Since the beginning of February 2017, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has begun to implement the decision taken at the Alliance’s summit in Warsaw last July to deploy a rotational battalion-sized combat unit to each of the Baltic States and Poland. The bolstering of NATO forces in the east was prompted by Russia’s growing regional aggression—as most blatantly exemplified by its war against Ukraine. The force transfer is being conducted under NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence program. Germany is heading the multinational battalion coming to Lithuania; the United States leads the battalion that will be stationed in Poland; Estonia will host a similar unit headed by the United Kingdom; and a Canadian-led battalion is coming to Latvia. These deployments will add to the rotating contingents of US troops already active in the region under Operation Atlantic Resolve. Launched in the spring of 2014, the “Atlantic Resolve” forces demonstrate the US’s contribution to collective security along NATO’s eastern flanks following Russia’s annexation of Crimea (BNS, February 8).
US soldiers have begun relocating throughout the region to train together with their European allies in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. The US deployment to NATO’s east includes more than 80 main battle tanks and hundreds of armored vehicles. Brigade headquarters, a support battalion, an artillery regiment as well as cavalry squadrons will be stationed in Poland. In all, Washington plans to deploy three armored brigade combat troops to the region: 4,400 troops of the 4th Infantry division along with 2,800 heavy armored vehicles. This will be the largest new US deployment to Europe since the Cold War. The armored brigade soldiers will be spread out among seven Central-Eastern European countries—Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary (Delfi.lv, February 1).
As a part of these forces, over the course of February, 400 soldiers and 24 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the 1st Battalion of the US Army 501st Aviation Regiment (Fort Bliss, Texas) will be deployed to Europe for nine months, under Operation Atlantic Resolve. These troops and rotary-wing aircraft will take part in joint training and aviation support operations in Latvia, on a rotational basis (Leta.lv, February 1).
At the beginning of this month, 15 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and 6 M2A3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles from the US 4th Infantry Division were also deployed to Latvia. These forces include anti-mine combat engineers as well as other combat support and security equipment, which will be used in joint exercises with Latvian soldiers. More than 225 troops from the United States have already arrived at the Ādaži military base to replace soldiers from the US 173rd Infantry Brigade, who had been present in Latvia under the auspices of Operation Atlantic Resolve since September of last year. The spokesperson for Latvia’s Ministry of Defense, Kaspars Galkins, told the Baltic News Service (BNS), that the newly rotated-in US forces will stay in Latvia until the Canadian-led multinational NATO battalion arrives in June (BNS, February 17).
Meanwhile, the German Armed Forces, together with the Armed Forces of the Netherlands, Croatia, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Norway have begun arriving in Lithuania. This military force will count around 1,200 soldiers, most of whom will be from Germany. Ten US tanks will stay in Lithuania as a part of “Atlantic Resolve” (Delfi.lv, February 10).
In Estonia, the first portions of the UK-led NATO multinational battalion are expected to arrive in March. French and Danish soldiers will form the roughly 1,200-strong battalion together with British troops (Delfi.lv, February 1).
As Alliance and US military support begins pouring in to the Baltic States and Central-Eastern Europe, this is pushing the countries in the region to emphasize their own role in helping to fight broader global threats such as international terrorism. As a case in point, Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis confirmed his country’s solidarity in the fight against terrorism during a February 16 ministerial meeting of members of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. “Solidarity is one of the core Latvian values. Our country has supported and will continue to support the United States in the fight against terrorism, contributing to the coalition against the Islamic State. We have a common objective—the effective and successful fight against terrorism,” Minister Bergmanis stressed (Mod.gov.lv, February 16).
Latvia has recently sent soldiers of the National Armed Forces to Iraq, where they train local security forces under a Danish-led unit. “Our soldiers have expertise [with using] Soviet Union–produced equipment and weapons,” said Bergmanis. “For 15 years, Latvia has participated in NATO’s war against terrorism. Our soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder with the troops of the US, Britain, Spain, Poland, Norway, Germany, France, Denmark and other Allied soldiers. Latvia has undertaken this mission together with other allies and, the fight will continue,” he declared (Sargs.lv, February 16).
Nora Vanaga, a researcher at the Latvian National Defense Academy, emphasizes that Latvia, as the host nation of the Canadian-led NATO multinational battalion, should attempt to integrate these forces into the Latvian military, in anticipation of possible crisis scenarios. According to Vanaga, the Ministry of Defense, in its communication with the public, should explain the ultimate objectives of the deployment of the multinational Canadian-led battalion on Latvian soil and prevent the spread of Russian propaganda messages like “Latvia is being invaded by occupying forces” or “the presence of NATO forces provokes Russia” (Leta.lv, January 15).
“On one hand, the multinational battalion deployments in the Baltic States are an important political signal of solidarity within NATO. But on the other hand, when assessing their military strength, they [are insufficient] to withstand the overwhelming Russian military might in the region. Therefore, the only way to strengthen NATO’s deterrence policy against Russia is to help the Baltics build up their self-defense capabilities, thus increasing the costs for Russia were it to decide to act aggressively in the region,” Vanaga argued (Leta.lv, January 15.
The modest redeployment of allied multinational forces to NATO’s eastern flank has clearly begun. But perceptions of a looming threat will nonetheless persist until long-term peace and stability is restored in Europe.