Aug 09, 2023

Doubling Down on the Baltics

Germany’s announcement of its willingness to deploy 4,000 soldiers to Lithuania was a very welcome development. However, there is scope for an even bigger Berlin role in enhancing the Baltic states’ security.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius visits NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group of German troops during the Griffin Lightning military exercise in Pabrade, Lithuania March 7,2023.
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In June, Germany announced it would deploy 4,000 soldiers to Lithuania. This decision, contingent on the required infrastructure being built, came after months of public controversy, including open criticism from Lithuanian officials. The German commitment is among the most ambitious in terms of Baltic security—currently, no other individual allied nation has deployed so many soldiers there. Regardless, the Baltic states would welcome an even more substantial German role in Baltic defense. 

The Baltic-German Heritage

The German decision comes in the wake of intensified defense links with the region. Estonia and Latvia announced a joint procurement of the Germany-made IRIS-T air defense system in May. The eventual protection provided by the system has been dubbed “the Livonia Shield.” Livonia was a medieval confederation created by the Teutonic Knights and the Catholic church in present-day Latvia and Estonia between the 13th and 16th century, and it is worthwhile remembering that heritage.

After the dissolution of the confederation, the Baltic-German nobility retained significant political and economic influence, even under changing overlords. They maintained close links with German lands, thus sustaining a common cultural space that shows notable German influence even to this day. Meanwhile, the East Prussian Memelland, the present-day Klaipėda region, only became part of Lithuania in the 1920s. The story of the Baltic Germans, whose predecessors were integral to the local societies for centuries, ended with World War II—almost all of them left or perished during the war.

The common Baltic-German heritage, however, is barely remembered in today’s Germany. General knowledge of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is marginal. What’s more, for years, the image of the Baltic states among the German political elite seemed to be one of ungrateful Russia haters standing in the way of pragmatic West-Russia relations.

Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Much has changed since February 24, 2022, both in the Baltic states and in Germany, though naturally to different extents. Russia’s war was the most considerable geopolitical shock in decades for the Baltic states. All three became some of the most vocal supporters of Ukraine, both in words and deeds. All three have significantly invested in their defense: All are heading toward defense spending of 3 percent of their gross domestic product, and Latvia decided to reintroduce compulsory military service from mid-2023 (which means that conscripts now serve in all three armed forces).

The promise of the Zeitenwende, announced by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on February 27, 2022, was more than welcome in the Baltic states. They were among the fiercest critics of Germany’s initial response to Russia’s war. Even before Moscow launched its invasion, the Baltic states provided weapons to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Germany offered helmets and other non-lethal assistance. Latvia’s then-Defense Minister Artis Pabriks called German relations with Russia “immoral and hypocritical.”

One-and-a-half-years after Scholz’ Zeitenwende speech, the result of Germany’s “historic turn” is mixed from a Baltics perspective. The overhaul of Germany’s energy sector and liberation from Russian natural gas has exceeded all expectations. Military aid to Ukraine started small but has progressed significantly to include tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery systems, and more. On the diplomatic front, Germany has stood firm in support of Ukraine. All this is well-received in the Baltics. Nevertheless, there is anxiety about the longevity of this change in Germany’s foreign and defense policy.

Disappointment over the Zeitenwende is mostly related to the state of Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr. Though German military equipment is praised—hence the procurement of the IRIS-T by Latvia and Estonia as well as earlier procurements of Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers and Boxer infantry fighting vehicles by Lithuania—the Bundeswehr, unsurprisingly, is not seen as a capable armed force. Not much has changed in this regard this since February 2022.

Although the Baltic defense ministries and armed forces would like to work even more closely with Germany, the latter is not their first choice. The German way of doing things is seen as too slow and too complex—working groups on top of working groups and meeting after meeting. The much smaller and more agile Baltic bureaucracies and militaries are not used to the German approach and thus find it difficult to reciprocate German assistance.

German Soldiers in the Baltics

Germany has led NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroup in Lithuania since 2017. These rotational battlegroups in the Baltic states were long-awaited—for the first 13 years of their NATO membership, the Baltic states were basically NATO allies on paper only. Allied armed forces were present only as a part of the Baltic Air Policing mission, which also includes rotations by the German Luftwaffe, and during military exercises.

In 2022, however, Germany’s leadership of the battlegroup in Lithuania became a notable point of contention. Although Germany’s role has been much appreciated, it came as a disappointment that Germany did not commit until June to considerably increasing its size.

