2.1 The Issue
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—collectively known as the Baltic states—are three small countries wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea. Their total population numbers fewer than six million, and together their land area is smaller than Missouri.
At first glance, the Baltic states’ security can seem beyond question. They are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU), the two multinational institutions that anchor the Western order in North America and Europe. Yet despite the protection and solidarity that NATO and EU membership provide, the Baltic states feel a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability because they are territorially small and militarily weak. Their economies, though prosperous, are tiny relative to those of other NATO and EU members; the Baltics also include significant ethnic Russian populations, as the states were part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union) for decades until its 1991 collapse. This historical and demographic backdrop shapes the countries’ domestic and alliance politics, and their tenuous relations with present-day Russia.
In 2014, Russia seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Shortly afterward, its military began covertly supporting pro-Russian insurgencies in eastern Ukraine. Like the Baltic states, Ukraine is a former Soviet territory and home to ethnic Russian populations. Western governments have worried Russia could similarly exploit the vulnerabilities of the Baltic states. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s founding document, commits its members to defend any member that is attacked. Pressure on the Baltics would thus bring into play the most basic of U.S. diplomatic commitments—to defend a treaty ally. In such a confrontation, U.S. choices would be complicated not only by Russia’s military might and the weakness of its tiny neighbors, but also by the intricate interethnic relations of post-Soviet states.