Russo-American Tensions in the Baltics Evoke Cold War Tactics

By Paul Oshinski

The Issue

As American media continues to cover the alleged impact of Kremlin cyber tactics on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, tensions between Russia and the United States have escalated, and NATO has revamped its military presence in the Baltic region. This increased militarization comes in response to Russian attempts to influence politics in Baltic states and incite civil disorder through state-sponsored cyber warfare. Also, President Vladimir Putin has bolstered Kaliningrad, a small Russian exclave situated between Poland and Lithuania. Paired with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and a number of close calls between Russian aircrafts and NATO allies in international airspace, the Russian-American relationship is increasingly strained—and austere U.S. sanctions don’t exactly help. These testy exchanges between the United States and Russia harken back to our Cold War-era security dilemma days. 

Most recently, the United States shipped hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, and other military equipages to Bremerhaven, Germany, to be disseminated to Baltic states and other Eastern European NATO members. Correspondingly, NATO conducted a military demonstration in late January in Poland — a symbolic military exposition aimed at confirming NATO’s commitment to protecting the Baltics from potential Russian attempts at territorial expansion. 

NATO’s military amplifications, spearheaded by the Obama administration, come at the heels of President Trump’s incendiary comments regarding the U.S. pledge to protect Baltic nations from a Russian invasion. When asked about this commitment, Trump argued that the United States would only protect the Baltics if they fulfilled their economic and martial obligations to NATO. Also, Trump’s cozy relationship with Russia has created anxiety among Baltic citizens and politicians, who are especially fearful given Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Responding to Trump’s statements, the Obama Administration took a strong stance to ensure NATO’s commitment to the Baltics, stating that a Russian attack on a NATO member state would be no different from a Russian attack on U.S. soil. Trump has since softened his initial criticisms of NATO and its member states. He now aims to focus his slim foreign policy agenda on reducing Russo-American tensions.

The renewed strain in Russo-American relations has played out in Kaliningrad, a small Russian territory located in the heart of the Baltic region. The strategic location of Kalinigrad is heavily armed with formidable military equipment including Iksander missiles. Though NATO and the Baltics perceive Russia’s efforts to heavily arm Kaliningrad as both a way to test NATO’s commitment to the Baltic states and intimidate the former Soviet countries within the region, Russia contends that bolstering Kaliningrad is a routine military procedure intended to protect the vulnerable Russian territory from NATO’s own intimidation measures. As both NATO and Russia increase their military presence in the Baltics in response to each other, this tit-for-tat security dilemma evokes the USSR and the United States to stockpile nuclear armaments. 

Present Russo-American relations are not entirely analogous to Cold War era tactics:  Russia and NATO have modernized their foreign policy strategies, employing online propaganda, hacking, and other cyber warfare efforts. For example, in 2016, Lithuania conducted a military simulation in which a ship was contaminated with a chemical substance. Though the chemical substance was nontoxic and the procedure was simply a simulation to prepare military forces for an actual chemical spill, a Russian propaganda outlet fabricated a news story by falsely reporting that five Lithuanians were killed as a result of the military exercise. In response to Russia’s cyber warfare efforts aimed at inciting civil unrest, the Baltic rim states have increased their military expenditures by nearly $180 million in the past two years in response to Russia’s perceived expansionist mentality and have also welcomed U.S. special forces into the countries for additional military training.

As tensions have increased between Russia and the United States in the Baltic region, parallels can be drawn between current Russo-American relations and the countries’ interactions during the Cold War. The escalating weapons buildup between NATO and Russia is reminiscent of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. Additionally, Russia’s placement of powerful Iksander missiles in Kaliningrad seems similar to the former Soviet Union placing of nuclear missiles in Cuba, a territory near the West, during the Cold War era. However, technological advancements have altered the nature of the Russo-American and Russo-NATO relations, enabling the Kremlin to target the Baltic states and other countries with cyber warfare and online propaganda. Combined with Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the weapons and defense buildups in Kaliningrad, and previous events, such as the annexation of Crimea and international airspace breaches by Russian air forces, the United States has responded to Russian aggressions by boosting their military presence in the Baltic region, preparing the Baltic rim states for a prospective Russian invasion, and magnifying defense budgets for NATO member states near the Russian border. Though President Trump has promised an improved relationship between the two superpowers, recent developments in the Baltics insinuate that Russo-American relations are far from reaching any form of détente.



Next steps

Future policy solutions must address the ongoing security dilemma between the United States, Russia, and NATO, and all sides must agree to halt or reduce arms buildups. One option is a renewed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), initially signed by   President Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. This treaty (commonly called “New START”) reduced nuclear armaments in the U.S. and Russia and expanded inspections of nuclear facilities in both countries.

Though President Trump preached of reducing tensions between the U.S. and Russia on the campaign trail, he recently criticized New START, calling it a weakly negotiated treaty that did not benefit the U.S. During a phone call with Putin, Trump allegedly expressed no interest in signing a New START treaty. He argued that it reduced the capabilities of the U.S. vis-à-vis Russia, and he did not express any interest in drafting a arms reduction treaty. If this status quo continues and both sides continue to increase their nuclear weapons capabilities, then the future for reduced Russo-American tensions and a bilateral partnership remains grim. 


Paul Oshinski is a third-year undergraduate double majoring in political science and international affairs from Decatur, Georgia. He is an editor for the Georgia Political Review and a contributing writer for the Sigma Iota Rho Journal of International Relations. He enjoys travelling, soccer, politics, and Futurama.