In 2022, Germany already deployed around 350 more soldiers, bringing the total up to approximately 1,000 German soldiers in Lithuania. However, in Lithuania’s reading of the 2022 NATO Madrid Summit Declaration and the joint declaration of the Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda and the German chancellor, Berlin should have upgraded the battalion-sized unit to a brigade-sized force. Germany’s reading until recently differed—while a brigade was indeed assigned to Lithuania, only a part of it had to be based in Lithuania, while the rest remained in Germany.

Though there were differences of opinion among Lithuanian politicians regarding the tactics of addressing this controversy (some had considerably irritated their German counterparts), there was a shared belief that more German soldiers must be based in Lithuania. The recent German U-turn—i.e., the commitment to establish a brigade of around 4,000 German soldiers in Lithuania—came both as a pleasant surprise and a relief.

Favorable Opinions

There is little doubt that public opinion would welcome an even bigger German role, even though Baltic public opinion on Germany and its defense policy has yet to be extensively studied. Given the German military presence in Lithuania, a decent body of data is available there. According to a poll commissioned by the Lithuanian defense ministry at the end of 2022, conducted by Spinter Tyrimai, Poland, Germany, the United States, Latvia, and Estonia were seen as the primary strategic defense partners. Germany topped the list in 2019, being named by 60 percent of the respondents, but was overtaken by Poland in later years (the approval of that country rose to 69 percent in 2022, while approval of Germany decreased slightly to 56 percent).

A survey commissioned by the Lithuanian public broadcaster, conducted by Baltijos Tyrimai in November and December 2022, revealed a similar picture. A total of 82 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Germany, ranking it only behind Poland (with an approval rating of 90 percent) and ahead of Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France.

In July 2022, a sociological study on the (un)friendliest countries to Latvia, conducted by SKDS for Rīga Stradiņš University, found that Germany ranks among Latvia’s perceived friends as well. However, it is at the lower end of the list—behind Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, the United States, Ukraine, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Canada (the latter leads NATO’s eFP battlegroup in Latvia).

To learn more about the public perception of Germany in Latvia, the Center for Geopolitical Studies Riga commissioned a nationally representative survey in May 2023. The results are not surprising. Overall, views of Germany are overwhelmingly positive (63 percent), with 29 percent neutral, and only 6 percent holding a negative view of Germany.

For Estonia, unfortunately, there are no corresponding publicly available polls.

The Future of Baltic-German Relations

In contrast with some other countries, notably the current government in Poland, Baltic expectations vis-à-vis Germany are not based on historical debts. There are no serious discussions about reparations for Nazi atrocities during World War II or similar claims. It is, of course, welcomed by many that German politicians and especially the Russlandversteher (those with an accommodating attitude toward Moscow) admit that their take on Vladimir Putin’s Russia was wrong.

Despite negative experiences in the past, the Baltic states are among those rare places in which a stronger Germany is more than welcome. The Baltic states are keen to see Germany not only as a major political and economic power but also as a more notable and reliable military power that is eventually able to defend itself and its allies.

The visits of Chancellor Scholz to Estonia and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Lithuania in May sent positive signals about the German commitment to Baltic security. But above all, it was the German defense minister’s recent announcement in Lithuania about deploying an entire brigade that not only met, but even exceeded, most expectations. Since the implementation of this decision will not be imminent (expected by 2026, host nation infrastructure allowing; formally, as Berlin has stressed, it also requires approval by NATO planners), anxiety about the German commitment will remain. Germany should remove any doubts that it is on course to station the promised number of soldiers in Lithuania.

Meanwhile, there is scope for more: Germany should explore a more permanent contribution of air and navy forces to the Baltics. It could permanently station some of its military aircraft and vessels in the Baltics—the options include Liepāja port and Lielvārde air base in Latvia. Germany should also further develop the European Sky Shield Initiative, which is praised in the Baltics, and consider launching other cooperative initiatives to benefit the Baltic Sea region.

It should also still be possible to increase awareness in Germany of its common heritage with the Baltic states and promote the German language and culture in the Baltic states more actively. More specifically, engagement among universities and think tanks should be further fostered—there is unused potential for joint research, more exchanges of scholars, and for placing more Baltic-German issues in university curriculums. Such measures will only enhance relations between Germany and the Baltic states, something that is vital for the security of the region.

Māris Andžāns is Director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies Riga and a Fellow at the Academy of International Affairs NRW.