When last the invaders came, the fighting people of Eastern Europe hid away. That’s not to say they did nothing – it’s just that they knew they couldn’t face the awesome power of the Wehrmacht and the SS, and then the Red Army, out in the field in a proper battle. They had seen what panzers and stukas could do to even the bravest of soldiers, like at the Battle of the Bzura, near Łódź, where ferocious German bombing had swept away the lives of 20,000 Poles in September 1939. Instead, the soldiers fled to their woods and wild places, and began one of the bitterest irregular campaigns of the 20th century. By the time it was over, 13,000 so-called ‘Forest Brothers’ had died in Lithuania alone. In Poland, one officer fought the Nazis and then the Soviets for 24 years – over half his life – before finally being killed by communist militiamen in 1963.

The Europe of today, of course, has been transformed immeasurably since those terrible years of Nazi and Soviet occupation. Rather than ambushing patrols and sabotaging railways, the militaries of Poland and the Baltics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – stand proud, safe in the knowledge that their weapons and armour can keep them safe. Poland, for instance, now has over 1,000 tanks as its disposal, among them the latest German-built Leopard 2PL models from a factory in Düsseldorf. Lithuania, for its part, recently put in an order for 200 Oshkosh L-ATV armoured cars direct from the manufacturer in Wisconsin, US. And then there’s the funding. The three Baltic states, countries with a collective population smaller than London, are receiving $169m in foreign military aid from the US alone in 2021. To put that into perspective, the entire military budget of Estonia in 2019 was only $760m.

Since they joined the alliance around the turn of the millennium, Nato has been fundamental to the security of Poland and the Baltics, from equipment to funding to training. Yet, if those early years of Atlanticist collaboration were lived in the warm embrace of Pax Americana, the alliance today is arguably on far wobblier ground. After four years of being undermined by President Trump, who among other things grumbled that his country was paying for the lion’s share of European defence, there are increasing questions about who should actually be in charge of the continent’s defence effort. With Russian aggression increasing east of the Vistula, these newest members of the Western alliance need Nato more than ever – even as they develop closer links with their fellow Europeans.

“Membership in the most powerful military alliance in the world has given Poland […] security guarantees in the form of Article Five of the Washington Treaty.”

Colonel Witold Bartoszek


Foreign military aid to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from the US in 2021.

ABC News

Leopards changing their spots

They say the past is a foreign country. When he was born, in 1973, Colonel Witold Bartoszek really did live in one. Known as the Polish People’s Republic, his land was little more than a communist puppet. It may have had a nominally independent army, but its borders also hosted around 66,000 heavily armed Soviet houseguests. Anything Warsaw did, it had to first check with Moscow. How things have changed. Bartoszek’s country is now the democratic Republic of Poland, while the man himself is the acting chief of the logistics division in a sovereign military. And as far as Bartoszek is concerned, Nato is central to it all. “Membership in the most powerful military alliance in the world,” he says, “has given Poland not only security guarantees in the form of Article Five of the Washington Treaty, but has also led to an increase in the position and prestige of our country on the international stage.”

With Article Five at their backs – which states that an attack against one Nato member is an attack against all – it’s little wonder this is argument shadowed by Lieutenant General Leonids Kalniņš, head of the Latvian armed forces. Even before his country joined Nato in 2004, Kalniņš says Latvia was looking at how Western countries were developing their military capabilities. And since then, he continues, the alliance has proved “absolutely important” to the nation’s security. Look at how deep this collaboration goes and their enthusiasm makes sense. There are Leopards and L-ATVs, of course, but even more basic equipment comes from the west. In 2018, for instance, Latvia announced it was replacing its standard AK-4 rifle with the G36, made in Germany. Crucially, these new weapons are fitted with Nato-standard 5.56mm rounds. Neighbouring Lithuania, for its part, sources all of its handguns, and all but one of its eight models of sniper rifle, from Nato countries.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, Eastern European armies are increasingly reliant on Nato for the most sophisticated military hardware. Two years ago, it was announced that a squadron of American MQ-9 Reaper drones would be stationed at the Mirosławiec air base in Polish Pomerania. Around the same time, their US benefactors supplied Bartoszek and his colleagues with a plethora of air defence systems – including state-of-the-art Patriot missiles – in a deal worth $4.75bn. And sometimes, adds Lukaš Dyěka, you even see systems going the other way. As the academic at the Baltic Defence College notes, a trio of Estonian and Latvian companies recently attracted interest to sell UAVs to an unnamed Nato ally.

Into the woods

If you want to panic a politician or officer on Europe’s eastern fringe, you could do worse than whisper three words into their ear: ‘little green men’. That might sound distinctly unthreatening – or even extraterrestrial – but these people and all they represent have already spread chaos in one European country and could yet hurt many more. In 2014, wearing unmarked military uniforms, with masks covering their faces and armed with Russian guns, these soldiers quickly occupied key installations in Crimea, effectively returning the peninsula to Moscow after 20 years as part of Ukraine. Yet because these men weren’t wearing Russian insignia, Vladimir Putin could throw up his hands in mock confusion – even as he sent others to join the fray.

Similar dangers exist wherever you find a sizable Russian minority. Estonia, for example, hosts over 300,000 ethnic Russians – many of whom still haven’t taken up citizenship and feel badly treated by the Baltic majority. To put it another way: better guns and faster missiles are all well and good, but what does collaboration between Nato’s eastern and western flanks actually look like on the ground? And how are the allies preparing for unfriendly arrivals from the east, either of the little green man variety or formal invaders?

Kalniņš, in answering, is blunt. Russian aggression, he says, is his army’s main priority. “Together with our allies, we monitor what’s happening in our neighbours 24/7.” Bartoszek agrees, reeling off a list of joint initiatives to improve combat readiness. Notable here is the Nato Force Integration Unit in the northern Polish town of Bydgoszcz, whose 40 personnel, together with similar bases across Eastern Europe, are busy detailing transport routes and supply lines in the event of a foreign assault.

Clearly, there’s plenty to do before the guns are fired in anger. For one thing, Dyěka describes how armies are moving weapons caches closer to combat units, as well as redeveloping bases inherited from the Soviet Union. Logistical training is another piece of the puzzle. Though the pandemic has put paid to the most ambitious schemes, June 2020 still saw major manoeuvres in Poland and the Baltic Sea by 19 Nato armies, including the US, the UK and France. Among other things, the training encompassed river crossings and airborne assaults. Bartoszek emphasises that the aim of these exercises is to stretch supply lines and get quartermasters used to genuine operational conditions. “We’re exercising our combat elements out of training areas, with organic logistics, as close to real environments as possible.”

And what if a long-feared Russian invasion really does come, either through Belarus or directly into the Baltics? Here both Kalniņš and Bartoszek are reluctant to divulge operational secrets, but troop movements may shed some light. Nato recently expanded its so-called Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in Eastern Europe, expanding it to four battalion-size battlegroups. That’s nowhere near enough to block a sustained attack – especially, says Dyěka, given the region’s lack of natural obstacles. The idea, then, is probably to use these battlegroups as a stopgap, holding the fort until a proper Nato army can muster in the west. If Nato artillery can hamper Russian bases in Kaliningrad – a German enclave between Poland and Lithuania until 1945 – all the better.

Dyěka even suggests that, instead of pitched battles and desperate sieges, it might make sense for the EFP to borrow the partisan tactics of old. “All three Baltic States are building their militaries with a heavy – sometimes emotional – focus on the lessons learned from the Forest Brothers,” he says. “By default, they don’t tie their defence to urban areas, and the value of these symbols is not as highly appreciated as in other states.” Estonia, for its part, is taking this principle even further. Rather than defending physical territory, Tallinn plans to take the entire state online in the event of a Russian invasion, helping citizens stay in touch with their leaders remotely even as their streets and towns are under foreign occupation.


Estonia’s military budget in 2021.

Defense News


The value of the arms deal that saw Poland purchase state-of-the-art Patriot missiles from the US, among other things.

BBC News

“By default, [the Baltic states] don’t tie their defence to urban areas.”

Lukáš Dyěka

A united Europe?

As he entered the White House earlier this year, President Biden proclaimed that “America is back”. It’s easy to see what he means, especially after the unorthodox foreign policy of his predecessor. Even so, between the rise of China and the constant threat of Islamic terrorism, you have to wonder if the new president is really as committed to the future of Nato as his Cold War forebears. Kalniņš – perhaps unsurprisingly given his country’s geopolitical position – is quick to dismiss the suggestion. For Latvia, he says, there can only be one military partner: Nato.

Bartoszek is more ambiguous. Though he highlights the many logistical and military benefits of Nato, he suggests that the European Union might play a role in defence too. “In my opinion, Nato and the EU should play complementary and mutually reinforcing roles in supporting international peace and security.” Certainly, Poland is working hard to build partnerships outside of purely Nato structures. All the same, with a permanent US military presence in Poland announced in July 2020, the Nato star is unlikely to disappear from the region anytime soon, even as memories of older struggles continue to warn and inspire.