NATO's frontline allies fear they will be next after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine has shocked Baltic NATO members, who fear becoming future targets of Russian aggression. These countries along the front line of the military Alliance are now scrambling to ensure they are protected should the Russian military come knocking.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have increased their defense spending, and NATO has increased its presence in the region due to the war in Ukraine. The prime ministers and other high-ranking government officials of these three countries recently spoke with Insider. They acknowledged that their forces might benefit from additional security guarantees and fighting capability.

“There is an imminent need for a stronger NATO presence in our region,” said Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu. Russia “is an existential threat, particularly for the countries of our region, but in a broader sense for all of Europe.”

Once a part of the Soviet Union, the three Baltic states in Europe’s far northeast broke away after the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. These three nations have been sounding the alarm about Russia’s threat to Europe ever since before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. 

Together, the Baltic countries share a border with Russia of more than 800 kilometers and a slightly longer one with Belarus, which many Western observers consider a puppet state of Russia. 

Lithuania, the southernmost Baltic state, shares a narrow border with Kaliningrad, a small military Russian exclave. These states are uneasy about being so close together.

NATO's frontline allies fear they will be next after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

For nearly 14 months, the Russian military has been bogged down by its bloody war in Ukraine. Western intelligence services estimate that Russia has likely suffered more than 200,000 casualties, and a senior Pentagon official said in February that Moscow is likely to emerge from the fighting a “shattered military power.”

But Russian fighting in Ukraine is no consolation to authorities in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who fear that if they don’t act now, they could be caught off guard if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to declare war on NATO and choose the Baltics as his first battlefield.

More boots on the ground

There is a desire among certain Baltic governments to host more NATO soldiers, perhaps even permanent brigades, in the near future. A stronger military presence might act as the first line of defense against a Russian invasion, buying time for the rest of the Alliance to arrive.

The NATO data sheet from June 2022 states that there are 1,400-1,900 troops in each of the three Baltic countries as part of a multinational battle force. These troops not only supply manpower but also have access to heavy artillery, armored vehicles, and other weaponry.

“These battlegroups are multinational and combat-ready, demonstrating the strength of the transatlantic link,” the NATO fact sheet says. “Their presence makes it clear that an attack against one Ally will be considered an attack against the entire Alliance.”

NATO's frontline allies fear they will be next after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

At the Madrid summit last year, NATO members agreed to allocate more troops to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, with a brigade-sized unit – which can have up to 5,000 soldiers – assigned to protect each country.

While most of these troops are not stationed in the countries permanently, they are on standby to be sent there in case of an assault on the Baltic states.

These actions are part of a larger military Alliance push to station more troops in member countries in close proximity to Russia. NATO’s defense posture has been in a state of upheaval since 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula, according to an official who spoke to Insider. 

The Alliance responded aggressively, sending battlegroups to Poland and the Baltics for the “first time” ever.

“NATO is committed to protecting and defending every inch of allied territory, and we are adjusting our presence in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the official told Insider. “As part of a major overhaul, we have doubled the number of battle groups in the eastern part of the Alliance, placed 40,000 troops under NATO command, deployed more aircraft and warships, and are increasing the number of our high readiness forces to several hundred thousand.”

Still, the Balts want a more permanent troop presence. It is unclear how best to increase NATO’s presence in the region, but the issue is likely to be discussed at the Alliance’s next annual summit in July.

For Lithuania, increasing NATO’s presence on the ground is a “constant concern” in order to determine Moscow, Vaidotas Urbelis, the country’s defense policy director, told Insider. “In terms of presence, we have to increase our own forces. That is why we are investing so much in defense. But NATO defenses are a common task. It is a collective defense. And a light presence is essential here.”

NATO's frontline allies fear they will be next after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Belgian troops take part in the NATO Iron Wolf military exercises on October 26, 2022 in Pabrade, Lithuania.

Lithuania has requested the permanent deployment of a German brigade in the country, something its Defense Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said was necessary given the borders the country shares with Russia-allied Belarus and the Kaliningrad exclave. He said that Lithuania could not rely solely on reinforcements that would arrive when the war started but needed reliable forces already deployed.

