Baltic nation Lithuania, one of the latest (2004) and smallest (2.7 million) East European NATO members is one of the three Baltic States that must innovate to deal with the growing threats from Russia, as well as China, which is a major supporter of Russian expansion efforts. The Baltic States have adopted a fearless and practical attitude towards the Russian threat and Lithuania was one of the first NATO countries to realize that China was a major threat as well. China is accustomed to compliance from EU (European Union) nations. China makes requests, suggestions or demands backed up by economic and diplomatic retaliation. That usually works with even the largest EU states. The Baltic States are different, as China discovered when they demanded that Lithuania bar Taiwan from opening an unofficial embassy, as a “representative office” in Lithuania. This came after Lithuania opened a similar office in Taiwan. This should have not been a surprise because Lithuania had long been critical of Chinese imperialism and tendency to use threats to silence foreign criticism or support for Taiwan. Lithuania had long been critical of Chinese mistreatment of their non-Han (ethnic Chinese) citizens; especially Turkish Moslem Uyghurs and Tibetan Buddhists. Lithuania also took the lead, among EU nations, by investigating the security implications of new Chinese communications technology, particularly what telecoms giants Xiaomi and Huawei. These two firms sold smartphones that contained hidden features that can be turned on or off from China and export user data to China or governments that request access to these features. There are also accusations of Huawei network hardware and software having similar capabilities.
China thought economic threats would work, because in the last decade Chinese trade with Lithuania has grown to nearly $2 billion, which is five percent of Lithuania foreign trade. China stands ready to advise and assist opposition political parties in Lithuania seeking to replace the current government. That may also backfire because the latest Chinese move was to downgrade the Lithuanian embassy in China to a lesser status that would include Lithuanian diplomatic personnel losing their diplomatic immunity. Before that could happen, Lithuania flew all its diplomatic personnel out of China and declared their embassy temporarily closed. China was not amused and fellow EU nations were impressed. More attention was also focused on growing Chinese misbehavior in Europe, something few of the larger EU members were willing to raise, much less call out China on these matters.
The Baltic States have been equally outspoken about the Russian threat, if only because the Baltic States would be one of the first NATO members hit by any Russian attack. That is one reason the Russians have combat troops in Syria. These needed an opportunity to put their post-Cold War military to the test. What the Russians were preparing for was the possibility of clashes between Russian and NATO forces in Eastern Europe. Both NATO and Russia are not sure how their respective post-Cold War forces would do against each other. Most East European nations are preparing for the worst and pay close attention to whatever Russia does in Ukraine and Syria.
The most likely targets for Russian invasion are the three small nations (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) on the south coast of the Baltic Sea between Russia and Poland. In the 18th century the Baltic States were forcibly incorporated into the expanding Russian empire. They became independent after World War I (1914-18) but were taken over by Russia in 1940. It wasn't until 1991 that the Baltic States regained their independence and they are determined to keep it this time.
The Baltic States have only six million people and fewer than 45,000 active-duty troops. Well aware of their vulnerability the three Baltic States along with neighboring Poland joined NATO in 2004. This was done in the hope that the mutual defense terms of the NATO alliance would dissuade Russia. It did that, but it also angered many Russians. Government leaders there, like Vladimir Putin, considered it an act of NATO aggression.
All three Baltic States are rapidly upgrading their armed forces and building a reserve army similar to what Switzerland, Sweden and Israel have long used. In the event of a Russian invasion (or threat of one) enough armed and trained personnel would be deployed to make Russia think twice about going in. This modernization and build up is also considered “aggressive” by the Russians because given the forces available to Russia and NATO, the 50,000 or more trained and organized reservists in the Baltic States make a big difference.
In effect, now that Russia has threatened the Baltic States enough to trigger a modernization and expansion of Baltic States forces and for NATO to revise its joint defense plan for the Baltic States, the chances of Russian success are declining. That is why Syria was so important to Russia. The Russian problem is that while they, and all other European nations greatly reduced their armed forces after the Cold War ended in 1991, Russian forces were hurt most of all. The forces of the now defunct Soviet Union were, by the end of the 1990s, reduced to 20 percent of their Cold War size. Worse, very little new equipment was purchased for about 15 years after 1991. And a lot of the Cold War era weapons and equipment were questionable even when new.
Not only had Russian forces shrank but they had less training because there was no money for it and less capable officers. Many of the best ones left for more lucrative and fulfilling civilian jobs. Since 2005 Russia has been trying to modernize its forces while also providing adequate training and better leadership. It is questionable if the Russians have succeeded. The ground forces can only muster about 55 brigades, compared to 175 divisions (each the equivalent of about two current brigades) and over a hundred reserve divisions in 1990. The Russian reserves disappeared in the 1990s, along with their weapons and equipment. A new, smaller reserve force is now being developed.
Military simulations (wargames) of a Russian invasion of the Baltic States indicated that if everything went in Russia’s favor the Russian troops would overrun the three Baltic States in two or three days. This assumes that NATO only gets about a week’s warning that the Russians are massing forces (20-25 brigades and several hundred aircraft) on the borders of the Baltic States. NATO already has about a dozen infantry brigades ready to be rapidly (by air) moved to the Baltic States in an emergency. Heavier brigades, with tanks and other armored vehicles would take longer to reach the area. The Russians would seek to occupy the Baltic States, and defeat twenty or so combat brigades of the Baltic States and NATO within a few days. This would require Russian air power to be capable of neutralizing NATO air power for a few days. That is a major unknown and one reason Russia has several dozen of its newest warplanes in Syria operating under wartime conditions. But it is still unclear if Russian aircraft and anti-aircraft systems could defeat NATO air power. Russia is also testing new artillery, other weapons, communications and electronic countermeasures gear. All would be used for a go at the Baltics and Russian or NATO simulations of such an attack are much more accurate if you know how new Russian equipment and forces perform under fire.
Meanwhile Lithuania adopted successful American practices, like building a realistic infantry training center. Lithuania, like many other nations, began building an urban training area in 2016, in this case a small village consisting of 26 structures representing building types typical in Lithuanian urban areas. Some training exercises will employ civilians hired to represent themselves when caught in the middle of a battle. Russia and China had already adopted this practice, which the Americans pioneered in the 1980s. The Baltic States share their military innovations, especially training methods and Baltic State troops train hard because the threat to their prosperity and independence is real and only a determined and well thought out defense plan will keep the Russians out. It worked in Finland and one of the Baltic States, Estonia, is ethnically related to the Ural-Altaic Finns. The Lithuanians are also outsiders or, in their case, original Europeans. Lithuanians speak an ancient language (Baltic) that predates the appearances of the Indo-European Germans, Celts, Slavs, and other similar groups in southern Europe.