LONDON – The Baltic states need to start thinking a little more like Israel.
A new report from the Rand Corporation, funded by the U.S. Army, has published evidence for a truth long known: A Russian invasion of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would quickly succeed — within 60 hours, to be precise. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be powerless to do anything about it, unless it was willing to go to war with Russia to retake the lost territory, with all the attendant potential for escalation.
The Rand report describes the problems that faced the NATO team in its war games. The Baltic countries could be easily surrounded. They have no serious air defenses, no tanks and no air force. Even man for man, their combat units are so lightly armed compared to those of the superpower next door that they would be crushed. It would all be over by the time NATO could bring a meaningful force to the battlefield.
There are more differences than similarities between the Baltic states and Israel, which is neither a NATO member nor threatened by a superpower. But they have enough in common for the Balts to draw useful lessons.
Like Israel, the threat the three Baltic states face is of an attack from a larger enemy, with little territory upon which to fight a lengthy defense. From the Syrian border to the Israeli coast at Haifa is about 96 km. From the Russian border to the Estonian capital, Tallinn, is about 193 km.
Their populations also include minorities whose loyalties might prove divided in the event of conflict — ethnic Palestinians and Russians respectively. Russian speakers make up a third of Latvia’s population, for example, and many lack citizenship because naturalization requires a Latvian language test.
Yet the responses to what both the Baltic nations and Israel consider a potentially existential threat could hardly be more different. Estonia has increased its defense spending since Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, to meet NATO’s target of 2 percent of gross domestic product. But it is unlikely to go much further. Latvia and Lithuania are still struggling to spend above 1 percent of GDP on their militaries, although they are increasing their defense budgets quickly.
Israel, by contrast, spends about 6.5 percent of GDP on defense. It has 440 combat-capable aircraft and multiple mid-range anti-aircraft systems, not to mention a covert nuclear deterrent.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs.