United States has trade interests. These are connected to our prosperity. We have an interest in stability, democracy, and the rule of law — in not getting dragged into another European or world war. We have shared values, with these liberal democracies. And we have a foreign policy at large to consider. If NATO crumbles, that will have big effects elsewhere. U.S. guarantees will be seen as worthless. Japan and South Korea will be resigned to China. And so on.
From what I can tell, Balts themselves will fight come hell or high water. In fact, Juri Luik uses exactly that phrase: “We value our independence, clearly and dearly, and I’m sure that we will put up resistance, come hell or high water.” In Riga, Ojars Kalnins says that even young people have the attitude of “Never again” — never again the submission to occupiers, deporters, and mass murderers.
Recently, I heard an American on the right say that Ukraine will revert to Russia, because that is the “historic norm,” and all should be relaxed about it. The Baltics have their own historic norm — the same: foreign occupation and domination. Their experiences of independence have been mere parentheses. May independence become the historic norm.