OSW Commentary

Between continuation and adaptation: The Baltic states’ security policy and armed forces

The Baltic states have responded to the annexation of Crimea and the increased Russian military activity in the Nordic and Baltic region by taking measures to strengthen their own military potential. At the same time, they have intensified efforts to have the USA and NATO step up their military presence on their respective territories. Changes concerning the security policies and the armed forces of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have included increases in defence spending, the number of soldiers and members of volunteer Territorial Defence Forces , speeding up modernisation programmes, and – in the case of Lithuania – the reintroduction of conscription. In the coming years the Baltic states will focus on developing those of their military capabilities directly related to the defence of the country’s territory. However, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will not stop participating in the foreign missions of NATO, which is the guarantor of their security. The extent to which these plans can be implemented will depend primarily on the economic and demographic situations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.


The evolution of the Baltic states’ security and defence policies

In the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had to face the challenge of defining the foundations of their security policies and building up their defence capabilities. In the first half of the 1990s the Baltic states considered three directions of security policy: (a) neutrality or non-aligned status; (b) a trilateral alliance (in close military co-operation with the Nordic states); (c) aspirations to join NATO and the EU.[1] The former two options were seen as a temporary alternative to the security guarantees that NATO could offer, because at that time the Baltic states’ room for manoeuvre was limited by the Russian troops still stationed on their territories (until 1993 and 1994). The Baltic states’ foreign policy at that time was built on a positive image of the West and a negative image of Russia. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia saw Russia as a threat to their sovereignty and national identity[2]. Their fears of Russian revisionism and possible moves to incorporate them into the Russian sphere of influence were rooted in the experience of 50 years of occupation, as well as the presence of Russian-speaking minorities. These fears were fuelled by Russia’s moves to prevent the Baltic states from integrating with the West (which included the threat or use of force, provocations, economic pressure, and allegations concerning violations of the rights of Russian-speaking minorities).[3] In view of all this, in the mid-1990s the Baltic states identified membership in NATO and the EU as their foreign and security policy objective (by joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme and signing Association Agreements with the EU).

When they regained independence, the Baltic states had no armed forces of their own. The creation of armed forces, which began in the years 1990–1991, became an important element of the reconstruction of their statehood. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had to build the structures of individual military branches from scratch, and the same goes for military commands, training and education systems as well as defence ministries. In the 1990s the Baltic states, like much of Europe at that time, developed their armed forces according to a conscription-based model with a large reserve base, complemented by volunteer territorial defence forces (TDF). They co-operated with many countries in terms of the acquisitions of armament and military equipment, troop training and the implementation of NATO standards, including in particular the Nordic states, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel. This resulted in the procurement of disparate types of military equipment (transferred or sold on preferential terms), impediments to trilateral military co-operation and development of different strategic cultures.[4]

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became NATO members in 2004. Once they obtained the Alliance’s guarantees, their sense of security improved considerably: in their strategic documents, the three states considered a scenario of direct military aggression against any of them to be unrealistic.[5] Lithuania and Latvia, and to some extent Estonia, complied with the doctrine in force in NATO, which emphasised out-of-area operations, and the Baltic states stepped up their involvement in foreign missions (since the mid-1990s they have taken part in several UN operations in the Balkans and the Middle East, usually as part of Danish contingents). A real test for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia came with their involvement in the NATO/USA expeditionary operations in 2003–2014 in Afghanistan (NATO’s ISAF) and Iraq (the USA’s Iraqi Freedom). In proportion to their demographic potential, the Baltic states made some of the greatest contributions among NATO members to foreign missions.[6] Their involvement defined the direction in which Lithuania and Latvia modernised their armed forces, which were professionalised (Latvia stopped conscription in 2006 and Lithuania did so two years later), and developed their expeditionary potential at the expense of the capability to defend their own territories. In both countries the reforms also involved a downsizing of numbers of troops, reservists and territorial defence forces members (TDF in Lithuania were incorporated into the land force in 2003) and investments in the navy and special forces. Estonia adopted a more reserved stance with regard to the doctrine changes within NATO (while actively participating in foreign missions); it maintained a high mobilisation capacity, retained conscription, and the principle of total defence, which envisaged the involvement or all military and civilian structures, as well as state institutions, in the defence of the state.

