Baltic leaders to push Trump for more military aid
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 3, 2018
STUTTGART, Germany — The leaders of the three Baltic states are expected to press President Donald Trump on Tuesday for more U.S. military support to defend NATO’s borders with Russia, where some allies are concerned about Moscow’s military advantage.
“It is important that (U.S. troops) are here on a permanent rotational basis in all Baltic states,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told local reporters ahead of her visit to the White House.
In addition to more troops, the Baltic leaders also are expected to seek more frequent rotations of Patriot missile batteries for exercises.
The meeting comes at a time of enormous tension between the West and Russia. During the past two weeks, more than 150 Russian diplomats have been expelled from about countries in response to allegations that Moscow was responsible for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom.
Still, in places such as the Baltics, there remains uncertainty about Trump’s approach to Russia. On the one hand, the U.S. has increased its military presence in Europe during Trump’s first year in office, showing no sign that it is seeking to reduce its support to NATO as some critics had feared. At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric toward Russia and its president Vladimir Putin has been conciliatory, which has been a source of consternation among some allies.
Nonetheless, despite Trump’s repeated statements about a desire for warmer ties with Moscow, relations remain at a post-Cold War low. And the risks of confrontation are growing, some analysts say.
“The risk of escalation sparking a wider conflict — deliberately, inadvertently, or accidentally — between Russia and NATO is dangerously high. This is particularly the case in the Baltics,” said analyst Ulrich Kuhn in a new report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
During the past year, NATO has added multinational battlegroups in each of the Baltic states and Poland in an effort to deter any possible Russian aggression. Still, numerous think tanks have argued that more robust moves are needed to blunt any possible Russian assault given Moscow’s much larger force positioned on the opposite side of NATO’s border.
The imbalance has been a particular source of worry in NATO countries positioned in Russia’s territorial shadow.
“I hope that the United States and other allies understand that the airspace of the Baltic states must be better protected and defended,” Grybauskaite said on public radio this week.
During the past year, Baltic leaders have called for Patriot missile defense systems to be deployed to the region on a permanent basis. However, it is unclear whether Trump is prepared to make new military commitments to the region during Tuesday’s meeting at the White House.
Moscow denies having any territorial designs against NATO nations in the Baltics or anywhere else, and any possible decision to enhance military operations in the region will require a delicate balance. If the moves are too robust, it could trigger an arms race and raise the risks of a confrontation. And response perceived as weak could invite aggression, analysts caution.
“If NATO underestimates the threat Russia poses, the alliance may give Moscow reason to test its resolve — perhaps even by using military force,” wrote Kuhn. “Conversely, if NATO overestimates the threat emanating from Russia, its well-intentioned defensive measures may lead to a security dilemma that precipitates an arms race and ultimately undermines alliance unity.”
The Carnegie report, released March 28, recommends that the U.S. send an additional battalion to the Baltics, where it would split up on border patrols while avoiding larger deployments that would be viewed by some allies as a provocation toward Russia.
The right force mix for the Baltics has been debated nonstop since Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine sparked concerns about vulnerabilities in NATO’s east. Some analysts have called for U.S. Army brigades to be stationed in the Baltics to ensure the region wouldn’t quickly be overrun in the event of an attack. Other military theorists argue that such reinforcements are pointless given Russia’s huge geographic advantage around the Baltics.
Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite watches a NATO exercise in November 2015. She is one of three Baltic states leaders expected to press President Donald Trump Tuesday for more U.S. military support to defend NATO’s borders with Russia, where some allies are concerned about Moscow’s military advantage.
MICHAEL BEHLIN/U.S. ARMY