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«If Ukraine falls, we will be next.» How the Baltic states and Poland are preparing for a Russian military invasion

Poland and the Baltic states have been acting as Ukraine's most loyal allies in the war with Russia. They are supplying it with American-made tanks and weapons, hosting millions of refugees, and severing relations with Putin. At the same time, they have also begun to arm themselves. Experts from those countries interviewed by The Insider believe the threat of Russian military expansion into the Baltics and Poland should be taken seriously, and it is not worth relying solely on NATO assistance.

  • Lithuania. «We remember the occupation and deportations well.»

  • Estonia. Not waiting, but preparing

  • Latvia. Trust in NATO, but keep the powder dry.

  • Poland. Not giving in to gas blackmail.

Lithuania. «We remember the occupation and deportations well.»

The very next day after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Baltic states joined calls to evoke the fourth article of the NATO founding treaty - to begin consultations amid «threats to the integrity, political independence and security.» Dalia Bankauskaite, a professor at the Vilnius University, notes that Lithuania's thousand-year history of having Russia as its neighbor leaves little reason to trust such a neighbor:

«Lithuanian daily news starts with the latest developments in Ukraine. The war, the deaths, the suffering, the torture, is something that cannot be ignored. Lithuanian society remembers well its own history, the resistance to the Soviet occupation, deportations, the Gulag, exile, massacres, the 1990 events, when after the declaration of Lithuanian independence there was an attempted coup with 14 people killed by the Soviet military. The whole of Lithuania is following the events in Ukraine and the entire region and the public is well aware that if Ukraine falls, we will be next.»

Lithuanians help Ukraine in every way they can – by sheltering refugees in their homes, working in volunteer centers, and donating money. 63% of Lithuanian civilians support military aid to Ukraine. More and more people have been joining volunteer defense organizations and cyber brigades to help Ukrainians counter Russian hacker attacks and disinformation campaigns.

63% of Lithuanian civilians support military aid to Ukraine

Lithuanian society is well aware that there is another hostile state in their immediate vicinity - Belarus, which is attacking Ukraine along with Russia and is also an aggressor state that uses weapons, Bankauskaite emphasizes.

Estonia. Not waiting, but preparing

Kalev Stoichesku, a researcher at the International Center for Defense Studies in Estonia, believes his country's task as a member of NATO and the EU is to prevent the war from expanding into its territory. However, he believes that everything depends only on Putin. If he and the Russian military leadership choose to expand military action into NATO countries, they will do so despite the possible reaction:

«If we face reality, the Putin regime and the Russian military machine cannot even cope with Ukraine. I am not even talking about NATO countries. We certainly do not want to underestimate Russia and its ability to destroy and provoke new conflicts, but we do not want to overestimate Putin's strength either. There are fears that Putin may start to test NATO's strength, arrange provocations in the Baltic states, in Poland or in Romania. We've known for many years that Putin's regime is very aggressive. And its aggression is primarily directed at its own population. It's just like in the family. If there is violence within the family, sooner or later it will spill over onto the neighbors. If the country is based on terror, how can it not be aggressive toward other states. Currently we see this aggression in Ukraine, and we may yet see it in other neighboring countries.
If there is terror inside a country, how can it not be aggressive toward other countries?
Estonia and the other Baltic states cannot be 100% safe until Russia comes to its senses and stops being an aggressive state, primarily internally. Estonia, just like Lithuania, feels it will not be left alone in this war, but if it is eventually attackedif it does happen after all, it has allies, including the United States. Stoichesku notes that the Kremlin was not wrong about three things: that the Russians would not protest against the war; , that NATO would not directly intervene in the war;, and that China would side with Russia. In all other calculations, however, they were wrong. They underestimated Ukraine's willingness and ability to defend itself. Putin thought he would fight against a comedian, and the comedian turned out to be a military leader. Putin himself will probably end up being thea comedian. The Kremlin underestimated the reaction of the West: despite the threats of nuclear weapons, the West stands with Ukraine.
Russians are the largest national minority in Estonia. In 2021 they accounted for 24.3% of the country's total population. And there are quite a few among them who consume Russian propaganda and support Putin's actions. It's an interesting paradox: in the 1980s, Soviet people in Estonia used to buy special TV setsboxes to receive Finnish channels and get access to free information. And now that all the Kremlin's propaganda channels have been blocked in Estonia, these same people are buying devices to watch Russian federal channels and continue to watching propaganda.

Latvia. Trust in NATO, but keep the powder dry.

Sandis Schraders, a lecturer at the Baltic Defense College in Latvia, believes that attacking countries such as Latvia or Estonia is too small a feat for Putin and the risk of escalating conflict with NATO is too great.

«NATO is deterring Putin from a larger military aggression. There was no precedent in history for a country or political actor to attack the territory of the North Atlantic Alliance, Article 5 of the NATO Charter on Collective Defense interprets an attack on a member country as an attack on the entire bloc. Yet it is now clear to everyone that Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia (even though supported by NATO) would still have to defend themselves on their own in the event of an invasion by Putin, just as the Ukrainians are doing now. We understand the seriousness of the threat and while Germany was thinking whether to send blankets or socks to Ukraine, we were sending missiles to the Ukrainians. This way we also demonstrate that if anything happens, we are ready to stand against aggression.»

A separate problem is combating misinformation:

In Latvia, as in Estonia, Russian propaganda works very well. The influence of Russian propaganda media in the Baltic states has been very strong. There are people who think this war is justified by its anti-fascist goals. However, there is a special regulator that's tasked with preventing disinformation from the Russian federal channels from spreading.

Poland. Not giving in to gas blackmail.

According to the director of the Polish University of International Relations, Slawomir Dębski, Poland has never had any illusions about Russia's intentions, so the country has long tried to diversify its commodity supply sources, criticized Nord Stream and advocated halting the project. On April 26 the Polish oil and gas concern PGNiG refused to pay for Russian gas supplies with the obligatory conversion into rubles. The company said it had received a notice from Gazprom about full suspension of gas supplies from April 27. Polish politicians have repeatedly warned Russia could use its resources as a means of pressure and as a political tool. Now the gloomiest predictions have begun to come true, Dębski notes.

«Russia's aggression in Ukraine has undermined Poles' confidence that we've been living through a golden era, and everything is developing nicely, even amid the COVID crisis and other crises that can always happen. Russia's attack on Ukraine has changed the worldview, and there is a sense we are now living in wartime, that we must now prepare for the worst, must invest in our defense, must strengthen our alliances and, of course, help Ukrainians. Poland is supplying tanks and heavy weapons and has accepted more than three million refugees from the war zones.
They scare us with nuclear strikes, and the public can be frightened by them, but politicians and military experts understand there is no strategic reason to use nuclear weapons against Poland, or even against Ukraine. Russia is hardly ready to go to war with NATO, but Poland is arming itself to let Russia and the rest of the world know: the country is ready to fight back the aggressor. The era of peace is over; now it is necessary to invest in military training. If you want peace, prepare for war.»

Back in early February, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced an increase in the number of U.S. troops stationed in Poland. At that time, 1,700 U.S. troops, sent to Poland because of the increased tension over the situation around Ukraine, were stationed in the southeast of the country, on NATO's eastern flank. On May 1, the Polish Defense Ministry launched «large-scale military exercises» in the border regions of the country.

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