An unspoken question hung in the air as I joined thousands of Lithuanians in a snowy Vilnius last week to greet President Zelensky at the start of his whistle-stop tour of the Baltic states. Are we next?
The contrast between the cheerfully decorated, peaceful streets of the Lithuanian capital and the ravaged towns and cities to which the Ukrainian delegation would return was stark. Ukraine’s plight is keenly felt in the Baltics, which underwent similar torments in living memory.
At the weekend, three million Lithuanians commemorated the anniversary of a Soviet massacre in 1991, the bloodiest episode of the struggle to regain independence. Only 20 miles of lightly-defended, rolling countryside lie between Vilnius and the border with Belarus, Russia’s closest military ally.
Lithuania has contributed more per head to Ukraine’s war effort than any other country. During Zelensky’s visit, it pledged to do even more. But this remarkable generosity and solidarity cannot make up for dithering in Berlin, parsimony in Paris, and cold feet in Washington.
What happens if Ukraine runs out of soldiers, ammunition, air defences, weapons and money? Military intelligence estimates are that Russia, with its war economy running at full throttle, would be ready to fight again in as little as two years. Nato should be a daunting target for the next round of Kremlin aggression. In fact, it is a tempting one.
On paper Lithuania, like its neighbours Latvia and Estonia, shelters under the mighty alliance’s collective security guarantee. But the main reliance for now is on tripwire forces: British in Estonia, Canadians in Latvia, Americans everywhere.
A beefed-up German brigade is to be permanently deployed at a new base in Lithuania; construction is under way to build the luxury (by local standards) accommodation, kindergarten and other facilities the guests require. But what happens if the tripwire is tripped?
At the security conference I was attending in Vilnius, the discussions were sobering. Regional defence plans are still being worked out; they require money and political will. For now, logistics are patchy, stockpiles sparse, forces lacking.
The uncomfortable truth is that Nato depends overwhelmingly on the US. Yet the lesson of Ukraine is that the Biden administration worries more about nuclear escalation than confronting or constraining the Kremlin. And a Trump administration will be even less dependable.
A full-scale armed attack by Russia on a Nato country would probably trigger the alliance’s Article 5 collective defence clause and a serious military response. But it is more plausible and more worrying that the Kremlin tries something below this threshold. And we have already allowed Russian provocations to salami-slice our deterrence.
Assassinations. Airspace intrusions. Sabotage. Missiles overflying or even landing on Nato territory — all in recent years have gone unpunished. Ukraine fatigue has a similar effect. By exhausting our attention span Putin also undermines our credibility.
Imagine, for example, some time next year that Russia downs an aircraft, attacks critical infrastructure (again) or launches a small cross-border raid (perhaps using Belarusian proxies). President Trump is woken in the middle of the night but crossly tells his advisors that the Europeans should deal with their own problems and goes back to sleep.
Hours later the North Atlantic Council, Nato’s top decision-making body, meets to consider the alliance’s response — only to hear the US permanent representative announce that they have had no instructions from Washington. That, in minutes, would be the end of Nato — and thus a far greater prize for Putin than an attack on Moldova, Kazakhstan, Georgia or some other, seemingly more vulnerable, target.
Behind the scenes, countries in northern Europe are scrambling to fill the gap. One option is the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a ten-country military project led by Britain. It includes the three Baltics, the five Nordics and the Netherlands, with a combined GDP and defence budget bigger than Russia’s.
Article 5 allows individual countries to act on their own initiative in response to an armed attack. But openly developing such so-called “minilateral” frameworks risks undermining Nato’s “all for one, one for all” promise. And these new arrangements are not ready. Deterrence and defence require plans, exercises, stocks of munitions, and well-honed, speedy political decision-making. For now these are largely absent. Poland, by far the region’s military heavyweight, is not a member of the JEF.
The Lithuanians are working hard to shore up their defences. Military spending is nearly 3 per cent of GDP. Full conscription is looming. Lithuania has scored some important points in China-focused Washington with a bold policy towards Taiwan, involving high-level, political exchanges and the opening of a “Taiwanese” mission in Vilnius.
That prompted a furious response from the Chinese mainland authorities, which want Taiwan treated as a diplomatic pariah under a “Taipei” label. But among allies, only the sturdy Czechs have taken a similar approach. European solidarity in the face of Beijing’s wrath was patchy, to put it mildly.
Nobody in Vilnius or its neighbouring capitals is panicking. Life in Russia’s shadow hardens nerves rather than shreds them. For decades Baltic warnings about imperialist aggression from the east went unheard. Now, they feel vindicated yet still vulnerable. The paradox is that highlighting their security plight may also worsen it.