Estonia’s president called for continued unity among democratic allies in the face of Russian aggression on Wednesday and expressed a wish for even greater U.S. involvement in the Baltics.
Kersti Kaljulaid, on her second visit to the United States in less than a year, told an audience at the Brookings Institution that membership in the European Union and NATO have served to defend and enhance her country’s sovereignty.
With only 1.2 million people and located on the Baltic Sea near Russia, the former Soviet republic has been especially concerned about growing Russian assertiveness, particularly since its annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its military support for two breakaway regions in Georgia.
‘Direct involvement in Baltics’
The United States has responded with military exercises along NATO’s borders with Russia and a troop presence in Poland, actions acknowledged by Kaljulaid. While “America’s contribution to enhanced forward presence in Poland is appreciated, we would love to see more U.S. direct involvement in the Baltics as well,” she said.
Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said Estonia and its Baltic neighbors have served as model members of NATO since being admitted to the defense alliance in 2004, but cannot defend themselves without help.
“Due to their small size, they need our and NATO’s help in procuring big-ticket capabilities,” Ellehuus said in an interview.
Quick US response appreciated
The former Pentagon official noted that the United States was the first country to send forces to the Baltics following Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
She said she would like to see “a persistent rotational presence of U.S. forces in the Baltics and possibly funding in the appropriations bill to support regional capability development in areas such as air and maritime surveillance.”
In an age of increasing attention devoted to big-power politics and competition, it is understood that small states like the Baltic countries cannot win a war against a power like Russia, but they can raise the cost of war for their potential adversaries.
“Their strategy is to increase resilience and hold the line until reinforcements, i.e., NATO, regional partners, can come to their aid,” said Ellehuus. She quoted her former boss at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, saying that “even the bear knows to avoid the porcupine.”
In Ellehuus’s words: The Baltics can take steps “to make themselves as indigestible as possible,” even though they don’t have the capacity to win an all-out war against their giant neighbor to the east.
In her speech on Wednesday, Kaljulaid said her country was prepared to “hold the line” against an initial assault but that the “follow-on plan” involving sufficient allied forces was not yet in place.
Her visit to Washington comes at a time when the Pentagon made it clear in the latest national defense budget proposal that it is focused on countering rising capacities from both Russia and China and ensuring that potential adversaries know there is “no path to victory” if they choose to fight the United States.