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 each country, part of a five-nation trip to recognize and strengthen National Guard security cooperation relationships with Eastern European and Baltic nations threatened in the wake of Russia’s brutal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
“I am here to reinforce how important these partnerships are,” Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson said. “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, a seed that grew beyond the imaginings of the visionary leaders who nurtured it to become the 93-nation Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program.
In 1993, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania each partnered with a state National Guard, the first three nations to join the nascent SPP.
Three decades on, what started as individual relationships with Maryland, Michigan and Pennsylvania is maturing into 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 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.
Each nation is, of course, also unique:
- 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 cybersecurity issues. The Maryland National Guard’s Cyber Operations Group has 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 shares a painful history of Soviet occupation. Today, Russians brutalize and kill Ukrainians, conduct mass deportations and destroy towns with artillery – the same tactics they used in the Baltics in the 1940s.
The three nations have generously contributed to Ukraine’s defense of its homeland and 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 his visits to the three countries, Hokanson met with U.S. ambassadors and the host nations’ senior defense and military leaders. He joined a roundtable discussion in Estonia at the Baltic Defence College and toured cyber defense operations. In Latvia, he visited troops at the Adazi training center, including a multination NATO division headquarters.
“Ukrainians are defending our values,” Hokanson was told during his visits.
And he was told, “A Russian tank killed in Ukraine won’t come here: This is our war.”
And, “There is no way we are going back [to Russian domination.] We would rather die than go back.”
Hokanson reassured his counterparts about America’s ironclad commitment to its NATO allies and the National Guard’s commitment to its security cooperation partners. As if to underline the point, while he was there, Vermont National Guard F-35 Lightning multirole fighter jets streaked low along the Baltic coast on a NATO mission defending the skies of Europe.
If those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it, that may explain the existence of the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania in Vilnius, which Hokanson visited on the last day of his trip.
The center is in a building used first by the KGB, then the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation, and then by the KGB again during the Soviet era. Visitors can tour the cells where Lithuanians were held, tortured and executed.
Lithuanians died as recently as 1991: 23 killed and 900 wounded defending the country’s newfound independence.
Across the Baltics, the stories handed down by past generations are too horrific, and the memories of many still living too vivid to permit complacency.