As Russia continues to mount its military assault on Ukraine, the Baltic states have become increasingly distressed that they might be the next target of Vladimir Putin’s ruthless campaign.
Victims of Russian occupation for forty-eight years, the citizens of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania suffered immensely under Soviet rule. However, these are a determined people, and they remain adamant that they will not allow history to repeat itself.
Allied troops have been on a heightened sense of alert at the NATO military base in Tapa, Estonia since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The base, which is only 160 kilometers from the Russian border, has long prepared its troops for a possible Russian incursion, especially since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has preyed on the newly formed democracies, including in the form of cyber attacks, disinformation, and systematic gray-zone measures. This provocative behavior propelled the Baltic states to seek NATO and EU membership in 2004, and to deepen that cooperation. As NATO members, all fellow member states, including the United States, would be obligated to come to the Baltics’ defense if a military attack is launched.
Following the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and 2014 invasion of Ukraine, NATO deployed troops to the alliance’s eastern flank. At a 2016 summit in Warsaw, Poland, members decided to permanently rotate troops through the Baltic states and Poland as a deterrence to growing Russian aggression. Estonian leaders have urged the alliance to permanently station NATO troops at the Tapa base, but so far it has not shifted from the established pattern of permanent rotation. Troops here have been engaged in daily intensive military drills, including in challenging conditions such as freezing temperatures. Armed Estonian conscripts have been rehearsing preparative patrols in which they comb the streets looking for potential invaders.
Tallinn has been a source of unwavering support for Kyiv. Even before the war started, the Estonian government sent U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. The international community has praised Estonia for this selfless act, as these weapons would be of vital importance in a potential Russian attack. Furthermore, Estonia has sent medical aid kits, medicine, sleeping bags, and generators to their neighbor in need. On the diplomatic end, the Estonian Parliament recently adopted a resolution calling on the United Nations to implement a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace. This was the first act taken by the legislature vis-a-vis the crisis in Ukraine. Additionally, many Estonian universities have started to ban the admission of new Russian and Belarusian students into their programs. The push was initiated by the University of Tartu, and other schools, including the Tallinn University of Technology and the Estonian University of Life Sciences, which are expected to do the same.
Estonians have been showing their support on an individual level as well. So far, thousands of Ukrainian refugees have fled to Estonia and as of this moment, over 21,000 have been welcomed with open arms. The number is growing. Hotel owners have offered shelter to families free of charge, and some dedicated individuals have even been driving to the Polish border to bring refugees back to Estonia.
Former Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, now European Commissioner for Trade, recently said that he believes that if Russia is successful in Ukraine, it will likely advance into the Baltics to gain strategic access to the Baltic Sea. However, not all hope is lost. As the flags of NATO, the EU, the U.K., Denmark, and France wave at the Tapa military base, we are reminded that the Baltics are not alone in this fight. When looking to see how he can further fulfill his dictatorial appetite, Putin must understand that an attack on one is an attack on all.