And Reinsalu, Estonia’s foreign minister, told Insider that he hopes the upcoming summit “will provide us with additional strength.”

Air defense systems, ammunition and anti-tank weapons

More troops are not the only thing on the Baltics’ wish list. Reinsalu said that NATO’s eastern flank, made up of the Baltic countries, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria, needs greater air defense capabilities. He explained that promoting regional anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems and a “systematic and sustainable” rotation of capabilities is necessary.

“We know where we need more protection,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė told Insider. “Air defense systems are one of the most important elements that are still missing.”

Layered and integrated air defense systems — which can protect against aircraft and missiles — are critical to the region, Jim Townsend, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy, told Insider.

In addition, these nations will require substantial ammunition and weapon supplies to counter threats from tanks and APCs, including systems manufactured in the United States, such as the FGM-148 Javelin and the FIM-92 Stinger.

NATO's frontline allies fear they will be next after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Two Reduced Range Practice Rockets (RRPR), fired from an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), fly over the Baltic Sea.

The probability of a Russian assault on the Baltic is unclear. Russian forces are fighting in Ukraine, and it seems unlikely, at least in the short term, that they will disperse further or give NATO a reason to get directly involved in the conflict.

Still, the Baltics feel the need to be prepared just in case, especially given Russia’s aggressive pattern against its neighbors. And they say that if Russian forces prevail in Ukraine – either through a direct military victory or by dragging out the conflict to such an extent that Western support is eroded and Russia seizes control of parts of the territory – Moscow is likely to Then head to another country.

“Russia is the most direct threat to European security right now,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told Insider. “No country in the world can then feel safe next to an aggressive neighbor.”

Townsend stated that the Baltic states would likely be the most vulnerable to a Russian attack on the remainder of Europe, so the objective was to “increase the pain” if Moscow attempted to wage war. 

He stated that the strategy consisted primarily of transforming these nations into “porcupines,” a term sometimes used to characterize Taiwan’s defense against China.

NATO's frontline allies fear they will be next after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Soldiers from the Royal Welsh Battlegroup take part in drills during the NATO exercise Hedgehog on the Estonian-Latvian border on May 26, 2022 in Voru, Estonia.

Although war is probably unlikely, the Russians remain unpredictable, Townsend said. “You have to protect yourself; you have to be prepared for everything,” she added. “And that will lead us to try to strengthen the three Balkans further to make Putin understand that the pain would be unacceptable for him if he tried something against the Balkans.”

The Russian threat is worse now than before

As the Baltic countries seek a greater military presence on the ground, they also keep a close eye on defense spending by their own countries and by NATO in general.

NATO’s guideline for defense spending as a share of a member’s GDP stood at 2 percent last year. Many countries fell short of this target, but all the Baltic countries surpassed it during the year, a sign of how seriously Russia’s threatening actions are taken. 

Baltic government officials have stated that they want to increase the target percentage across the military Alliance to 2.5% in the future. And they are eager to inform allies how much their spending has increased.

“We have to make sure that we do everything in our power so that our partners don’t think that we are… free-riders of American guarantees,” Šimonytė told Insider about Lithuania’s efforts to avoid looking like it’s piggybacking on other members. from NATO. 

And it is working on it. As an example of these countries’ efforts to increase their capabilities, all the Baltic countries have sought to acquire US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, which Ukrainian forces have successfully used to attack Russian positions. 

Historically, these countries have been “under-defended” and “have not spent as much on defense as they should,” Townsend said. But after Russia annexed Crimea for the first time, defense spending and training by the Baltics increased, and as the war in Ukraine drags on, NATO has increased its forward presence forces there.

So, according to Townsend, as the threat landscape continues to change, the Baltic defense has adapted to it.

“The Baltics have always been concerned about their vulnerability. NATO has also been concerned about their vulnerability,” he stated. “But the Russian threat had not appeared to the extent that it has now.”

Sinéad Baker and Jake Epstein