The Baltic states have a small military potential and have no capability to independently engage in the regular defence of their own territory (see Appendix 1). This is mainly due to the small size of their armed forces and the fact that they are poorly equipped. In some areas, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are only starting to develop certain capabilities (e.g. the mechanisation of infantry in Latvia). Due to budgetary constraints, the Baltic states’ air forces do not have combat components (their tasks are limited to transport and training), and their land forces have no tanks. In foreign missions, they are capable of quickly deploying company-sized land force units, special forces or supporting maritime patrol and mine countermeasures operations. The land forces are the main military branch in the Baltic states (in each of them, an infantry brigade constitutes the core of the army), and possess limited anti-tank and air defence capabilities.[7]


The Baltics’ response to Crimea

The cyber-attack on Estonia (2007) and the Russian-Georgian war (2008) caused quite some concern in the Baltic states, as these events affected their perceptions of potential threats. In their strategic documents from 2010–2012, the Baltic states devoted more attention to conventional threats, the activity of other states’ intelligence and cyber-security, noting Russia’s ambitions to regain the status of a global power and the rising tensions between Russia and NATO.[8] In 2012 Lithuania and Latvia announced that they would increase their defence spending to 2% of GDP, but the financial crisis prevented them from carrying out these plans.[9] The annexation of Crimea in March 2014 triggered a public debate on security and defence policy in the Baltic states. Some politicians, military and experts started to see Russia as a direct threat to the Baltic states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. The potential crisis scenarios that were discussed included a wide spectrum of threats, ranging from conventional aggression to unconventional threats such as information warfare, cyber-attacks, sabotage, the instigation of minority protests, up to economic pressure or even the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Meanwhile the Baltic states’ defence ministries have not ruled out the threat of armed aggression, but they consider it to be unlikely. In response to Russia’s activities, the Baltic states have stepped up efforts to increase their own military potential and to have NATO establish a permanent presence of allied forces on their territories. Lithuania has implemented the furthest-reaching changes in its armed forces, followed by Latvia, while in Estonia a tendency towards continuation has prevailed.

(1) Increased military spending. Reacting to the Russian intervention in Ukraine, in 2014 Lithuania and Latvia committed themselves to gradually increase their defence budgets to reach 2% of the GDP in 2020.[10] These decisions were a step towards ending the five-year period in which their armed forces were underfinanced (see Appendix 2). Estonia has since 2012 maintained its defence spending at the level of 2% of GDP, in compliance with NATO recommendations. In 2015, the rate of economic growth in the Baltic states enabled them to increase their defence spending, which amounts to €425 million in the case of Lithuania, €254 million in Latvia and €412 million in Estonia (up by 50%, 14.9% and 7.3% respectively, compared to 2014).[11] This upward trend will continue in 2016.

(2) Faster modernisation of the armed forces. Higher defence spending will enable the Baltic states to step up investments in new armament and military equipment, and reduce delays in the implementation of programmes to modernise the armed forces (including the mechanisation of infantry and the strengthening of the anti-tank, artillery and air defence potential). In 2014–2015 the Baltic states acquired heavy equipment: Estonia bought 44 CV-9035NL infantry fighting vehicles from the Netherlands, Latvia bought 123 CVR(T) armoured vehicles from the United Kingdom, and Lithuania acquired 21 PzH 2000 self-propelled howitzers from Germany. Contrary to the media narrative, those procurements were not a response to the annexation of Crimea, as preparations to make them had started many years before. However, the Lithuanian purchase of Polish GROM man-portable air-defence systems in 2014 (€37.6 million from non-budget funding) was a direct response to the events in Crimea. As Russia has been developing its capability to project power, the Baltic states have stepped up investments in reconnaissance, early warning systems and stronger airspace surveillance. Latvia has decided to purchase three medium-range TPS-77 Multi-Role Radars (MRR) in October 2015, to complement the three AN/TPS-77 radars it already has in place.[12]

(3) Changes in the size, structure and training of the armed forces. In view of the manning deficits in many military units, Lithuania and Latvia decided to increase the total number of troops. In May 2015 Lithuania reintroduced conscription for a period of five years (nine months of military service, with priority for volunteers). The defence ministry is planning to train 3000 conscripts a year. This will enable it to increase the number of troops (to double the present number by 2021), rebuild the reserve system and form a second infantry brigade. The newly recruited soldiers will mainly be assigned to the Iron Wolf mechanised infantry brigade (to reach manning levels of 70–90% by 2020).[13] In Latvia the Defence Ministry is planning to increase the number of regular troops from 5300 to 6000 in 2018, and the number of volunteer territorial defence forces  from 8000 to 12,000 members (by 2020). Estonia has increased the number of personnel in the air force (from 250 to 400) and the navy (from 200 to 300), and has been consistently developing its TDFs (from around 24,000 to 30,000 members in 2022).

As part of their reaction to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the Baltic states announced that they would raise the level of combat readiness of some units in order to be able to respond more rapidly to unconventional threats (the seizure of public administration buildings, attacks against critical infrastructures, infiltration by armed groups across borders). Lithuania has been the most active in this regard. In 2014 it assigned 2500 troops to a rapid reaction component of its armed forces (the two best-equipped battalions of the land forces, 800 troops each, with air force and special force support and logistic backing). The Lithuanian Defence Ministry has stated that some units are ready for deployment within two hours of receiving orders.[14] Latvia has announced that it would raise the level of combat readiness of some parts of its territorial defence forces by 2018 (one company from each battalion, 18 in total). In Estonia, the TDF staff has been raising the number of members who keep weapons at home (the target proportion is 70%). Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been investing in special forces, whose rapid reaction may prevent an escalation of conflict in the event of provocation or sabotage (without the need to involve regular troops).

The Baltic states have also updated their military exercise scenarios. These now include tasks concerning the prevention of unconventional threats such as urban warfare, defence of critical infrastructures, co-operation with local authorities, airborne assault and elimination of saboteurs by special forces. The Baltic states have started testing some elements of partial mobilisation of reserves, as in the case of Estonia’s Sill military exercise (May 2015), in which 7000 reservists were called to participate.

(4) Development of military infrastructures. The Baltic states have increased investments in the development of military infrastructures and logistics (with support from NATO, especially the United States). They have done this in order to address their limited capacity to accept allied troops and equipment (Host Nation Support, HNS). Those limitations have constituted an important obstacle to the implementation of plans to strengthen the Alliance’s eastern flank, as agreed at the NATO summit in Newport (including an intensification of military drills). The main work included the modernisation of air bases (Šiauliai, Lielvārde, Ämari), military barracks and depots, and expansion of military training areas (Pabradė, Rukla, Ādaži, Kuusalu, Tapa).[15] The conflict in Ukraine has led to an acceleration of the implementation of key projects: the early opening of the air base in Ämari, Estonia, for the needs of the Baltic Air Policing mission (BAP, April 2014) is a case in point.


Outlook for the future

(1) Prospects for the Baltic states’ security policy. In the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, the Baltic states will build up the potential of their armed forces in order to increase capacity to defend their own territories, while seeking a strengthening of collective defence within NATO. At the same time Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will be unable to give up their participation in foreign missions. Their involvement in out-of-area operations strengthens their position within the Alliance, and enables them to build up their image as reliable allies (especially in the relations with the USA). Since no large NATO operations are currently underway, the Estonian platoon taking part in the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon is at this moment the largest foreign contingent currently deployed by a Baltic state. In view of the Ukrainian conflict, the Baltic states will seek closer military co-operation with the United States, which they see as their key ally and guarantor of security. The Baltic states will also seek greater military presence of European NATO members.

The main objective of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia at NATO’s Warsaw summit  (July 2016) will be to obtain guarantees of the permanent presence of allied forces on their territory. In May 2015 the commanders-in-chief of the Baltic states’ armed forces called on the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe to deploy brigade-sized forces on the territories of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (one battalion per country). At present, the United States provides a persistent rotational presence in the Baltic states as part of the Atlantic Resolve operation (one company in each of the Baltic states). Germany and the United Kingdom have committed themselves to deploying rotational forces in the Baltic states and Poland for longer periods and on a regular basis.[16] Meanwhile, the European allies have been deploying rotational forces on an ad hoc basis, for one- or two-month drills.[17] Since there are no plans to establish any permanent NATO bases in the Baltic states, the latter will seek the establishment of a schedule of continuous rotations of land forces contingents modelled on the BAP mission, to ensure a persistent presence of forces larger than the single companies from the US deployments. Moreover, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are in advanced talks with the United States concerning the pre-positioning of several hundred items of US military equipment (including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers). The pre-positioning will begin in December 2015. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have declared that NATO Force Integration Units (NFIU), tasked with co-ordinating Host Nation Support, will become fully operational in the first half of 2016. It is also important for the Baltic states to ensure that NATO continues to financially support the development of their military infrastructures and the strengthening of airspace surveillance, and maintains the reinforced BAP mission (which consists of 8 fighters at present).

The sense of threat from Russia will contribute to a stepping-up of trilateral military co-operation between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, albeit only to a limited extent. On the one hand, the Baltic states have been developing closer co-operation in some areas, such as cyber-security, information sharing and HNS exercises, and in 2016 a joint battalion of the Baltic states (BALTBAT, intended for peacekeeping operations) will come on duty as part of the NATO Response Force. On the other hand, however, the financial shortages and disparate priorities according to which individual Baltic countries have been developing their armed forces, and in some case also their mutual distrust, will limit the scope for co-operation between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The withdrawal of Estonia from the BALTRON joint mine countermeasures squadron in January 2015 is a case in point. Co-operation in co-ordinating the three states’ armed forces modernisation programmes and joint acquisitions of armament and military equipment is lacking, as demonstrated by the tendering procedures now in progress. The Baltic states have been mechanising their infantries in co-operation with different Western partners, who offer different types of armoured vehicles. They have also made separate acquisitions of man-portable air-defence systems and other types of equipment. The only exception is the purchase of ammunition for the Carl Gustav recoilless rifles jointly with Poland and the Czech Republic (via the European Defence Agency).

(2) Development of the Baltic states’ armed forces. Even with considerably increased defence expenditures, purchases of armament and military equipment and the recruitment of new soldiers, the Baltic states will not be able to fully compensate for the negative changes in their security environment. Therefore, the efforts to strengthen the conventional potential of the armed forces of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will be complemented in the coming years by measures to improve these countries’ ability to host allied support and enhance their reconnaissance and early warning capabilities. At the same time, the Baltic states will focus on preventing unconventional threats. As a result, the importance of special forces will increase, insofar as they are capable of delivering an immediate response to crisis situations.

The dynamics of change within the Baltic states’ armed forces will largely depend on the economic situation, which will in turn determine the size of defence budgets. Demographic trends (ongoing depopulation) will also be an important factor, limiting the Baltic states’ ability to man their military units. Some of the reforms may prove to be overly ambitious, or their implementation may have to be spread over time (for example, this concerns plans to increase defence spending and the number of troops in Lithuania and Latvia), with regard also to the electoral cycle. Nonetheless, the Russian aggression in Ukraine has contributed to a boost in defence investments in the Baltic states. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia at present have the political will to systematically develop their military potentials, and there is also rising public interest in state security issues (which has been manifesting itself in the expansion of the volunteer territorial defence forces, among other phenomena). The changes currently observed in the armed forces of the Baltic states will be persistent, at least within the timeframe of the coming decade, even if the Russian-Ukrainian conflict deescalates.



Military infrastructures in the Baltic states


Appendix 1

Armed forces of the Baltic states (2014)





Armed forces


Professional soldiers – 7900

Active reserve (TDF) – 3800


Professional soldiers – 5310

Active reserve (TDF) – 7850

Conscription with professional component

Conscripts – 2500

Professional soldiers – 3250

Active reserve (TDF) – 14,800

Land forces

3500 soldiers

3850 soldiers

5300 soldiers


600 soldiers

550 soldiers

200 soldiers

Air force

1000 soldiers

310 soldiers

250 soldiers


Special forces (n.d.),

Territorial defence forces as part of the land forces

(4500 members including 700 permanent professional personnel)

Special forces (n.d.),

Territorial defence forces (8450 members including 600 permanent professional personnel)

Territorial defence forces

(14,800 members)




- 3 × T-55 (training)


Armoured vehicles

- 126 × M113A1

- 4 × M113 (recovery)

- 8 × MT-LB (engineering)

- 8 × Cougar (on lease from the USA)

- 56 × XA-180 Sisu

- 40 × XA-188 Sisu

- 21 × BTR-80

- 7 × Mamba

Anti-tank weapons

- Javelin anti-tank guided missiles (n.d., 10 mounted on all-terrain vehicles)

- Carl Gustav recoilless rifles (n.d.)

- Spike long range anti-tank guided missiles


Carl Gustav recoilless rifles (n.d.)

- 130 × anti-tank cannon (90 mm)

- Milan anti-tank guided missiles (n.d.)

- IMI MAPATS anti-tank guided missiles (n.d.)

- Carl Gustav recoilless rifles (n.d.)

- 130 × Pvpj 1110 recoilless rifle

- 30 × M40 recoilless rifle

Anti-aircraft weapons

- man-portable air-defence systems (Stinger and RBS-70) (n.d.)


- RBS-70 man-portable air-defence systems (n.d.)

- 24 × L/70 anti-aircraft cannon (40 mm)

- Mistral man-portable air-defence systems (n.d.)


- 18 × M101 howitzer (105 mm)

- 5 × 2B11 mortar (120 mm)

- 10 × M/41D mortar (120 mm)

- 15 × Krh/40 mortar (on M113A1)


- 23 × K-53 field cannon (100 mm)

- 28 × L-16 mortar (81 mm)

- 25 × M120 mortar (120 mm)

- 42 × D-30 howitzer (122 mm)

- 24 × FH-70 howitzer (155 mm)

- 41 × B455 mortar (81 mm)

- 10 × NM95 mortar (81 mm)

- 80 × M252 mortar (81 mm)

- 14 × 2B11 mortar (120 mm)

- 165 × M/41D mortar (120 mm)

Mine warfare vessels




Patrol vessels




Support vessels





- 3 × C-27J transport aircraft

- 2 × L-410 transport aircraft

- 1 × L-39ZA training aircraft

4 × An-2 transport aircraft


2 × An-2 transport aircraft



8 × SAR Mi-8 transport helicopter

- 4 × Mi-17 multi-task helicopter

- 2 × PZL Mi-2 transport helicopter

4 × R-44 transport helicopter


Appendix 2

Military expenditures in the Baltic states in the years 2014–2016 (% of GDP and nominal value in US$ millions and € millions) according to SIPRI and figures from the Defence Ministries
















% of GDP

US$ million























1.1% 425*




% of GDP

US$ million





























% of GDP

US$ million




























* figures in € million



[1] G. Miniotaitė, ‘Lithuania’s Evolving Security and Defence Policy: Problems and Prospects’, in R. Lopata, J. Novagrockienè, G. Vitkus (ed.), Lithuanian Annual Strategic Review 2006, Military Academy of Lithuania 2007, p. 179.

[2] J. Kozakiewicz, ‘Polityka bezpieczeństwa państw bałtyckich’ [Security policy of the Baltic states], Instytut Studiów Strategicznych, Kraków 2003, p. 105-247.

[3] The Russians sought to have the withdrawal of their troops from the Baltic states linked with the question of respecting the rights of the Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia.

[4] Despite obstacles, since the mid-1990s the Baltic states have been developing trilateral military co-operation. This includes preparations to participation in foreign missions (BALTBAT), airspace surveillance (BALTNET), mine countermeasures (BALTRON) and military education (BALTDEFCOL).

