The underlying problem is trust; many European countries, seen from the eastern flank, are still squishy on security.

Wishful thinking used to be the Leitmotiv of Western thinking about the Baltic Sea region. Outsiders’ contribution to these frontline countries’ security rested on the belief that a tripwire military presence would protect them from Russian aggression. If triggered, the tripwire would bring immediate reinforcement; if necessary, the full might of the Western alliance would be brought to bear on Russia to liberate conquered territories, writes Edward Lucas in Europe’s Edge.

In truth, NATO countries mostly lacked the stocks of weapons and equipment to fight a serious war with Russia. Reinforcement plans, promised in 2016, never materialized. Nor did investments in military mobility. Whereas the British troops in Estonia, and the much larger American forces in Poland, looked like serious deployments, others (such as the multinational Canadian-led force in Latvia and the German presence in Lithuania) seem more symbolic.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24th reduced this approach to tatters. The Kremlin’s risk appetite is far higher than the wishful thinkers assumed. Russia’s bestial treatment of civilians in occupied Ukraine reminds Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians of the trauma they suffered under Soviet rule. It is morally and strategically imperative to defend the Baltic states at the start of a conflict.

Creating the necessary defense arrangements in the Baltic states will be hard. But the decision by Finland and Sweden to join the alliance will help. A decade of strategic contortion is over. Intelligence-sharing and decision-making, for example, no longer have to bridge the gap between NATO and non-NATO countries. Yet many details remain to be worked out (among others: the command structure, location of headquarters, new defense plans, maritime strategy, and force posture).

For now, as previously, the United States is filling the gap. On February 24, four hours after Latvia’s defense minister Artis Pabriks was woken with news of Russia’s attack, American warplanes were landing at Riga airport. The anecdote, told by Pabriks at this weekend’s Lennart Meri Conference, held in the Estonian capital Tallinn, illustrates the centrality of the US role in regional security. But indispensability is a vulnerability. Would the US reaction have been so prompt under the former (and perhaps future) President Donald Trump? The Baltic states worry privately that American decision-makers have long yearned to shrug off some of their European responsibilities;  perhaps now they will ask Sweden and Finland to do more. The Baltic dilemma is that broadening the burden-sharing eases an American drawdown. But relying solely on one country is inherently precarious.

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