VORU, Estonia — When unidentified aircraft were speeding toward northern Estonia one recent day, British fighter jets stationed nearby scrambled to intercept them. Screaming across the country, they quickly identified the targets: two Russian fighters and a spy plane. It was just the latest confrontation between the West and Russia in a region that has fast become a tripwire for conflict between nuclear superpowers.
In the two years since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the tiny Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have taken an oversize role in facing down Russia’s challenge to the West. The Kremlin has been building up its military along its border with the former Soviet satellites. Western allies of the Baltics, worried that the region is vulnerable, have responded by pouring tanks, warplanes and soldiers into an area slightly larger than Florida. They will commit thousands more troops to the three countries and Poland at a summit starting Friday.
The British decision to leave the European Union makes NATO even more important as an alliance that binds the West together, NATO leaders say, amid concerns that the political and economic turbulence unleashed by the decision will shrink Britain’s outsize role in global affairs. The departure plans come at a critical time of escalation between Russia and the West.
“Uncertainty and unpredictability always create challenges to our security,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview. “It is a more unpredictable situation now than before the U.K. decided to leave.”
Western and Russian warplanes already encounter each other in the Baltic skies nearly every day. A Russian warplane buzzed a U.S. destroyer in April, coming within 30 feet and raising fears of an accident that could quickly escalate into a crisis. Any attack on the Baltics has the potential for far more global danger than Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, since the United States and other members of NATO committed to defend the region when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the military alliance in 2004.
Adding to the fears, Russian leaders now routinely raise their willingness to use nuclear weapons, a habit not seen since the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s. Western leaders shy away from talk of a new Cold War. But Russian and Western officials make clear that they are settling into a confrontation that neither side expects to end quickly.
“There is a much greater sense that we’re dealing with a long-term strategic competition with Russia,” said Alexander Vershbow, deputy secretary general of NATO, the Western military alliance formed during the Cold War to defend against the Soviet Union. “It will be a very dangerous relationship that needs to be managed very carefully going forward,” he said in an interview.
NATO’s new top military leader, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, said as he arrived in the spring that the alliance had to be ready to “fight tonight” against Russia, if necessary. And President Obama quadrupled military spending in Europe in his budget proposal earlier this year, to $3.4 billion.
Russia plans to form three new divisions of its military by the end of the year — tens of thousands of troops — and station them in its westernmost territories, near the Baltics and Poland. Russian President Vladimir Putin has framed it as a simple response to NATO activity.
“We are constantly accused of military activity, but where?” Putin said Thursday. “Only on our own soil. We are supposed to accept as normal the military buildup on our borders.”
The Baltics, which were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and won independence only in 1991, fear they could make a tempting target for a Kremlin that has in recent years taken a revanchist attitude toward its neighbors. If they were attacked and NATO failed to come to their aid, it would break the military alliance, an outcome that would probably delight Putin. He has declared NATO to be one of Russia’s biggest strategic threats.
Western leaders have sought to place enough firepower in the Baltics to deter an attack while avoiding the perception of a military threat to Russia. Many Russian officials say they view the arrival of Western tanks at their frontiers as a security risk. NATO military leaders retort that such fears are exaggerated and that the roughly 2,500 troops that have been sent to the region could do little to harm the vastly larger Russian forces arrayed across the border.
A recent Rand Corp. study that simulated a Russian invasion found that Baltic capitals would be overrun within 60 hours. To change the calculus, the authors recommended a significantly higher Western troop presence in the region than NATO is currently contemplating — seven brigades, more than 30,000 troops. A similar NATO-wide crisis war game in March that simulated an attack from Russia left the West losing to its foe.
Even without a permanent presence in the Baltics, NATO troops have been conducting military exercises throughout the region since the Crimea military operation. Practice for street-to-street combat recently was held in Voru, a sleepy town of 13,000 people 16 miles from the Russian border that is better known as a home for an unusual language dialect than as a future spark plug for world war. An international coalition of troops, including Americans, fought from the outskirts of town into the city center, taking over an old municipal archive, then an abandoned factory and a gas station. The fighting intensified on Paju Street, where 19th-century wooden homes sit in the shadow of a hulking Soviet-era apartment building.
The soldiers fought right past the computer repair shop where Roman Jastrebov, 25, was working on a Saturday morning as his 4-year-old daughter played. He said he was delighted by the war games even if he “almost got shot in the face with a shell.”
“It was like the Fourth of July. It’s like a big playground,” he said.
But he was skeptical that the combat practice would save Estonia if its worst fears of a Russian invasion came to pass.
“It’s not like we’re going to be saved from it if there’s a war. One tank division could take us,” he said.
Others were less happy about the street-to-street fighting that paralyzed the town for hours.
“This is just to scare people,” said Kertu Luisk, 24, a cosmetology trainee whose hair salon was in the thick of the fighting. “To see this kind of show, I’d rather go to the theater. None of us wants to think war is possible. But it seems to me that the real risk is there.”
The Baltics’ flat, open terrain means that the countries could be overrun faster than NATO could scramble a response from elsewhere in Europe, leading to the focus on discouraging Russia from acting in the first place, Western leaders say.
Along Estonia’s forested border with Russia, the only demarcation of the frontier is a series of orange-and-green poles erected every several dozen yards. A new chain-link fence won’t be finished for at least another year, and it would do little to stop an invasion.
NATO officials plan to send a battalion of about a thousand troops to each Baltic nation and Poland, about 4,000 in total. The United States originally considered committing about 2,000 soldiers to the effort, but it recently halved its offer, NATO diplomats and officials say, amid growing political pressure to push Europe to commit more to its own defense. Obama recently derided “free riders” on American military might, while Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has declared NATO obsolete.
That has left Baltic leaders — and NATO military planners — balancing what they feel they need with what they think they can get.
“We don’t want to return to the Cold War era, tank for tank, soldier for soldier,” said Estonian Defense Minister Hannes Hanso. “But in the Baltic Sea, Russia is flying military aircraft almost daily, sometimes five times a day. It would be irresponsible not to respond.”
“What we are doing is reacting to what they’re doing,” Hanso said.
A drive across the Baltics reveals a constant hum of military activity. Camouflaged convoys snake down dim roads late at night. Armored personnel carriers idle alongside fields. Belgian, British and Spanish fighter jets thunder across the skies. Before the Crimean annexation, it was rare to see a combat vehicle in the Baltics. Now they are omnipresent, amid a constant cycle of military maneuvers and rotations. The biggest military operation in Europe this year is underway in Poland, where 25,000 troops from 24 nations are engaged in combat exercises that include live fire from tanks.
The sustained rhythm can be jarring to those who live in the areas seen as most vulnerable. Narva, an Estonian border city that is more than 80 percent Russian-speaking, is often depicted as Russia’s first target if it were to move on the Baltics. But residents there say they have no interest in switching allegiances.
Narva’s streets are in decent shape, unlike the rutted roads in Ivangorod, the Russian town just across the river. Narva residents’ salaries and pensions are paid according to Estonian standards, while their Russian neighbors’ earnings have lost half their value with the collapse of the ruble since 2014.
“People in Narva love Putin. But it’s a platonic love. They don’t want him here,” said Sergei Stepanov, the editor of the local newspaper, Narvskaya Gazeta. “People here are not stupid. They can just cross the border and compare how things are in Russia.”
Ultimately, Estonian leaders say, the threat from Russia has forced them to unite under pressure.
“Five or six years ago, we would have had arguments” about holding extensive military exercises, said Hanso, the defense minister. “Putin is our best recruiter.”