There will be much focus on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2024.

One highlight will be the 75th-anniversary Summit, to be held in Washington, DC from July 9-11.

This follows in the footsteps of the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. For the Baltic countries, this meant increased allied boots on the ground – particularly the agreement that the German enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) force in Lithuania would be increased significantly to a brigade-level combat-capable force of 4000 troops.  NATO bolstering its force levels in the Baltics is but one aspect of reacting to the mounting threats posed by a belligerent, revanchist, and neo-imperialist Russia.

This gives us a moment to reflect and travel back twenty-five years to remember how we got here. In 1999, NATO’s 50th-anniversary Summit was held in Washington, DC, when Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were still striving to become members of the alliance. In that year, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary became NATO members, following a prior year 80-19 vote in the United States Senate on April 30, 1998, to approve enlargement. 

Along with the three Baltic governments, the Baltic communities in the U.S. were also working at that time to ensure that the Baltic countries received the support they needed to become NATO members. This included outreach to Congress and the administration of President Bill Clinton. For instance, former Estonian American National Council president Mati Kõiva testified on behalf of JBANC at a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing to highlight Baltic-American support for NATO enlargement on November 5, 1997.

Baltic Americans were also reaching out to and engaging with the American public, whether in person or through letters to the editor, articles in newspapers, and countless events on the topic in Washington, DC, and around the country. These included the “NATO Roadshow,” which was in part organized by JBANC and took advocates to over 25 U.S. states during 2000-2002 to speak about the imperative. In addition, a “NATO Enlargement Handbook” was developed largely by JBANC to distribute among activists with background, talking points, and further tips for engaging publicly on this.

The period was just before social media became a thing, although JBANC did host a series of online webcasts to bring in key policymakers and NATO advocates to discuss the importance of including the Baltic countries. A webcast with Lithuania’s president Valdas Adamkus was arranged for September 12, 2001, but was canceled because of the attacks against America on September 11. On September 10, Baltic leaders across America met with officials at the White House to make the case and to deliver a petition with 25,000 signatures of support for NATO enlargement for the Baltic countries. The White House was impressed.

The three Baltic countries would have to wait until the Prague NATO Summit in November 2002 to receive an invitation to join. The other four countries that were invited in 2002 and joined in 2004 were Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia. The Alliance had grown to 26 members. For those of us who were there at the White House on March 29, 2004, it was an incredibly happy and gratifying experience.

The Baltic countries have been exemplary NATO allies, with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania each contributing well over 2% of their GDP on defense expenditures. Only eleven of the current 31 members do so, and only three are over 3% – Poland, the U.S., and Greece. Estonia is fourth overall, at 2.73% in 2023. The Baltics have pledged to reach 3% sooner rather than later. 

As the U.S. Mission to NATO tweeted on January 12 about the necessity of dealing with the current challenges: “NATO has strengthened its forward [defenses], enhanced battlegroups in the eastern part of the Alliance, and increased the number of high readiness forces.”

2024 marks the 20th anniversary of Baltic NATO membership and expect this to be commemorated in several ways in those countries and here in the United States. JBANC is planning its next Baltic Advocacy Days in the spring and will highlight the occasion as well.

Today, NATO is an even larger organization, with 31 members – Finland being the latest member to join in 2023. Sweden is poised to join as soon as the Turkish and Hungarian parliaments give their consent [ed. – the Turkish parliament voted on January 23, 2024 in overwhelming favor for Sweden’s membership]. And then there is Ukraine.

Ukraine has been fighting for its sovereignty against Russia. It is defending democratic values and freedom. We need to keep supporting Ukraine – whatever it takes. Russia is being aided by the new axis of evil – Iran, North Korea, China – and itself supports terrorist organizations like Hamas around the globe. If Putin wins in Ukraine, God forbid, Russia will likely have the appetite to go further. And that’s when NATO must respond and defend its member states.

Ukraine will need all the help it can get to become a NATO member and it will demand the additional wherewithal of the Ukrainian community and friends in the U.S.  The cooperation between Ukraine and NATO increased after the Vilnius Summit. As explained by NATO: “The NATO-Ukraine Council was launched at the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius as part of a three-part package of support bringing Ukraine closer to NATO. The package also includes a multi-year [program] of assistance to help the Ukrainian armed forces become fully interoperable with Allied forces, and a reaffirmation that Ukraine will become a member of NATO when Allies agree, and conditions are met.”

The next step is for Ukraine to receive an invitation to join the Alliance. At the Bucharest Summit in 2008, NATO agreed that Ukraine would become a member of NATO. Time will tell.

If you are on social media, be on the lookout for the hashtag #UkraineNATO33. The 33 indicates that Ukraine would be the 33rd NATO member, after Finland and Sweden. Let’s make it happen.


Note – this article was first published online in Vaba Eesti Sõna on January 20, 2024.

For more information, visit “The Baltic Journey to NATO.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *