The Russian ones are bigger.

Photographer: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Note to Baltic States: Israel Is Tiny, Too

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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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.

Rand's 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 60 miles. From the Russian border to the Estonian capital, Tallinn, is about 120 miles.

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.

Nobody thinks the Balts can bulk up that much, and certainly they shouldn't follow Israel in developing a nuclear arsenal. "The question is how much you can achieve on your own, considering an imbalance of forces much greater than Israel faces," says Henrik Praks, a research fellow at Estonia's International Center for Defense and Security. And financially, he said, buying an air force, or air defenses capable of excluding Russian jets, is "out of the question."

This is all true. Yet the Balts should do more. The resources available to them would be material to delaying a Russian onslaught long enough for specially pre-positioned NATO brigades to arrive from Poland and Germany.

The U.S., too, should consider mixing the NATO model for assuring the defense of America's allies with a little of the one it uses for Israel. The U.S. spends about $3 billion a year on aid to Israel, nearly all of it military. Nothing remotely on that scale is required for the Balts, but there's a value to having Estonians and Latvians, rather than NATO, deploy and operate some of the high-end equipment that an effective deterrent against Russia would entail.

The U.S. made a start in late 2014 with a $55 million deal to sell Javelin anti-tank weapons to Estonia on favorable terms. The same might be done for heavy tanks, which as potentially offensive weapons would be more provocative to Russia if they were manned by Americans.

The Balts can't possibly keep a Russian invasion at bay without NATO's aid. They're right, too, that Western analysts spend too much time imagining Russia taking a Ukraine-style approach to destabilizing the Balts, when a quick, outright invasion is more likely. But appearing to sit back and rely on allies for their defense is dangerous. This is one lesson Israelis have always understood: Ultimately, they can rely on only on themselves.

(Updates paragraph seven to add that Latvian and Lithuanian defense budgets are increasing, and paragraph nine to specify that the Baltic States should not develop a nuclear arsenal.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net