It is just over 30 years since the states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania re-won their independence as the Soviet Union collapsed and less than 20 since they joined NATO, but it would be hard to find three better allies.
Since Russia began its war of aggression against Ukraine in 2014, the Baltic states have made enormous investments in defense — Lithuania has increased military spending more than fivefold and Latvia almost fourfold by 2022. Additional Estonian spending will take outlays beyond 2.5% of GDP, far beyond the 2% NATO target.
But it would be churlish not to highlight the critical role played by the US in helping to improve the defenses of countries now demonstrably living in an extremely dangerous neighborhood. Not only is Russia once again showing its indifference to international borders, its ally in Belarus, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka, now parrots Vladimir Putin’s bellicose rhetoric and shares his expansionary geopolitical goals.
US aid to the Baltic states is significant and makes a difference. While these are small countries, they can produce a fearsome defensive response if invaded, much like a porcupine facing a predatory snake.
New aid is coming and every cent will be welcomed. On October 11, the United States Senate began reviewing the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Armed Services Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Jack Reed (Democrat-Rhode Island) and Ranking Member James Inhofe (Republican-Oklahoma), advanced the bill in July following passage by the House of Representatives on a bipartisan 329-101 vote. The full Senate is expected to vote on the NDAA following the November midterm elections when Congress returns to Washington, DC. It is currently unclear whether a Republican victory would affect the bill but the party’s senate leader, Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky), has been a consistent supporter of Ukraine’s fight.
An effort by Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus co-chairs Richard Durbin (Democrat-Illinois) and Chuck Grassley (Republican-Iowa) to pass a multi-year $250m Baltic security-related amendment in the NDAA, unfortunately, did not make the cut. The legislation, called the Baltic Security and Economic Enhancement Initiative, would increase US security and economic ties with the Baltic countries and establish the Baltic Security Initiative to deepen security cooperation. It was hoped that the amendment would be included in a so-called managers package and adopted by unanimous consent. But hope is not lost, as there may be other vehicles for attaining this funding in the time left during this Congress.
The multi-year funding would set levels for five years, along the model of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI.) This is in addition to the multi-billion-dollar emergency funding and security assistance that Ukraine has received this year since Russia’s all-out invasion began.
It is true that Congress has appropriated almost $350m to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania through the Baltic Security Initiative over the past two years, but the congressional push by friends of the Baltics is now to make it a regular part of the budget. House Baltic Caucus co-chairmen Ruben Gallego (Democrat-Arizona) and Don Bacon (Republican-Nebraska) have also been leading that charge.
There is indeed good news regarding Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funding. FMF levels, together with International Military Education and Training (IMET) program requests by the administration for the three Baltic countries, total approximately $165.3m for FY2023, as described in a September 29 Congressional Research Service report. However, FMF funding for the Baltic countries was given a new boost when Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced in early September that a supplemental measure for Ukraine, would also benefit US allies in the region.
While $2.2bn in FMF funding has already been appropriated by Congress, a new $3bn package of support was announced, with about $1bn of the total to go to Ukraine and the rest to be divided among 17 countries, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, that have provided significant assistance to Ukraine. The State Department stated that the funds will help those countries “deter and defend against emergent threats to their sovereignty and territorial integrity” by enhancing their military integration with NATO and countering “Russian influence and aggression.”
That means grants of between $140m-$150m for each Baltic state, which includes funding to help backfill military capabilities. This FMF supplemental package received final approval from the US Congress in late September. A serious chunk of this would go to the purchase of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which has proven so effective in Ukraine.
There are concerns that recent rhetoric and cringe-worthy missteps by Congress show a growing division over aid to Ukraine. However, the blowback has also been fast and furious and a renewed commitment by an overwhelming majority of Congress has largely dissipated these fears.
The Baltic countries continue to be major contributors of military aid to Ukraine. In fact, Latvia (41%), Estonia (37%), and Lithuania (17%) have transferred higher shares of their military budget to Ukraine than any other country. For comparison, the US share is just below 4%.
Besides the overwhelming support and arms transfers to Ukraine, bolstered by their own readiness and cooperation with NATO allies, the Baltic parliaments have all designated Russia as a state sponsor of terror, the Estonian parliament having voted unanimously on October 18 to approve such a measure. The Polish Senate also joined the chorus on October 26. The US Senate passed a simple resolution on July 27 to that effect as well, although the Biden Administration has, to date, opposed such a move.
The Baltic countries are solid allies. Investing in their defense will reap rewards long into the future.
Karl Altau is the Managing Director of the Joint Baltic American National Committee.