Expanding NATO to include the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia was a moral imperative and politically irresistible. Militarily, it was folly.
Anyone who has walked the gorgeous art nouveau streets of fin-de-siècle Riga or wandered the medieval heart of Tallinn grasped immediately that this is Europe, that, despite centuries of Russian occupation, brutality and, at last, Stalin’s near-genocide, Russification never stuck. These cultures were shaped by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, by German philosophy and Nordic Geist, by the brick architecture of the North German Plain and the fanciful stucco of Belle Epoque Paris and Brussels. These three finely wrought democracies have nothing in common with Russia—a realm forever scarred by Asian encounters—other than memories of suffering and a lingering minority of Russophones. To exclude these courageous, ambitious and creative states from NATO would have been to compound a succession of monstrous wrongs. We did the right thing.
Yet, viewed from a military and strategic perspective, this stage of enlargement increased NATO’s risk not only of war, but of losing that war’s first campaign. While Russia’s military remains slovenly and over-hyped (do look closely at footage from eastern Ukraine), it is big—big enough to plunge, blunder, and bully its way across these relatively tiny countries with their backs against a cold sea. A ground defense of the borders would be impossible; a defense in depth impractical without geographical depth. Responding effectively to a Russian invasion would require the use of airpower employed in mass and with ferocity against targets on the Russian side of the border. And Russia—especially, under its barbaric (if brilliant) new czar—would take pleasure in destroying those luminous capital cities out of spite. Any show of courage by NATO—for which one must nonetheless hope—would result in immediate escalation and sadistic devastation.
Then…what is to be done?
The best way to protect the Baltics and avoid war on that front is to support Ukraine with arms, training, and financial support. Keep the czar occupied in the south to protect the north.
The romantic gesture of expanding NATO to include the Baltic States demands hard-headed realism for their—and NATO’s—preservation.
We are, of course, unlikely to challenge Putin in Ukraine with the requisite determination. Still, Ukraine will occupy Putin through the final months of the current American president’s strategically inept administration. But woe unto the next president, who will have to defend the Baltic states when Putin paws their borders to test his resolve.