While campaigning last year, President-elect Donald Trump made it clear that he expected America’s NATO partners to increase their contributions to the common defense should he become president. Otherwise, the US commitment to NATO would need to be scrutinized and reconsidered. His opponents at the time twisted the comments to make it appear that Trump intends to pull the US out of NATO and embark on an isolationist foreign policy. Added to this was Vladimir Putin’s very vocal preference to see Donald Trump become the next US leader. In Europe, there some very genuine concern at this, especially in certain Eastern European nations. However, the majority of Europeans did not expect Trump to win the election so the concern did not reach a point of alarm.
Trump won the election in November and his improbable victory has rocked the world. In the weeks following his win, politicians and citizens in Western Europe were too preoccupied preparing themselves and their nations for the political ramifications of Trump’s victory to worry about the ramifications to NATO.
In northeastern Europe it is an entirely different story. The Baltic States, the fragile eastern outposts of the NATO empire, are a tense place these days. Politicians, military officers, and citizens in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are quite concerned, to say the least, that the US commitment to their sovereignty and freedom will diminish when Trump takes office. The seemingly isolationist bent of Trump’s foreign policy ideas, along with his fond words for Putin have sparked a sense of quiet urgency. Enough so that the Baltic nations are all increasing efforts to strengthen their defenses.
Citizens in all three nations are joining volunteer militias and signing up for military training in larger numbers. If the shooting starts, the value of organizations such as Latvia’s Home Guard and Estonia’s Kaitseliit would be minimal though. Their members are part time volunteers without the training of professional soldiers. When it comes to equipment, these groups face financial obstacles in obtaining modern weapons and gear like night vision goggles. These citizen-soldiers can do little to help defend against a determined Russian advance into their countries. Their moment would likely come after the Baltics have been subjugated, acting as partisans to disrupt activity behind the lines. There is precedence for this. During World War II, after being overrun by the Germans early in the Russian campaign, partisan activity sprang to life in the Baltics and was a thorn in the side of the German war machine until the Baltic states were liberated by Russia in 1944.
The citizens of the Baltics are not alone in their concern about the intentions of Russia. NATO has committed to the deployment and stationing of over 3,000 troops in Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland as well. This force is small by military standards and its ability to mount a credible defense is debatable. Many observers consider the force to be a tripwire, not expected to stand up to the weight of a Russian thrust westward.
To their credit, the Baltics are not standing by idle. As they watch, and wait, each nation is also preparing. The preparation serves two purposes: deterring Russia from military action, and showing the new American leader that their nations are in fact pulling their weight when it comes to NATO.