[5] E. Männik, ‘The Evolution of Baltic Security and Defence Strategies’, in T. Lawrence, T. Jermalavicius (ed.), Apprenticeship, Partnership, Membership: Twenty Years of Defence Development in the Baltic States, p. 30.

[6] In Iraq, soldiers from the Baltic states served in three sectors: the US central zone (an Estonian platoon), the Polish zone (a Lithuanian platoon and a Latvian company) and the British zone (a Lithuanian platoon). In Afghanistan successive rotations of soldiers involved company-sized forces. The Lithuanian contingent commanded the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the province of Ghor, while the Latvian contingent was part of the Norwegian PRT in the Maymana province and the Estonian contingent served under British command in the Helmand province. P. Paljak, ‘Participation In International Military Operations’, in T. Lawrence, T. Jermalavicius (ed.), op. cit., p. 224.

[7] J. Gotkowska, O. Osica (ed.), ‘Closing the gap? Military co-operation from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea’, OSW Report, Warsaw 2012, p. 52-55, http://www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/closing_the_gap_net_0.pdf

[8] National Security Concept of Estonia (2010), http://www.kaitseministeerium.ee/en/objectives-activities/basic-national-defence-documents; The National Security Concept of the Republic of Latvia (2011), State Defence Concept (Latvia, 2012), http://www.mod.gov.lv/Par_aizsardzibas_nozari/Politikas_planosana/Koncepcijas.aspx; National security strategy (Lithuania, 2012), The Military Strategy Of the Republic of Lithuania (2012), http://www.kam.lt/en/defence_policy_1053/important_documents.html

[9] In the years 2007–2010 the defence budgets of the Baltic states shrank by around 40% (in Latvia by over half in 2007–2012). The response of the Baltic states was also limited as a result of their commitments related to participation in foreign missions.

[10] Currently both governments are planning to accomplish this objective in the year 2018. In 2014 Lithuania spent 0.8% of GDP on Defence, and Latvia 0.9% of GDP.

[11] ‘Media backgrounder, Military spending in Europe in the wake of the Ukraine crisis’, SIPRI, 13 April 2015, http://www.sipri.org/media/website-photos/milex-media-backgrounder-2015

[12] After 2016, three next-generation 3D long-range radars will be installed in Lithuania (funded by the NATO Communications and Information Agency and the NATO Support and Procurement Agency as part of the strengthening of the NATO Integrated Air Defence System), to replace the post-Soviet radars. Estonia has two Ground Master 403 long-range radars (purchased jointly with Finland in 2009).

[13] ‘Number of professional soldiers in Lithuania to double over next five years’, The Baltic Times, 5 June 2015, http://www.baltictimes.com/number_of_professional_soldiers_in_lithuania_to_double_over_next_five_years/; Krašto apsaugos ministro 2015–2020 m. gairės (Guidelines of the Minister of National Defence 2015-2020), Ministry of National Defence (Lithuania), 27 January 2015, http://www.kam.lt/lt/veikla_576/planavimo_dokumentai_579.html

[14] In 2014 Lithuania amended its law on the use of the military force in peacetime. In certain cases, the president may authorise the use of the armed forces on the territory of Lithuania without seeking parliament’s approval; parliament may sustain or override that decision. The changes are intended to shorten the reaction times of the armed forces in the event of a domestic threat.

[15] In 2015 Estonia allocated around €40 million (to 2019) to HNS, and subsequently decided to create a new training area in Soodla (for the needs of the newly-purchased infantry fighting vehicles).

[16] In 2015 Germany deployed 220 soldiers to Lithuania for three months (April-July) and 260 soldiers to Latvia for three months (August-November). In October 2015 the United Kingdom announced that it would send one rotational company (around 100 soldiers) to the Baltic states and Poland (three-month exercise cycles in each country).

[17] So far served by Hungary, Denmark, Portugal and Belgium (together with Luxembourg) with around 140–270 soldiers.