NATO Must Back Lithuania Against Russian Coercion
Main Image Credit Halted in their tracks: freight trains from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad transit Lithuania in June 2022. Image: Reuters / Alamy
Increasing provocations from Moscow in response to Lithuania’s decision to enforce sanctions on goods transiting its territory need to be dealt with strongly by the Alliance.
At last month’s summit, NATO promised to improve its military readiness in the future. But storm clouds are gathering over the Baltics right now.
Lithuania’s defence minister recently confirmed that it had suffered a massive cyber attack. Days before, Estonia said a Russian Mi-8 helicopter without its transponder on entered the country’s airspace for the second time this year. In response to increased Russian provocations, Poland has asked for more NATO security forces in the Suwalki Gap – the area separating Belarus from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The reason for the flurry of Russian harassment? Moscow is angry that Lithuania is complying with EU sanctions by blocking certain Russian goods from crossing its territory.
Lithuania’s decision to enforce sanctions prevents some goods from transiting through the country to Kaliningrad, where Moscow has positioned its nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles. Importantly, Russia continues to send goods by sea and air unimpeded.
By enforcing these sanctions, the Baltic country is demonstrating enormous resolve and wielding a potent economic weapon that could shape Russian decision-making. However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz publicly undermined Lithuania when he called for lifting the restrictions. Media reports indicate that, with German pressure, the EU could force Lithuania to permit sanctioned freight as long as Russia uses the goods only in Kaliningrad and does not export them via its port, where Moscow headquarters its Baltic Fleet.
Germany’s plan would not diffuse tensions but would instead increase the odds of a future conflagration between Lithuania and Russia, since Vilnius would be expected to monitor where the Russian goods go.
Strong signals underscoring the US and broader NATO commitment to defend the Baltic states are in order
Accordingly, Russia should not be permitted to use Kaliningrad as a sanctions evasion tool. If Lithuania continues to enforce sanctions, some worry that Moscow could use military force to create a land corridor through the Baltic country. Such an invasion would be a direct and clear attack on a NATO member, obligating the other alliance members to defend Lithuania fully and making debates about the application of sanctions redundant.
Lithuania has worked to free itself from the power of Russian extortion. In April, the country stopped importing Russian natural gas. Lithuania’s independence has emboldened it, and it is not intimidated. In response to Russian threats, Vilnius simply notified Russia that it will continue to apply EU sanctions as they come into force throughout the year. Although Baltic countries still rely on the Russian power grid, when a reporter asked what Lithuania would do if Russia shuts off its power, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda answered that the country is ready. Indeed, last year Lithuania hooked up a power link to Poland to guard against this threat.
Within this context, deterrence could falter in some scenarios. There is a plausible – if still small – chance that Russia could notice US risk-aversion over enabling Ukraine to fight back too hard, and flagging Western support for Ukraine generally, and conclude that attacking a small NATO country would not result in a war with the US. Some may incredulously respond that such an outcome is impossible, because of course the US has the resolve to defend every inch of NATO. Even if the US has such resolve, for deterrence to hold, Moscow must believe that. Deterrence can fail if an aggressor decides that a defending country cannot or will not make good on its deterrent threats. Therefore, strong signals underscoring the US and broader NATO commitment to defend the Baltic states are in order, especially considering Germany’s denunciation of Lithuania’s sovereign decision to enforce EU sanctions on Russia.
First, President Joe Biden should issue a statement defending Lithuania’s sovereignty and right to make decisions about its territory. He should make clear that Vilnius is under no obligation to permit any state to transit its territory. Russia has access to Kaliningrad by air and sea, and Lithuania is acting prudentially and lawfully. As Germany leans hard on the EU to pressure Lithuania to permit Russia to use its territory, other EU member states should remain resolute in upholding the consistent application of EU sanctions across the union’s borders.
Confronting Russian coercion of Lithuania is essential, not only to address the threat at hand, but also to stem similar Russian provocations throughout NATO’s borders
Second, the US must backfill Lithuania’s depleted weapons inventories. Lithuania eagerly delivered weapons to Ukraine early in the fight and was one of the first countries to deliver Stinger air defences to Ukraine – even before the US was prepared to do so. It has committed to increasing its defence expenditure to 3% of its GDP in order to replenish weapons stocks and prepare to host more military forces. The US and other NATO countries should deliver some of the necessary weapons to the Baltic region now, especially more air defences, and prioritise investing in replacements for weapons like the Stingers that do not have active production lines.
Third, the US should lead an effort to deploy a permanent multinational brigade – rather than a smaller battalion – in the Baltic region, and another one in Poland. The US should also respond to the ongoing cyber attacks against Lithuania.
Lithuania’s enforcement of sanctions is justified, but it makes US leadership of NATO even more important. The US cannot simply sit back and leave Europe to handle Russia’s bloody war, when there is no monolithic European agreement on the Russian threat or what to do about it. Confronting Russian coercion of Lithuania is essential, not only to address the threat at hand, but also to stem similar Russian provocations throughout NATO’s borders, including another burgeoning crisis involving transit to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.
If the US fails to convince Moscow and Vilnius that it has the resolve and ability to back the Baltic states, NATO could end up in the very situation that the Biden administration and the whole Alliance have sought to avoid: direct military confrontation with Moscow.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Rebeccah L Heinrichs
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