Early this year, RAND Corporation published findings from a now famous series of war games showing NATO’s inability to defend Estonia and Latvia in the event of a Russian invasion. The study reflected a growing realization in the alliance that something must be done to prevent the vulnerability of the Baltic countries from starting a war in Europe.
A year ago, NATO’s discussion of Baltic defense was couched in terms of hybrid warfare and “little green men.” Today it is much more focused on conventional military issues and the danger of nuclear escalation. One outcome of this debate will probably be a decision at the July 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw to expand the military presence of the United States and its allies in the Baltic Sea region. What kind of reinforcement can we expect?
Stacked up against NATO, the Russian military seems puny. The European members of the alliance alone spent $234 billion on defense in 2015, compared with $69.3 billion for Russia (2014 figures). If one adds the U.S. and Canada, NATO’s annual spending rises to $900 billion. In terms of brute strength, Russia would not stand a chance in a protracted all-out war with NATO. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the military equation, because it shows that Russia can only hope to hold its own against Western forces by using tactical nuclear weapons. The risk of a direct confrontation in Eastern Europe escalating into a limited nuclear war is thus too close for comfort.
Escalation is the main reason why NATO is so concerned about its eastern flank. While the overall balance of forces is overwhelmingly against Russia, the opposite is true of the regional balance of forces, particularly in the Baltics. NATO outspends Russia and fields more hardware, but its capabilities are not fungible in the way that Russia’s are.
Russia has shown in Ukraine that it can swiftly mobilize 100,000 troops and redeploy corps or army-sized mechanized forces from hundreds of kilometers away. Portuguese soldiers cannot be deployed to Poland or Latvia with the same ease, and money spent on infrastructure and logistics in Italy or Holland will not help defend the eastern flank. In other words, NATO has a lot of capabilities on paper that would count for little in a regional confrontation with Russia.
Following the Russian intervention in Ukraine, it was widely speculated that the most likely threat scenario in the Baltics would resemble a rerun of Crimea and the Donbas. Special forces would infiltrate the ethnic Russian population under the guise of civil unrest, keeping the conflict below NATO’s Article 5 threshold.
As the fighting in Ukraine wore on, however, it became clear that Russia cannot sustain such interventions without resorting to conventional military means, and that Ukraine would have been able to deal with the separatists if sufficient conventional forces had been in place. The Baltic countries have also come to focus on the conventional military threat because they believe their societies are more cohesive than Ukraine’s, making them less vulnerable to hybrid warfare.
Russia’s Western Military District, which recently revived the 1st Guards Tank Army, commands ground forces including a tank division and an independent tank brigade, one mechanized division and four mechanized brigades, three air assault and airborne divisions, plus special forces, naval infantry, and artillery and missile brigades. Its air force has a strong presence and the Baltic Fleet includes 56 surface combatants and three submarines. While both services suffer from old and poorly maintained equipment, they have potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, which are key to blocking NATO attempts to reinforce by air and sea.
Russia’s local advantage and tactical nuclear doctrine allows the Kremlin to turn its global inferiority into a kind of strength. If NATO cannot stop an invasion of the Baltic states and must respond after the fact by retaking them, the Western powers may judge it too risky to honor their Article 5 commitments.
The alliance thus finds itself in a catch-22. Without strong forces in the Baltic, NATO has little option but to base deterrence on Russia’s fear of a global confrontation. But knowing that it will be next to impossible to keep such a confrontation conventional, this scenario might deter the West more than Russia.
Ever since the annexation of Crimea, NATO has struggled to get out of this fix. One wonders whether the first “reassurance measures” taken by the alliance – air policing, more frequent exercises and troop rotations – were meant to comfort Western policymakers more than the Balts, by showing that only a token force was needed.
The Russian intervention in Syria, however, has demonstrated that the Kremlin is not only into “little green men” but is adept at combined arms operations. The Russian navy and air force are keeping up an aggressive tempo in the Baltics. This was demonstrated in April when a Russian Su-24 jet buzzed the U.S. destroyer Donald Cook north of Kaliningrad. NATO’s “reassurance” mission appears to have reached its limits. To strengthen deterrence, NATO force levels in the Baltics will probably have to be increased. The question is what sort of force is needed.
Scenario 1: armor east
In the run-up to the Warsaw summit, the idea of forward-deploying a mechanized brigade in each of the three Baltic countries (backed by another brigade-sized rapid reaction force) has been making the rounds in the Western press. In May 2016, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter proposed a scaled-down version of this idea, involving a multinational force of four battalions, or 4,000 troops, divided between Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
This would go some way toward meeting the concerns of the RAND study, which showed tank and artillery-heavy Russian forces sweeping aside or bypassing more lightly equipped local and airlifted NATO troops. Since the end of the Cold War, Western forces have compensated for their light footprint on the ground by relying on air power. However, the Russian 6th Air Force and Air Defence Army is sufficiently powerful to deny NATO air superiority in the early stages of a conflict, at least until its airbases and surface-to-air missile sites in western Russia are attacked.
