2.1 The Issue
Latvia, which has a population and territory the size of West Virginia, is one of three small states wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea. The other two are Estonia, to Latvia’s immediate north, and Lithuania, to its south. Together, these countries are generally referred to as the Baltic states.
These states are situated in an outwardly secure geopolitical position. They are enthusiastic 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 retain a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. They are territorially small and militarily weak. Their economies, though prosperous, are tiny relative to those of other NATO and EU members. Part of the Soviet Union for decades until its 1991 collapse, the countries also include significant ethnic Russian populations.
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 that Russia might similarly exploit the vulnerabilities of the Baltic states. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s founding document, commits its members to come to the defense of 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.