Policy Brief: Seeking Equilibrium in East Europe: Burden Shifting in the Baltics
Dr. Sumantra Maitra
A significant section of the American right is justly skeptical about European free-riding and trans-national liberalism, especially after a quarter century of primacist foreign policy promoting values abroad often with force. In that light, relentless calls from the Baltic states for the U.S. to support the expansion of an alliance structure that is meant fundamentally to guarantee their safety, risks diluting their core geostrategic interests by pushing the U.S. beyond its justifiable boundaries. European states, especially the Baltic protectorates such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, also risk siding with one side of the American domestic debate and alienating the other side.
Given the structural reality of geography, specific and differing national interests, changed global threats in an emerging multipolarity, and the increasing wariness of American conservatives about foreign free-riding as well as foreign interference in American domestic debates, this policy brief suggests an alternative grand strategy that would facilitate shared interests. The paper first outlines threat perceptions of the three Baltic states. Second, it explores the shifting mood of the American electorate and its impacts. Finally, the policy brief suggests as an alternative grand strategy and a compromise suitable for all sides, there must be burden sharing, local ententes, and a territorially finite alliance.
Threat Perceptions of the Baltic States
The Baltic states’ national security documents and threat analyses are unanimous in keeping the U.S. tied to the security of the Baltic states, so much so that it is the number one priority of the three countries, no matter the cost. For all the talk of a “rules-based liberal order,” “institutions,” and “European values,” the three Baltic states are American protectorates, and the U.S. is the hegemonic security provider.
“Actions intended to weaken NATO and the solidarity of allies jeopardise Estonia and transatlantic security. U.S. involvement in maintaining European security is the central factor in the security of Estonia and the whole of Europe,” claims Estonia’s National Security Concept of 2017, which sums up the region’s threat perception. The Latvian National Security Strategy (NSS) concurs, “The United States of America is and will remain the key strategic partner of Latvia in the field of defence and military matters.” So too Lithuania, “active membership of the USA in NATO and its military presence in the Republic of Lithuania and the Baltic region – [is] the key guarantee of security of the Republic of Lithuania.”1
Not just the official documents, the rhetoric emanating from the Baltic politicians urge ever more American engagement in Europe. In a recent Washington Post interview, outspoken Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said, “I worry that we hear calls for peace negotiations, which very generally means Ukraine should give away some of its territory.” She added, “The big question has to be why Ukraine has to give up territory. Maybe those who want to push them into a peace negotiation should give up their own territories.” 2 Kallas has been at the forefront of channelling and shaping a robust cross-continental response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and was often critical of the lack of greater western resolve. She told Politico that war fatigue is coming everywhere…arguing, “we can’t be tired because we have to help Ukraine defend their country.” 3
Kallas also outlined what she thinks to be a certain naivete towards Russia in the West, especially among Western conservative circles as well as in France and Germany. According to her, even though the Russian military failed to take Kiev and is now stuck in the east of Ukraine with an operational stalemate, they are not defeated and are still dangerous; and NATO has proven to be a successful defence alliance because no NATO country has ever been attacked. However, she also contradictorily points out that the current NATO strategy of “Tripwire” is an outdated concept, and the Baltic states will be wiped off the map under current defense of the Baltics plans, which proposes a forward positioned small garrison of western (primarily American) tripwire forces. 4
Kallas’ is exemplary of the Baltic stance against Russian aggression but is far from the only one. Former president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, told CNBC that Putin only understands “the language of strength, and he can be stopped [only] on the battlefield — not by sanctions.”5 Furthermore, Linas Linkevicius, the former minister of foreign affairs of Lithuania, was quoted in an interview, “Ukraine should be supported economically, financially. We should arm Ukraine – we should have given them weapons before, but some thought that this would [be] too provocative.”6 Kiev is “not fighting only for Ukraine, but for all of us,” Kersti Kaljulaid, former president of Estonia, said in an interview, adding that the focus should be more than just Ukraine.7 She also vocally supported further rapid NATO expansion to include Moldova, Georgia and other states. “And we should do so quickly. This is what we can do for all these countries to demonstrate to Putin that we are not afraid to move, to make big geopolitical steps, taking into account the will of those people — Moldovans, Georgians, Ukrainians. If they are willing, we should offer them help to come closer.”8
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been on the forefront of demanding No-Fly Zones over Ukraine and armed naval escorts to and from Ukrainian ports.9 Calls for any ceasefire were marked “premature” and escalation was suggested as an alternative to seeking a negotiated settlement.10 Former politicians suggested a collective punishment and total diplomatic shutting off of Russia, regardless of the threat of uniting China and Russia in one military alliance.11
American Interests and Domestic Dynamics
European, and especially the Baltic states are increasingly in favour of an expanding NATO while vocally opposing the ascendant conservative nationalism in the U.S. and parts of the western alliance. It is puzzling, because the Baltic states should be extra cautious about their rhetoric given their precarious geographic position, as their security is fundamentally guaranteed by the generosity of great powers, especially by the presence of the United States in the European balance. All else being equal, it is the U.S. security umbrella that guarantees territorial security in the furthest eastern corners of Europe, not rule of law, institutions, or other powers. And yet, recent rhetoric suggests that the Baltic states increasingly favour strategies, which might in turn dissuade and discourage one half of the American electorate.