This is exactly the large-scale escalation NATO would like to avoid. As a result, the alliance has focused on ground troops in the hope they would pose a safer and more immediate obstacle to Russian aggression. The question is how many troops are needed to provide a credible deterrent.
At present, NATO’s frontline defense in the Baltic rests on company-sized rotations of light forces and the brigade-sized Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which can deploy to the area on short notice. This is supplemented by a NATO air presence of less than a dozen planes in Estonia and Lithuania (which lack their own air forces) – sufficient for air policing but completely inadequate to provide ground support in actual fighting.
In the jargon of defense, this is a trip-wire force. Its purpose is to get allied troops killed on the front line, compelling NATO members to honor their Article 5 commitment. However, these units are so tiny that they can be easily sidestepped by invaders. What is needed, according to a report by the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, is a more substantial “speed bump” – units capable of actually slowing down a Russian advance to buy time for the arrival of reinforcements, which would draw upon prepositioned supplies and heavy equipment.
With political pressure building for a more robust response to Russia, the idea of permanently stationing troops in the Baltic states is gaining momentum. In doing so, NATO would be following a script that served it well during the Cold War, when mechanized armies faced off across Germany’s Fulda Gap.
Forward deployment comes at the expense of flexibility, however. Placing troops on the border locks NATO into a potential confrontation, while leaving Russia to decide the time and place.
Scenario 2: offshore control
In the RAND war game, Russian forces were able to roll to Tallinn and Riga in less than 60 hours because the distance from the border to the Baltic coast is only about 200 kilometers. This lack of operational depth is a severe drawback for any defender. However, what the RAND study overlooked was that proximity to the sea puts the invading force at the mercy of sea power. A forgotten episode after World War I was that Royal Navy fire support helped keep the Bolsheviks out of Estonia and Latvia in 1918 and 1919.
NATO could revisit this operational design by basing its Baltic defense on power projected from ship to shore. Using naval assets avoids the steep bill for fixed installations required by ground forces. Since warships come with their own air defenses and in some cases their own aircraft, Russian air capabilities would be significantly challenged. Most importantly, NATO could avoid the provocative effect of positioning troops on the Russian border.
A seaborne approach has the potential to recast any confrontation in terms that put pressure on Russia rather than NATO. The alliance’s maritime superiority could allow it to exercise what Thomas X. Hammes has called “offshore control,” putting a clear price tag on any aggressive plans the Kremlin might consider. It automatically shuts down freight traffic on which Russia depends to move more than 100 million tons of crude oil a year, not to mention holding hostage the Nord Stream pipeline.
The weakness of this operational design is Russia’s substantial missile capabilities. In the confined waters of the Baltic, NATO ships will be vulnerable to attack. The alliance can counter this danger by investing in land-based antimissile systems on the island of Bornholm and the Polish coast, especially if it convinces the Swedes and the Finns to install similar defenses on Gotland and the Aland islands. While this strategy also involves risk, it moves the center of gravity in any conflict from Russia’s land border to the Baltic Sea – a shift that is clearly in NATO’s interest.
Naval operations already play a role in NATO’s “reassurance measures” in the Baltic. Such cooperation is an obvious way to engage Finland and Sweden with the alliance, even if they are not ready to join at this stage. However, the very flexibility that makes the sea power attractive from the strategic point of view will be a drawback for many politicians, especially those from the Baltic region. They want a NATO commitment that the Western allies cannot sail away from.
Scenario 3: Norway option
There is an argument to be made not to tie down NATO forces in the east at a time when there are plenty of challenges elsewhere. Instead, the alliance could stick to its current trip-wire strategy, while strengthening the Baltic countries’ militaries and building the infrastructure for rapid reinforcement.
This operational design was successfully applied in Norway during the Cold War (and to some extent even today), with equipment stockpiled above the Arctic Circle waiting for U.S. forces to arrive in case of an emergency. It makes it much more difficult for the Kremlin to claim that the West is trying to encircle Russia. But this approach goes against the current mood among NATO leaders, who feel pressured to do something to keep the Baltic situation from spinning out of control.
In the present political climate, doing nothing is NATO’s least attractive option. The heads of state and government who convene in Warsaw next month will make commitments, even if they are regarded as too little, too late in certain quarters. This will be the second summit at which NATO has increased its eastern presence. The alliance’s military planners have once more made deterring Russia their chief business, generating an institutional inertia that should not be overlooked. At this point, a steady increase of NATO’s presence in the Baltics might be the path of least resistance.