More than 4,000 soldiers, 21 fighters and tons of artillery face the Russian threat in the Baltic countries | International
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20 kilometers from Riga, the capital of Latvia, more than a thousand soldiers from different NATO countries rehearse every day at the Adazi military base how to deal with a hypothetical aggression from Russia. “We are fully prepared. If they decide to come, they are going to find themselves in a very difficult situation,” says Jesse Van Eijk, a 40-year-old Canadian in charge of leading the multinational battalion. The lieutenant colonel’s confidence, reinforced by the constant arrival of new personnel and weapons, contrasts with the demands of the Latvian political class, which despite the support offered by the Atlantic Alliance since Russia launched its offensive on Ukraine in February, aspires to that the summit to be held next week in Madrid represents a turning point for security in the Baltic Sea country.
The case of Latvia bears many similarities to those of Lithuania and Estonia. The Baltic countries, three of the NATO members with the least military capabilities, and the only ones that were part of the Soviet Union, have had allied troops deployed on their territory for five years. The creation of a multinational Enhanced Forward Presence battalion in each of these three states—and in Poland—was decided at the 2016 Warsaw summit, in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea two years earlier. After the start of the invasion of Ukraine last February, several allies, Spain among the most prominent, have increased the number of troops stationed in the region, which already total more than 4,000 in total, in addition to sending military equipment that the Baltic countries.
Each of the NATO battle groups in the Baltic states is led by an Alliance member. Canada is in command of the multinational battalion in Adazi; Germany, from Lithuania; and it is the British who are at the forefront in Estonia. The differences are also notable between them. The one in Latvia has troops of 12 nationalities, more than twice as many as the other two. “It is an oversized and extremely complex battalion,” explains Lieutenant Colonel Fernando Fuentesal, who heads the Spanish contingent at the Latvian base, the second largest after the Canadian. “It has capabilities that in Spain would make it a powerful regiment. The battalions do not usually have artillery, or teams of engineers like the ones here,” adds this 47-year-old soldier.
The Spanish troops in Adazi, which exceed 500 troops —160 more than before the recent invasion of Ukraine—, have dozens of military vehicles and an artillery battery in addition to those provided by Canada and Slovakia. Apart from the Reinforced Advanced Presence battalion, another 85 Spanish soldiers arrived on Tuesday who will be in charge of an anti-aircraft missile system at the Lielvarde base, 170 kilometers from the Russian border. And Denmark has sent a full battalion of 800 soldiers through a bilateral agreement. However, Latvia, like Estonia and Lithuania, believe that the personnel and weapons that have arrived in recent months should only be the beginning of a much larger reinforcement.
In a restaurant in Riga, Anete Gneze, spokesperson for the Latvian Ministry of Defense, explains that the Baltic country’s aim is that at least the NATO summit in Madrid approves “turning the current battalion into a permanent brigade (with between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers) and to establish on Latvian territory several arsenals with weapons of war”. However, Fuentesal considers that it would be necessary to expand the infrastructure to achieve this goal. “The Adazi base is no longer giving itself. The field of maneuvers, the largest of the Baltic countries, has become tremendously small”, argues the Spanish lieutenant colonel. “After the Madrid summit, it will probably be clear how the battalion will ultimately evolve,” he adds.
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A new defense strategy
The Baltic States not only demand a greater military deployment in the area; they demand a reconfiguration of NATO’s defense strategy in the region. Under current provisions, in the event of an attack on Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, the invading troops would occupy part of the territory before being repelled by a multinational force in an operation that could last several months. “The Baltic countries lack the strategic depth that Ukraine has shown,” says Margarita Seselgyte, director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, in a videoconference. “They could be fully occupied in a week or a few, even with the reinforcements that have recently arrived. If they are not defended from the first moment on the border, we could see atrocities and war crimes like those that the Ukrainian population has suffered, but this time on NATO territory, ”she says.
The three countries add up to six million inhabitants and an area comparable to half that of Germany. In addition, all three border with Russia and have Russophone minorities. Their small population means that they lack the military capabilities that most NATO members do have, despite the fact that they are one of the few allies that for years have met the minimum spending target agreed by the Alliance: 2% of GDP. Among the means they do not have, combat aircraft stand out. For this reason, when they were integrated into the transatlantic organization, in 2004, the Baltic Air Police was established, a mission in charge of monitoring the airspace in the region, which currently has 21 fighters.
The Baltic Air Police uses the bases of Siauliai (Lithuania) and Amari (Estonia), where the allies take turns in rotations of four months, as opposed to the half year spent by the military transferred to the Enhanced Forward Presence battalions. In Siauliai, Spain leads the current group, which also includes the Czech Republic. The Spanish contingent at the air base is made up of 130 troops, around a dozen of whom are pilots, and eight F-18 fighters. “It is a purely defensive mission that consists of being able to be 24 hours a day, seven days a week with planes capable of taking off in 15 minutes to intercept possible suspicious aircraft in NATO space,” declares the Commander Roberto López Sáez.
The 41-year-old Spanish soldier comments that there are three reasons why a plane can be considered suspicious: going without a flight plan, not communicating with the corresponding control centers or flying without a transponder. In the little more than 80 days that they have been in Siauliai, the Spanish F-18s have intervened on more than twenty occasions. “Most are Russian planes traveling to Kaliningrad (a Russian enclave located between Poland and Lithuania). Probably, they try to measure our reaction time”, says López Sáez. The procedure consists of placing the allied aircraft less than 100 meters from the suspect, identifying it with photos, and escorting it until it leaves NATO space. The commander clarified that the mission does not contemplate the possibility of defending the territory of the Baltic countries against aggression, and that the aircraft are armed exclusively for self-defense. “Lithuania has advocated since 2015 for a reformulation of the mission. It is essential that it also includes defensive functions”, considers Seselgyte.
The demands of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will be one of the main axes of the NATO summit in Madrid. Jonathan Eyal, a researcher at the London analysis house Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), is convinced that his requests will be met. “The Baltic countries have practically since joining the Alliance warning that the Russian threat was real. Now it has become very clear that they were not paranoid, ”he explains by phone. “Some countries, like Germany, are going to be under a lot of pressure to agree to send troops permanently,” he adds. Berlin announced last week that it intends to create a 3,500-strong force that will be ready to deploy to Lithuania if needed, but the troops will be based in Germany. “After seeing atrocities like the ones that occurred in [la ciudad ucrania de] Bucha, it is no longer possible to convince Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that they would have to try to defend themselves with the current troops and capabilities while organizing the dispatch of multinational forces to repel the invasion, ”says Eyal.
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