This article by Sinéad Baker was originally published by Business Insider.
When Ukraine first started asking for modern armored vehicles, just days after Russia invaded, its pleas barely made a ripple.
Most of the West, though supportive of Ukraine, was hesitant to give it heavy weapons, worried that they could end up in Russia’s hands, or that giving them could lead to an escalation in the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.
But some felt differently.
Right from the start, three small nations that neighbor Russia — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — believed that Ukraine should get tanks.
And without tanks of their own to give, they focused on convincing others to donate theirs.
Now, with the first tanks arriving, they are enjoying a moment of victory.
Their success, an expert told Insider, shows how Europe’s balance of power has shifted eastwards since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. And this could be important as countries now consider sending advanced military jets to Ukraine.
While Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, were not the only countries that wanted Ukraine to get tanks, they stand out for doing so forcefully and early in the conflict.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė says her government was among the earliest supporters of sending tanks to Ukraine, and was directly involved in convincing Germany, which had a say over whether other countries could send German-made tanks.
She described the talks with Germany to Insider as “in private for a very long time.”
The three Baltic states, which were all once part of the Soviet Union and warned for years that Russia was a threat, have also been among Ukraine’s biggest financial backers, on a per capita basis.
They were giving weapons to Ukraine even before Russia’s invasion in February 2022, as Ukraine battled Russian-backed separatists in the east.
When it came to tanks, they started by trying to convince other countries behind closed doors. Then, at the start of 2023, they shifted their approach, making public their calls to send armor.
Ukraine desperate for tanks
Germany manufactures the Leopard 2 battle tank, considered the best fit for Ukraine’s troops, but for a long time said it wouldn’t allow the tanks to go to Ukraine unless the U.S. also sent its own M1 tanks.
The decision to finally send tanks to Ukraine took months of careful negotiations.
Throughout, Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun said she spent every day worrying about her partner, who is fighting for Ukraine, while knowing that weapons that could help protect him and others “are just not being provided because people are having debates.”
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told Insider that Ukraine’s allies had been “too slow” when deciding to send weapons to Ukraine.
“The price is Ukrainian blood” for that slowness, he said, adding that Russia wants them to be slow in order to prolong the war and to make it “more painful” for Ukraine.
Prime Minister Šimonytė, for her part, said that delays “cost lives.”
A public call
The three Baltic countries decided to take the rare step in European politics of publicly calling out another government, knowing that if Germany decided to give tanks it would unlock other countries’ ability to do the same.
Lithuania’s Šimonytė said the public call came after a “very long debate” behind the scenes because “it wasn’t that you want to push your friends into corner.”
But, she said, it became time to take the plea out into the open.
In January, the foreign ministries of all three countries issued a joint statement calling on Germany to give tanks to Ukraine immediately.
They said that Germany had a “special responsibility” to restore peace in Europe as “the leading European power.”
Poland also publicly criticized Germany, and said that it was considering sending German-made tanks to Ukraine even without Germany’s permission.
Four days later, despite weeks of hinting that it wouldn’t do so, Germany announced that it was sending Ukraine some of its Leopard 2 tanks, and would allow other countries to send their own German-made tanks.
Dr. Eoin Drea, a European politics expert at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, told Insider the situation was “very unusual” within the continent’s relations.
He said that usually the big decision-making meetings are held during European Council summits, where “a lot is decided away from the glare of the media.”
But, Drea added, in this case the Baltic states wanted to “put the pressure on.”
Šimonytė said Lithuania felt its strategy had to change: “Sometimes in politics you use different ways of making your point very clear.”
When asked if he thought the public call had helped, Estonia’s ambassador to Ukraine, Kaimo Kuusk, told Insider: “I think it definitely has.”
Vaidotas Urbelis, Lithuania’s defense policy director, agreed.
“Because all policy makers reflect on general opinion and what the public think, not just experts, but people who vote. This public pressure makes decisions faster,” he said.
Reinsalu, Estonia’s foreign minister, told Insider that he had repeatedly engaged with his German counterpart about the decision.
And he said that he’ll keep publicly calling for allies who have weapons to act immediately, “because time is very critical.”
Creating “no excuses”
Estonia gave Ukraine its entire supply of 155-mm howitzers in January, with Kuusk describing the move as setting a precedent “so that other countries don’t have excuses why they can’t give Ukraine the weapons to win the war.”
Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas told Insider that “leading by example matters. This is the lesson learned from the past year.”
In fact, the Baltics are now focusing on helping Ukraine with its calls to get advanced military aircrafts.
Kallas and Šimonytė, the two prime ministers, both told Insider that they support Ukraine getting military jets. But it’s not clear yet if their efforts will pay off in the same way they did with tanks.
So far, the US has said it will not give military jets to Ukraine, while Poland and Slovakia this month became the first countries to commit to supplying planes to Ukraine.
Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister, said that she believes Western allies “should give all the aid to Ukraine that would help to end this war.” But that it is up to each country to decide what they can and will provide.
“Russia is playing the long game, so must we,” she said, adding that Estonia’s help for Ukraine is motivated by its view that “this war is not just about Ukraine, it is about European security.”
A power shift in Europe
The approach of the three Baltic states, which have a combined population of just over six million, shows the role that lesser NATO powers can sometimes play in global politics.
Drea, the European politics expert, said that since the invasion of Ukraine started “there’s been a significant shift in the center of power, definitely eastwards.”
He said the Baltics and Poland have become “more confident” at setting out their priorities at the EU level, and that EU leaders were listening.
Last October, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen publicly admitted that countries like Germany had been naive about Russia before the war, and should have listened to their eastern neighbors.
Meanwhile, Edward Hunter Christie, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, described the public calls for tanks as an “exceptional” step.
“Ordinarily, on less critical matters, peer pressure happens but the public sees very little of it or none of it,” he told Insider.
Sovsun, the Ukrainian MP, said that the Baltic strategy had been important for Ukraine.
She used to hear from German lawmakers that they were worried about giving so much that they wouldn’t be able to protect themselves. “I think it’s very difficult to say: ‘Oh, we wouldn’t be well protected’ after what the Baltic states are doing,” she added.
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