It is increasingly difficult to persuade one-half of the American electorate that there is value in spending American blood and treasure to ensure the continuation of a liberal and feminist social revolution in the furthest corners of Europe.12 While there remains a bipartisan edifice within the United States that values trans-Atlanticism and narrowly favours NATO expansion, two things have changed. First, as Bob Gates warned in 2011, future generations will perceive European free-riding as a feature, not a bug of the NATO alliance, and its expansion will not appeal to them. Second, the rise of conservative realists and populists is already encouraging a much-needed rethinking of established policies and norms.
The second point is crucially important, as new conservative-realist and nationalist leadership is an ascendant force, bringing justifiable grievances about the country’s direction after twenty years of failed internationalism. The old guard will be replaced sooner or later as the rank and file grassroots trend decisively against intervention , and the domestic political reign will swap into the hands of this new generation of leaders, who will remember which side the European liberal elite took in American domestic debates. Finally, liberal internationalists are making an enemy of conservative Americans by repeatedly and sanctimoniously opining on and taking sides in domestic debates, from Supreme Court decisions on abortion to debates about the Second Amendment and gender ideology. Eventually, to the conservatives in the U.S., there will be no common values to uphold.13
If an alliance morphs into one of common values instead of interests, the values need to be based on what is necessary for security in the alliance. If there is no interest in defending far corners of Europe, and there are increasingly no common values either, the alliance expansion is a bluff since there will be no will to enforce the terms of the alliance. Predictably, there are already questions about NATO’s future direction. 14
Imperial Protectorates and the Risk of Choosing a Side
There are several reasons why the Baltic states are playing a high-risk game of doubling down on their grand strategy. First, a small state in a large alliance often perceives that it risks no real dilution of influence within the alliance if the alliance gets larger. In fact, the larger the alliance, the bigger the constraint on the hegemon. Expanding an alliance would, in turn, consolidate the liberal-internationalist orthodoxy and multiply an imperial, self-sustaining and expanding bureaucracy, making it more difficult for a hegemon like the U.S. to act on its own interests as opposed to the interests of the group. The bigger the alliance and the worse Russo-American relations are, the better the deal for protectorate states. And with more states in the alliance, the greater the chance of the Russo-American friction growing.
Second, it might be the case that the tail is now wagging the dog. The European states have historic (and justified) reasons to oppose and fear Russia. That, plus the diminishing space of neutral buffers between West Europe and Russia and the liberalising influence of the European Union, results in some states that are increasingly believers in exporting liberal internationalism. To them, there is no difference between Russia, Viktor Orban, or Brexiteers or that part of American taxpayers’ increasing wariness of ever-expanding alliances and commitments in Europe. This also explains their growing affinity to one side of domestic American debates about Donald Trump, the Supreme Court, migration, abortion, and foreign policy. There are several historical instances of states believing their own governing ideologies to the point of strategic irrationality.
Small states that are security-dependent on a “cohesive alliance” (keyword here being cohesive), backed by a hegemon equally interested in protecting the alliance, should not seek a grand strategy that further dilutes the alliance’s core interests. Adding more members to the alliance inevitably jeopardises the decision-making process instead of streamlining it and encourages further free-riding from existing members. Furthermore, a larger alliance risks diluting the strategic interests of the whole. Second, the strategic necessity for the U.S. to prevent Russia’s control of Belgium and Germany and threats to the English Channel is not the same as preventing them from controlling Donbas. Finally, there is risk in a small state unequivocally latching itself to just one side of a domestic debate within the hegemon since that might antagonise the other side, which is always one election away from being in charge.
A Prudent Strategy Benefits All Sides
Historic American grand strategy aims to ensure that no hegemon rules the entire European continent while encouraging a balance of power and equilibrium to develop organically. The rich states pay for their security, and the U.S. remains an offshore balancer of last resort. On the other hand, the Baltic states aim to ensure that they can keep the U.S. tied to Europe, depending on the U.S. security umbrella, and prevent Russia from further revanchism. These two strategic aims are partially at odds. But some steps could be taken urgently to rebalance interests for mutual benefit.
Structural changes in the global order mean that sooner or later, the U.S. will have to focus on Asia after a systemic shock, such as a war initiated by China on Taiwan or a major Chinese attempt to dominate the Indo-Pacific, from Djibouti to Japan.15 The U.S. is overstretched, and most of the public is wary of further entanglements.16 In the midst of massive debt and high inflation, the U.S. is taking on all of the European burdens once more, to the point of risking insolvency.17 NATO expansion also distracts the U.S. from its most critical strategic aims: making Western Europe pay for its security, retrenchment, and pivot to Asia.
The U.S. tried to institutionalise peace in the continent by encouraging the development of the European Union. However, that ultimately resulted in the atrophy of the natural balancers within Europe – the western great powers of Britain, France and Germany – all the while creating a free-riding, trade superpower in the European Union, which rivals the U.S. With the expansion of NATO eastward, the western powers also started free-riding on the U.S, as their frontiers moved east and were guarded by American muscle.
Policy officials should reestablish historic grand strategy. First by encouraging and enforcing rapid rearmament of great powers within the continent and developing mini ententes. The massive rearmament of Poland, the organic development of the Greco-French Mediterranean naval cooperation, and the British-Polish alignment are steps in the right direction.18 The U.S. position should be to provide the nuclear umbrella for an overarching European deterrence, be a “balancer of last resort” for NATO allies, and leave local alignments, internal NATO logistics, NATO troop patrols, armour, funding and brigade-level deployments to local powers within the Atlantic alliance. Europe, especially the western powers such as Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Italy, can provide both the manpower and the money for a robust and permanent forward positioning in the Baltics. They have not thus far because they know they can rely on U.S. forward presence. Instead of supporting nonsensical pan-European approaches as highlighted in the European Council Strategic compass, PESCO, or European Defence Funds, regionalised local power alignments will be easier for planning and implementation, while the U.S. can manage and support capability gaps. The British support for the Baltic defence is an excellent template to follow in this context. 19
Second, should the war in Ukraine reach a likely negotiated settlement, U.S. leadership should be honest with allies about the country’s intention of passing the primary defence burden on to Europe, including its reinforcements in the Eastern frontier. The French and Turkish navy should reinforce the southern flank of NATO, and the northern flank should have Scandinavian and German land forces. With the added Finnish and Swedish manpower, there is no reason why Europeans cannot provide the manpower for patrolling and positioning in the Baltics, given that was part of the argument for NATO enlargement in the first place. 20
The U.S. should propose clear, achievable force repositioning aims, within a fixed timeline, regarding European troop numbers and logistical capabilities to shift the primary responsibility for NATO’s eastern front deterrence and defence to Europeans, and mandate American land troops withdrawal on a given date, regardless of European readiness. Only the U.S. navy and strategic forces might remain to provide nuclear deterrence. Unless there is a clear urgency and timeline, one can foresee further European efforts to delay the burden-shifting indefinitely.
Should the Baltic states start to push for further NATO expansion or push for further American financial and military involvement and aggressive posture in Ukraine, they risk antagonising a significant portion of the population as well as the ascendant force of conservative nationalist leaders who are already tired of shouldering the disproportionate burden in Europe while being called bigots and isolationists.
Finally, European states should reflect upon the reality that European comments on U.S. domestic issues are not welcome. Free-riding is bad enough without a toxic combination of sanctimony and partiality from protectorates.
A strong security architecture in Europe that benefits the European states and the U.S. needs defensible and fixed frontiers and realist allies, instead of highly ideological and revanchist protectorates. In short, a prudent way forward is a dormant NATO with fixed borders, fewer bureaucrats and more soldiers, strong allies capable of being the frontline defence, U.S. retrenchment and offshore balancing, and a tacit understanding that European sanctimony has run its course. Greater long-term European security, negative peace, and equilibrium in their neighbourhood, with at least a semblance of continuous bipartisan American support, requires European opposition to further expansion or adventurism. Mutating borders dilute core geographic interests. The U.S. cannot plan or provide security for a mutating entity without a defined boundary or continue to be chain-ganged by self-righteous protectorates.
1. See, Estonia National Security Concept 2017; Estonia National Defence Strategy 2011; Latvia The National Security Concept 2019; Lithuania National Threat Assessment 2020; Lithuania National Security Strategy 2017; The Military Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania 2016.
