VILNIUS, Lithuania — Three Baltic nations are laser-focused on one goal: defending their independence and territorial integrity.
The chief of the National Guard Bureau heard the same message in visits to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as part of a five-nation trip to recognize and strengthen National Guard security relationships with Eastern European and Baltic nations threatened in the wake of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
"I am here to reinforce how important these partnerships are," said Army Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson. "Security cooperation is one of the most important tasks the National Guard undertakes, and these mutually beneficial partnerships promote both the readiness and teamwork of our respective military forces."
Almost 30 years ago, a seed was planted in the Baltics that grew to become the 93-nation Defense Department's National Guard State Partnership Program.
In 1993, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania each partnered with a state National Guard and became the first three nations to join the nascent SPP.
Three decades later, what started as individual relationships with Maryland, Michigan and Pennsylvania is maturing to a regional grouping: all three countries have access to the training and capabilities of all three states and — through them — to the expertise and resources of the 450,000-strong National Guard across all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia.
"As the Baltic nations' military capabilities have matured, so has each partnership," Hokanson said.
The SPP contributed to each nation's preparations to join NATO. Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian troops each co-deployed multiple times to Iraq and/or Afghanistan with their National Guard partners. The SPP continues to assist as each nation’s armed forces continuously improve their professionalism and modernize their military equipment.
The benefit of a strong partnership works in both directions, and each of these nations brings their own benefits to boost the regions combined capabilities:
- Estonia is particularly strong in cyber defense, motivated by a 2007 Russian cyberattack that crippled the entire country. It hosts a NATO Cyber Defense Center of Excellence and is the leading member of the alliance for cyber security issues. The Maryland National Guard's Cyber Operations Group has both contributed to and learned from the Estonians.
- Conscription is still part of Estonia's and Lithuania's military design; Latvia has an all-volunteer force.
- Estonia also hosts the Baltic Defence College, a joint, senior leader military education institution.
- Latvia hosts the NATO Center of Excellence for Strategic Communications, a vital resource given Russia’s relentless misinformation campaign.
- Latvia has a proficient Joint Tactical Air Controller capability and was the first NATO country outside the United States to develop JTACs.
- In 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet Republic to declare independence, beginning the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
- In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lithuania donated personal protective equipment to Pennsylvania as a token of appreciation for their enduring partnership.
Each nation borders Russia, and they share a painful history of Soviet occupation. And the tactics being used by Russia in the current war in Ukraine echo those of the tactics they used in the Baltics during the 1940s. These include brutal assaults, mass deportations and the intense destruction of towns with artillery fire.
These three nations have contributed generously to Ukraine's ongoing defense of its homeland. Among other responses, they also have blocked Russian media broadcasting in their countries. Ukrainian flags, posters, murals and other displays of support are common in all three countries, and some troops wear Ukrainian flags under their own flag on their uniforms.
During Hokanson's visits, he met with U.S. ambassadors and host-nation senior defense and military leaders. In Estonia, he joined a roundtable discussion at the Baltic Defence College and toured their cyber defense operations. In Latvia, he visited troops at the Adazi training center, including a multination NATO division headquarters.
From those he met with, Hokanson was met with clear messages of support for Ukraine, such as "Ukrainians are defending our values" and "there is no way we are going back [to Russian domination.] We would rather die than go back." Hokanson reassured his counterparts about the U.S. ironclad commitment to NATO allies — and the National Guard's commitment to its security cooperation partners.
On the last day of one visit, Hokanson visited the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania in Vilnius. The center is housed in a building used first by the KGB, then the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation, and again by the KGB again during the Soviet era. Visitors can tour the cells where Lithuanians were held, tortured and executed.
Many Lithuanians still carry vivid memories of the consequences of the events of 1991, including the 23 who were killed and the 900 who were wounded defending the country's newfound independence.
Memories of events like this are shared across the Baltics. And it's these shared memories that fuel a regional focus for action over complacency in regard to Russia's actions in Ukraine.