The Baltic states view the Trump White House with justified fearby Richard Martyn-Hemphill / December 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Hunched over the wheel of a night bus from Lithuania, our driver stares out at the icy roads that pass through Latvia and up to Estonia, lined on each side by forests and cabins. A drift of fog keeps him squinting through the darkness, left to guess what lies up ahead.
The triumph of Donald Trump has left politicians throughout the Baltic Sea region shrouded in a similarly haunting awareness of the unknown. Much of the world sees the President-Elect as an affront to cherished abstractions—dignified statecraft, respectful language, the rule of law. But in the small and proudly-independent states here, the brute question is instead whether the eventual result of the new regime in Washington could even be invasion by Russia.
Trump’s ally on the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich, called Estonia “a suburb” of St Petersburg, not worth risking nuclear war over. Wild comments from Trump are not surprising—but Gingrich knows what he is doing. Gingrich supported the expansion of Nato in the 1990s, eventually leading to the inclusion of several Russian “suburbs” in 2004. He pushed for legislation to provide for that when he was Speaker of the House. So his new attitude, and Trump’s own contempt for Nato, are causing real anxiety.
Harsh memories of decades of Soviet rule are still keenly felt round here. A quarter of a century on from independence, the Baltics are ensconced in the European Union and Nato, and so—in theory—safe from any Russian incursion. Since Trump’s win, news outlets have been rehashing the scare stories that have been around since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Ever since, the Baltic Sea has been locked in an arms race: even neutral Finland and Sweden are cranking up military spending and seeking co-operation with Nato. Russia is flexing its muscles less discreetly. In its western exclave of Kaliningrad, it shows off its military in snap drills, and probes the air and sea space of its neighbours, unveiling military hardware with the glee of a child opening Christmas presents. In response, Lithuania has reintroduced conscription and released a manual on how to survive and disrupt an invasion. Estonia also has conscription, and it has long kept its defence spending in line with the Nato target of 2 per cent of GDP. Most members are way off, but little Estonia now pledges even more. And Latvia and Lithuania are raising their spending incredibly fast, and should hit that 2 per cent target by 2018.