2. “Estonian leader urges faster help for Ukraine amid signs of war fatigue”, Washington Post, June 2022
3. “Ukraine gets top billing at NATO, but questions mount over West’s resolve”, Politico, June, 2022
4. See, “The AP Interview: Estonian PM says Russia not weary of war”, AP, June 2022; “Estonia’s Kallas Warns of Existential Russian Threat to Baltics”, Bloomberg, June 2022; “Kaja Kallas: Estonia would be wiped off the map under current NATO plans”, Estonian World, June 2022; “Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on how the NATO summit went”, NPR, June 2022; “Kaja Kallas: ‘There is a certain naivety towards Russia’”, Financial Times, February 2022
5. Putin needs to be stopped in the battlefield — not with sanctions, says ex-president of Lithuania”, CNBC, June 2022
6. “We should not have let Putin become what he is today An interview with Linas Linkevicius”, The New European, February 2022
7. “Ukraine is fighting for all of us, says Estonia’s former president Kersti Kaljulaid”, G-ZERO Media, February 2022
8. “The Politician Who Could Be NATO’s First Female Chief Says Putin Lost The Ukraine War Before It Even Started”, RFERL, April 2022
9. See, Estonia Becomes First NATO Member to Call for No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine”, Newsweek, March 2022; “Lithuanian parliament calls for no-fly zone over Ukraine”, Baltic Times, March 2022; “Support Grows for Naval Escorts for Ukraine Grain, Estonia Says”, Bloomberg, May 2022
10. See, Estonia’s Prime Minister: ‘We Need to Help Ukraine Win’ Foreign Policy, June 2022; “NATO needs ‘visible’ counter to Russia threat via Belarus, Lithuania warns”, Politico, June 2022; “Latvian and Lithuanian leaders urge western unity to defeat Russia in Ukraine”, Financial Times, June 2022; “Calls for ceasefire in Ukraine are ‘premature’, Estonia’s PM warns”, Financial Times, June 2022; “Estonia’s Tough Voice on Ukraine Urges No Compromise With Putin” New York Times May 2022; “Former Estonian president speaks about the war in Ukraine and the way forward”, NPR June 2022
11. See, “Does Lithuania Want to Start a War with Russia?”, CATO FP, June 2022; and,
12. To see how this dynamic works, read, Christopher Mott, “Woke Imperium: The Coming Confluence Between Social Justice and Neoconservatism”, June 2022, IFPD.
13. For a few very recent news articles demonstrating the depth of “common values” between the conservatives in the US and NATO allies, see, “Why America’s allies are worried about the end of Roe”, June 2022, Vox; “Why Should America Fight for Wokeness In Europe?”, July 2022, American Conservative; “Swedish armed forces says supporting LGBTQ Pride is part of army’s ‘core values'”, August 2022, Rebelnews; “Finnish Parliament Sends Powerful Roe v. Wade Message to ‘American Sisters'”, June, 2022, Newsweek; “The elephant in the NATO room: America’s Roe reversal”, June, 2022, Politico; “16-åringar föreslås få ändra sitt juridiska kön”, July 2022, SVT
14. J Logan, “Is Estonia Worth a War?”, The National Interest, April 2014; R Menon and W Ruger, 2020, “NATO enlargement and US grand strategy: a net assessment” International Politics.
15. Elbridge Colby, 2022, “America Must Prepare for a War Over Taiwan”, Foreign Affairs.
16. See, “NATO enjoys strong public support among allies, but Americans less sure of benefits”, Star and Stripes, March 2021; “NATO No Longer Serves American Interests”, CATO Institute, December 2019; “How does America feel about NATO? Support for alliance falls across key Western nations”, YouGov America, April 2019; “NATO is seen favorably in many member countries, but almost half of Americans say it does too little”, PEW 2018; “Trump’s Foreign Policy and American Public Opinion” Gallup Jule 2018; “American Support for NATO is Strong – But There is a Wrinkle”, Wilson Center, September 2018.
17. “Ukraine Support Tracker”, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (ongoing).
18. “Eunomia: Cyprus Greece France And Italy Conducting Combined Drills In Eastern Med”, Navalnews, August 2020; “Greece and France to ‘reinforce’ bilateral defense cooperation agreement”, The Defense Post, February 2020; “Poland to buy jets, tanks and howitzers from South Korea, says minister”, Reuters, July 2022; “Polish-British military cooperation strengthens NATO’s Eastern flank”, Ministry of National Defense statement, Poland, March 2022
19. “Joint Expeditionary Force deploys to the Baltics”, May 2022, Ministry of Defence, United Kingdom Press release,
20. “With Finland and Sweden in NATO, the U.S. Can Finally Pivot to the Pacific”, Foreign Policy, July 2022.
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