February 5, 2021

Constructing Deterrence in the Baltic States

Petras Malukas / AFP / Scanpix
US soldiers take part in a massive amphibious landing during the Exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS), a NATO maritime-focused military multinational exercise, on June 4, 2018 in Nemirseta on the Baltic sea in Lithuania.
US soldiers take part in a massive amphibious landing during the Exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS), a NATO maritime-focused military multinational exercise, on June 4, 2018 in Nemirseta on the Baltic sea in Lithuania.

Both as intellectual concept and as actionable strategy, deterrence is complex and multifaceted. This is certainly so in the Baltic region, where no one action or policy alone can guarantee security.

The Baltic states are in a strategically seismic location on the front lines of a relationship characterised by competition, and mutually exclusive strategic aims and political systems. A military conflict with Russia in the Baltic states, however, would be catastrophic for all parties involved. Getting deterrence right is thus essential for the security of the wider Euro-Atlantic region.

This paper is an attempt to provide a framework for thinking about how to establish and maintain deterrence in the Baltic region, focusing on the military aspects. It proposes a three-tiered approach to building credible deterrence in the region, with the three pillars represented by (1) the Baltic states’ own forces; (2) the deployed presence in the region of other Allies’ capabilities; and (3) the Alliance’s ability to reinforce the Baltic states and conduct a wider operation to deny gains and impose unacceptable costs on the aggressor.

Deterrence messaging in a system that includes numerous actors is very challenging. The deterrence posture in the Baltic states includes the three countries themselves, Allies with significant military presence in the region, the US as the main power on which NATO’s overall military credibility stands, and other regional powers without whose cooperation it is difficult to foresee success in NATO’s defensive operations in the area. Each of these have their own decision-making processes, domestic political dynamics, cost-benefit analyses, bureaucratic and military routines and so on.
But for NATO’s posture to be coherent, their activities must be closely coordinated. This is, of course, especially important – as well as challenging – in times of crisis, if for no other reason than the likelihood that the relevant actors will conclude that a crisis is upon them at different times, and probably with differing degrees of seriousness.

Ensuring that these activities, undertaken by several countries, do indeed send a coherent message in peacetime requires significant effort, and doing the same in times of crisis increases this. This can only be achieved through constant planning and policy coordination. Finally, it is clear that the players involved in this deterrence construct must possess the required capabilities in order for the overall concept, and its individual elements, to work. A quick review of unclassified and publicly available material is sufficient to conclude that current capabilities are, in several ways, insufficient. Determining which of these gaps present a tolerable risk (but which, on the other hand, need to be urgently addressed), requires further analysis, one that is possible only by considering the whole construct and the different tasks its various elements are intended to fulfil.

Download and read: Constructing Deterrence in the Baltic States (PDF)