July 13, 2016

Russia’s Possible Reaction to NATO’s Deployment of Defensive Forces in the Eastern Flank

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) takes part in celebrations for Navy Day in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad region, Russia, July 26, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) takes part in celebrations for Navy Day in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad region, Russia, July 26, 2015.

Russia’s sudden, brutal and illegal military actions against Ukraine since 2014 prompted NATO to take counter-measures that it did not contemplate undertaking – at any time after the end of the Cold War, including after Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 – unless pushed to the very edge. Russia’s speedy militarization since 2008, especially in the Western direction, and its demonstrated willingness to use force gave NATO no other choice than to take urgent steps in order to beef up the defence of its most exposed allies in the Baltic and Black Sea theatres.

NATO’s assurance and adaptive measures, to be crowned by a meaningfully increased forward presence of allied troops in the Baltic States and Poland in early 2017, have been elaborated and implemented with the utmost possible transparency, by making carefully refined steps and explicitly demonstrating their defensive character. Nevertheless, the Kremlin pretends that NATO is the initiator of an arms race, and even prepares to launch a war of aggression against Russia. The Russian propaganda machine is prone to using literally anything to support Moscow’s policy and actions, therefore NATO’s defensive measures are just as good as anything else to “justify” Russia’s political and military “response”.

Here we are, after the recent successful NATO Summit in Warsaw, and just three weeks away from the Olympics in Rio. The games in Beijing (2008) and Sochi (2014) were accompanied or closely followed by Russia’s aggressions against its neighbours. Would Russia rest peacefully this time? There is no reason to assume – while NATO’s leaders adopted historic decisions in Warsaw (which were made publicly more than clear and well in advance) – that the Russian political and military leadership did not, or does not at this very moment, seriously consider how and when to “respond”. The consideration to refrain from “responding” is most likely not on the table.

Speaking of political and military steps that Russia may endeavour in this context and in the Baltic and Black Sea theatres, we have to ask first: What choices does Russia have? Basically, it has two main options: either to essentially accept the deployment of allied forces to NATO’s Eastern Flank, as it admitted, even if bitterly, the enlargement of the Alliance in 1999 and 2004, or to “prevent” somehow the allied deployment from ever occurring. The first choice actually means that Russia would also have to accept that its virtually uncontested military supremacy in the Baltic and Black Sea theatres is coming to an end sooner rather than later. Russia may still continue to possess more troops and equipment (including navy vessels and aircraft, missile systems etc.) than the combination of all the other countries in those two regions, including deployed allied forces, but the imbalance of forces would no longer be so significant as to allow the Kremlin to threaten or provoke its NATO neighbours without facing serious risks. The second choice would entail early action, probably according to an improvised scenario along the lines of Russia’s performance in the Donbas and/or the repeatedly rehearsed course of action in large regional combat control exercises (December 2014, March 2015 etc.). That would lead, of course, inevitably to an armed conflict with NATO, even if the “trip-wire” troops are not yet on the ground.
Russia does not seem to have any particularly good choices, but it must figure out the most acceptable one. Would president Vladimir Putin and Russia’s top brass be ready to show themselves – at home and abroad – to be “unresponsive” (i.e. “weak” according to the basic Russian mentality), besides official accusations and verbal threats? That is a pertinent question, especially given Russia’s “successful” reaction against Turkey after the November 2015 incident. Turkey finally submitted to the economic and political pressure exerted by Russia, but that would obviously not work against NATO.

If Russia decides not to launch a military operation and risk immediately provoking a large conflict with NATO, it would likely announce and proceed with the further strengthening of its military posture in the Western Military District, particularly in the Kaliningrad, Leningrad and Pskov oblasts. In actuality, the Russian military will simply continue to implement their plans, which were adopted previously and are not directly dependent on NATO’s declared measures. However, Russia may decide to additionally deploy SS-26 (Iskander-M) ballistic missile systems to the Kaliningrad oblast (if these are not already there), to move westwards a number of heavy mechanised units, perhaps to step out of the INF Treaty etc. One cannot exclude, given Russia’s traditional dramatic way of reacting to “irritating” events, even the deployment of and/or threats with the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the Baltic Sea region. Furthermore, Russia would very likely put enormous pressure on Belarus to increase the presence of the Russian Air Force in that country, if not also to deploy Russian ground troops and special forces. The idea would be to recreate a regional military imbalance that favours Russia, to exert tremendous psychological pressure upon the nations in those areas, and to “prove” that the allied forces deployed to the Baltic states and Poland are “useless”, “provocative”, “leading to confrontation and escalation” etc. Deliberate Russian provocations, in the air space and at sea, will only complement this picture.

However, it cannot be entirely excluded that Russia may take the adverse decision that it must take action to “prevent” allied troops from being deployed to the Baltic area. There are surely quite a few influential Russian politicians and generals who would argue that NATO, especially the US – even if it does not prepare to “attack” Russia – would certainly deploy additional forces in the future (the allied battalion tactical groups would become brigades etc.). That, alongside Russia’s loss of face, would mean, according to their understanding, that the West will “regain the initiative” vis-à-vis Russia, which would have disastrous political consequences for president Putin’s regime. In Russian politics, win-win solutions have no place or meaning.

If such a nightmarish scenario should materialize, it has to be implemented by Russia very soon, already in 2016, e.g. by launching once again a very large combat readiness exercise in the whole Western Military District (possibly also in the Southern and even the Central Military District). Then, the Russian armed forces would need to be ready to quickly transform that exercise into a real military operation against the Baltic states and Poland (and likely also in the Black Sea theatre). Russia has no better advantage against NATO than the element of surprise and a more or less sufficiently superior regional military posture that it still enjoys. The Russian Baltic Fleet has just been seemingly decapitated, its top commanders and dozens of higher officers have been sacked or transferred to other jobs, but that unprecedented act may only be “shock therapy” for Russia’s top brass (after all, almost everyone in top positions in Russia steals taxpayers’ money and property) that also serves the regime’s image (it “makes order” in the country), but this may also be intended to deceive the NATO allies (by suggesting that the Baltic Fleet is now in a state of chaos, that it is clearly not combat ready etc., which may not be the case at all).

In conclusion, both scenarios – that are briefly described above – are speculative, because nobody knows what will happen. A positive surprise from Russia can hardly be expected, given its present mood and surrounding circumstances. The first option seems to be far more probable, whereas the second option, which is quite remote, but not entirely improbable, becomes totally irrational for Russia from early to mid-2017.

Last but not least, NATO has the ability to cover Russia’s window of opportunity (until mid-2017) by conducting heel to toe exercises in the Baltic region, which will probably be the case. However, Russia may have some other options to respond, which are not necessarily political-military steps made in the Baltic and/or the Black Sea regions. One may think of Syria and/or Iraq, the Kurdish issue in Turkey, Moldova and Ukraine, etc. As comrades used to tell each other in the old days’ Kremlin: let’s prepare for the worst and hope for the best!