Germany said on Monday that it is prepared to station a Bundeswehr brigade permanently in Lithuania. This does nothing to change Estonia and the U.K.'s plan where most of the British brigade designated for the defense of Estonia will only arrive in case of an emergency.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that the decision to station a brigade's worth or around 4,000 German troops permanently in Lithuania does not constitute a change of heart. But there have been debates in all Baltic countries on whether allied troops meant to secure NATO's eastern flank should be permanently on location or whether prepositioned equipment and a smaller contingent of troops, with the rest of the unit prepared to move out at a moment's notice, suffices.
The Lithuanians have been calling for the former option from the first, said Tomas Jermalavičius, research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn.
"Last year when the Lithuanian president and the German chancellor made a joint statement, there were different interpretations of the meaning of that statement. The Germans adhered to the interpretation of forward deployment more inline with what the Brits have agreed with Estonia. That it would be forward deployed only on exercise or in case of a major crisis. The Lithuanians, at least some, vehemently disagreed and claimed that the whole communiqué was talking about the forward deployment of a full brigade."
This means the Lithuanians got what they had been asking for. But it seems Pistorius' message has taken some in Berlin by surprise, Jermalavičius said.
"Some of course welcomed this development as proof of Zeitenwende (a security and defense policy turn phrased by Chancellor Olaf Scholz – ed.) and proof of German commitment to collective defense. Some even said that Germany made the transition from what they called a ghost brigade to a Berlin brigade. That it becomes a real prospect. There were also some caution voices saying perhaps Germany will not be capable of fulfilling this commitment," the analyst said.
The research fellow added that Germany has a lot of other NATO commitments.
"Collective defense more than protecting Lithuania"
That is why Germany's promise comes with two conditions. Lithuania needs to have the necessary infrastructure for hosting the Germans – training areas, barracks and accommodation for soldiers' families etc. Secondly, the German brigade in Lithuania needs to fit into updated NATO defense plans for the Baltic region.
"Boris Pistorius banks a lot of his political credibility on this commitment. After all, this is the largest German foreign deployment since the Second World War. That is really significant for them. There is political will, but it will have to overcome some bureaucratic inertia and serious bottlenecks in the Bundeswehr, including the availability of personnel and equipment."
Therefore, it will take some time for the German brigade to arrive in Lithuania. The German Defense Ministry plans to ready the brigade by 2025 and the Lithuanians to finish building the necessary infrastructure by 2026.
No British brigade permanently in Estonia
Germany's decision will not change Estonia's plans and those of the U.K. Estonia's agreement with the Brits is different, Madis Roll, head of the NATO and EU department of the Estonian Defense Ministry, explained.
"Lithuania's request has always had a political dimension. They are still talking about deterrence through presence. Our approach has been to achieve deterrence through real military capacity."
The commander of the EDF has said that the allied brigade does not have to be physically located in Estonia, Roll suggested. The main thing is for the whole brigade to be capable of moving to Estonia quickly and at very short notice. Roll admitted that Germany and Lithuania have managed to hash out the details quicker than Estonia and the Brits, while a specific brigade has been designated for the defense of Estonia.
"They have already set up forward headquarters for their brigade in Estonia. Brig. Gen. Harris is in Estonia. We also have the division advisory body, helping us set up our own division. Other aspects are still being negotiated in terms of what else should be prepositioned. What kind of equipment and how much of it needs to be stored in Estonia."
More details should be available after the Vilnius summit in two weeks' time, Roll said. Jermalavičius said that the agreement between Estonia and the U.K. is a sensible compromise.
"The Estonian and British position operates on the basis that in the event of a crisis even an entire brigade might not be sufficient. It is all about having sufficient capabilities and forces held at sufficiently high readiness to be deployed."
Militarily speaking, the most important thing is to have a feasible plan, as opposed to the physical location of troops, the researcher emphasized.
"But politically this boots on the ground seems to be a very important notion in Lithuania, which is geographically in a little bit more of a precarious position given the Suwalki Gap, Königsberg [Kaliningrad] exclave next door and Belarus basically becoming an extension of the Russian Federation in the military sense. Also geographically the capital city being so close to the border."
That is why Lithuanian politicians and public have wished for permanent allied presence. The ICDS recently analyzed the U.K.'s role in defending the Baltics.
"Beginning of June we gauged the mood in London. In London there is no desire to increase the commitment beyond what was promised in the roadmap signed by Estonia and the U.K. previously. It seems London was caught a little bit of guard by Berlin's announcement. That certainly will lead to some pressure on the U.K. to match the German step in some ways."
But Jermalavičius suggested that the Brits are not keen to ramp up their contribution. The Brits' message going into the Vilnius summit is that they have fulfilled almost all pledges made to defend the Baltics. It would be difficult to do more, take on other obligations, considering the capacity of the British armed forces. Therefore, it is unlikely their plans will change, the researcher said.
"Unless there is some very high political intervention. A very high level political move that would change the terms within London's MOD bureaucracy."
Editor: Marcus Turovski