April 19, 2016

Strengthening the Strategic Balance in the Baltic Sea Area

The Defence Committee of the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament) commissioned ICDS to conduct a study on the strategic balance in the Baltic Sea region with aim to contribute, in the run up to the Warsaw Summit, to the discussion on the optimum Alliance military posture in the region.


  • Russia follows an increasingly aggressive anti-Western policy of revisionism and has become a direct and open threat to NATO. It is implementing an ambitious military modernisation programme and has demonstrated a tendency to use force against weaker neighbours.
  • NATO´s overall superiority vis-à-vis Russia is not reflected equally in the Baltic Sea region, especially by taking into account geography and force postures. The Alliance military power is not sufficiently available in the region.
  • Russia will strive to avoid a full-scale war with NATO, but it could be tempted, nevertheless, while being guided by misperceptions, to provoke and exploit a “local conflict” to test and undermine the Alliance.

Key findings

  • Credible NATO deterrence in the eastern flank of the Alliance requires an optimum balance between deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial.
  • Present NATO defence posture in the Baltic Sea region is inadequate for the effective deterrence by denial. Notable capability gaps exist as regards air and missile defence and naval presence.
  • Russia has the ability to impose an A2/AD “bubble” over the Baltic states and large parts of the Baltic Sea.
  • The major concentration of Russian forces in the areas surrounding Baltic states clearly exceeds defensive needs. Many of these units are offensive in their nature.
  • Russia is frequently exercising military actions against Baltic states and their separation from the rest of the Alliance
  • In military terms Belarus is an extension of Russian armed forces and performs an important geopolitical role, especially with regard to the “Suwalki gap”.
  • The most likely worst scenario is not a “hybrid crisis” or limited incursion, but the separation and possible conquest of the Baltic states by conventional military means.

Conclusions and recommendations

  • The Russian threat has to be clearly acknowledged, treated as a strategic long-term challenge and taken fully into account in NATO’s defence planning and future posture in the Baltic Sea area.
  • Effective deterrence requires a clearly increased presence of Allied forces in the region. NATO’s forward defence has to move from a symbolic to a meaningful presence.
  • The Alliance’s forward presence must balance two key aspects: military effectiveness and multinationality. Military effectiveness requires the forces to be combat ready. The United States should exercise leadership by providing the framework and certain key capabilities, which would then be complemented by contributions from other Allies.
  • In terms of manoeuvre formations, the baseline consideration should be brigade-sized units. A continuous presence of two brigades would be necessary, in addition to the indigenous forces of the Baltic countries.
  • An increased presence of air assets, including transition from Air Policing mission to Air Defence, and maintenance of a robust naval presence in the Baltic Sea, is required.
  • The Baltic countries will need to allocate additional resources for the Host Nation Support, including the development of necessary infrastructure.
  • Alongside the strengthening of the forward presence component, the Alliance needs to refine capabilities for the deployment of reinforcements and follow-on forces, and for the neutralization of Russia´s A2/AD capabilities. The Allies should demonstrate their ability, in collective defence exercises, to rapidly move large numbers of troops to the Baltic region.

Download: Strengthening the Strategic Balance in the Baltic Sea Area (PDF)