Democracy & Elections Foreign Relations & International Law

We’re Worried About the Baltics: What Does Trump’s Election Portend for these Tiny U.S. Allies?

Ashley Deeks, Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, November 17, 2016, 10:27 AM

Many U.S. allies have spent the last week pondering what Donald Trump’s election means for their foreign policy and national security. The tiny Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are surely among the most worried.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Many U.S. allies have spent the last week pondering what Donald Trump’s election means for their foreign policy and national security. The tiny Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are surely among the most worried.

After all, Vladimir Putin has already been behaving aggressively towards them. And as a candidate, Donald Trump often indicated his contempt for NATO at their expense, leaving substantial doubt in many people’s minds whether he would honor U.S. alliance commitments to those countries. If you were Putin and were thinking about how to blow a hole in the Western alliance, the Baltics present an obvious soft spot.

So what if, on January 21—or some months down the road, after it has gotten sanctions lifted and consolidated Bashar al-Assad’s position in Syria—Russia decides to amp up the types of provocations it has been undertaking in and around the Baltics? What if Russia were ultimately to invade or attack one of the Baltic states? How would the United States—and NATO generally—respond? Does the uncertainty about President-elect Trump’s intentions and behavior make this eventuality more likely than it would otherwise be? The answers to these questions have implications not only for NATO itself, but also for the provisions in the U.N. Charter that regulate the resort to force.

A scenario involving Russian aggression in the Baltics is not so far-fetched. In October and November 2015, the United Kingdom intercepted Russian jets flying over the North Sea. In April 2016, Russia overflew at very close range a U.S. guided-missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea. In September 2016, Norway, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain each scrambled their jets to intercept Russian bombers skirting the airspace of each country. That same month, Estonia complained that Russia’s air force had invaded Estonia’s airspace for the fourth time this year. All of this comes against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its seizure of Crimea in 2014—a patent act of aggression.

But Russia’s behavior alone is not the only thing that should give the Baltics pause as they contemplate their own security.

President-elect Trump’s apparent affinity for Putin raises obvious questions about how that affinity will affect Trump’s calculus in responding to Russian military actions. It also raises questions about whether Putin will believe—whatever Trump’s actual response might be—that he has a relatively free hand.

Trump’s campaign statements suggesting that under his presidency, the United States might not defend its NATO allies unless they make more substantial financial contributions to their own security exacerbate the potential problems. Putin might reasonably conclude that the U.S. president badly wants better relations with Russia and has very little commitment to allies Trump views as not having paid the bill for their own protection. He might quite reasonably, therefore, doubt Trump’s resolve.

Moreover, an April 2016 RAND study called into question NATO’s military capacity to defend its members against attacks by Russia. The study concluded that “NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members” and noted that the number of forces that NATO is rotating through the Baltics would not be sufficient to defend those states against a “plausible Russian attack.” So Putin might well conclude that NATO not only lacks the will, but also the means to repel a Russian attack, and that NATO is therefore unlikely to try.

Finally, Putin might well be tempted to test a newly minted President Trump, who will lack experience serving as Commander-in-Chief or managing any pressing national security crises and who has hardly seemed sure-footed in his navigation of foreign affairs more broadly.

Given the whole picture, it’s reasonable to ask: why not go after one of the Baltic states if you’re Putin?

If Russia does choose to attack or invade a Baltic state, it won’t just be testing Trump. It will obviously be testing NATO’s collective self-defense commitment under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty too. But how NATO responds matters not only for the credibility and durability of NATO itself; it also matters for the credibility and durability of the U.N. Charter. NATO plays a key role in advancing the goals of the Charter—particularly the injunction in article 2(4) against uses of force in other states. As a highly structured collective self-defense organization, NATO provides a significant deterrent against aggression in the North Atlantic area. Article 2(4) can only retain its vitality if states considering whether to violate article 2(4) anticipate that they may confront military force in response. Every time a violation of 2(4) goes unanswered, the Charter finds itself a little weaker. So NATO’s response to any future aggression by Russia (at least within the geographic region covered by the treaty) has significant implications for both NATO and the Charter.

Are we being alarmist here? No more so than the people of Estonia are. Even before the election, the New York Times reported that the nation is preparing an insurgency:

Estonia, a NATO member with a population of 1.3 million people and a standing army of about 6,000, would not stand a chance in a conventional war with Russia. But two armies fighting on an open field is not Estonia’s plan, and was not even before Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, said European members of NATO should not count on American support unless they pay more alliance costs.

Since the Ukraine war, Estonia has stepped up training for members of the Estonian Defense League, teaching them how to become insurgents, right down to the making of improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, the weapons that plagued the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another response to tensions with Russia is the expansion of a program encouraging Estonians to keep firearms in their homes.

Trump’s posture towards Russia has made these efforts seem positively prudent. The consistent, if belated, communication of Trump’s resolve to live up to U.S. alliance commitments can help reduce the likelihood that such an Estonian insurgency will be be necessary.

Ashley Deeks is the Class of 1948 Professor of Scholarly Research in Law at the University of Virginia Law School and a Faculty Senior Fellow at the Miller Center. She serves on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Law. In 2021-22 she worked as the Deputy Legal Advisor at the National Security Council. She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School and clerked on the Third Circuit.
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

Subscribe to Lawfare