With the Defense Department weighing whether and how to change the U.S. military footprint overseas, it’s time to make the American military presence in the Baltic states durable. Maintaining merely periodic American boots on the ground, sometimes there and sometimes not — especially while a more permanent U.S. presence takes shape in nearby Poland — sends the wrong message at the wrong time to NATO’s most vulnerable allies and to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Particularly in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the concerns generated over American credibility, only a consistent U.S. military presence in each of the Baltic states can convincingly reassure allies that Washington has their back while also signaling to Putin the rock-solid American commitment to NATO. The seemingly rushed, chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused some American allies in Europe to question Washington’s commitment to NATO.
From this side of the Atlantic, linking the failure of the 20-year effort in Afghanistan to American credibility in Europe sounds absurd. After all, Afghanistan is a country with which the U.S. doesn’t share significant cultural or historical ties, a treaty-based mutual defense commitment, or serious trade and investment relations. Meanwhile, America’s cultural, historical, demographic, defense, and trade and investment connections to Europe are second to none. It’s no exaggeration to say that the American way of life — not to mention the outcome of the great power competition now unfolding between the United States on one side and China and Russia on the other — depends on a close, secure relationship with Europe. Not so with Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, perception is reality, and the lack of an enduring American presence in the Baltic states looks even worse than it would in the absence of the Afghanistan debacle. This is particularly the case today in Lithuania, which is literally and figuratively on the front lines of Western efforts against both Russian and Chinese authoritarianism. Wedged among the Baltic Sea, a hostile neighbor in Belarus and the Russian territory of Kaliningrad — the most militarized piece of land in Europe — this relatively small ally confronts outsized threats.
Over the last several years, Russia has significantly increased the number of offensive conventional and nuclear weapons in its Kaliningrad exclave, which shares a 185-mile border with Lithuania. Most recently, the just completed Zapad military exercise involved up to 200,000 Russian and Belarusian soldiers, sailors and airmen, as well as hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces first defending against in an imaginary invasion and then simulating a counterattack into Lithuanian (and Polish) territory. Worrisomely, the exercise may result in a permanent Russian presence in Belarus. Meanwhile, Belarus has recently weaponized migrants, sending thousands of Iraqis and sub-Saharan Africans across the border into Lithuania over the last year.
Much farther afield, China has opened a trade embargo against Lithuania and pulled its ambassador from Vilnius. These moves were in response to Lithuania’s seemingly innocuous decision to allow Taiwan to open a diplomatic post in Vilnius under the name “Taiwan” as well as Lithuania’s withdrawal from a Chinese-led effort to co-opt Central and Eastern European countries known as 17+1. Additionally, Lithuania has been subject to extensive cyberattacks attributed to both Russia and China.
A small but permanent American presence in Lithuania would bolster U.S. and allied security in northeastern Europe in three ways. First, it would clearly indicate to allies and adversaries that Lithuanian sovereignty and territorial integrity is a vital American interest. Second, it could be utilized to fill gaps in Lithuanian defense capabilities today, particularly in terms of anti-tank, artillery, UAVs and electronic warfare. And finally, it would provide Vilnius the confidence it needs to invest more in advanced, offensive cyber, electronic warfare, and information operations, better enabling it to respond to the most likely attacks from Russia and China.
The principal objections to a durable U.S. presence are that it might somehow violate the terms of a 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia, or that it might intimidate Putin, causing a spiraling counter-reaction. Assuming a carefully calibrated presence that’s nested within an already persistent NATO commitment to the region, these concerns are overblown relative to the wide-ranging security benefits.
For example, under NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence initiative, Germany has led a multinational battlegroup of roughly 1,100 troops in Lithuania since 2017. Adding a company-sized American contingent of about 120 U.S. troops to this NATO presence as well as to similar Enhanced Forward Presence units in Latvia and Estonia could hardly be considered destabilizing, but would go far in reassuring allies and deterring Russia.
Lithuania and its Baltic state neighbors are punching above their weight within NATO, consistently bearing more than their share of the common defense burden. But Washington needs to fix the holes in NATO’s deterrent posture in the region and the glaring lack of persistent U.S. presence.
John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of “Coalition of the unWilling and unAble: European Realignment and the Future of American Geopolitics.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.