Russia has become a real threat to the Baltic States, considering the Kremlin’s anti-Western agenda and aggressiveness against its neighbours or even far beyond (Syria). This threat is fed by increasing Russian military capacity and certain advantages that it perceives versus NATO in terms of geography, action/reaction time, and particularly anti-access and area denial strategies and capabilities. NATO’s task is to find a suitable and durable formula to deter Russia and avoid conflict in the Nordic-Baltic region. In essence, this should be a combination of political and military steps to be reinforced or undertaken by the Baltic States and Poland, and especially those key allies who will most likely be willing and able to support them in a critical situation.
NATO does not have the objective to achieve aggregate parity of forces deployed in peacetime to its North-Eastern flank with Russian forces deployed in its Western Military district. This doesn’t make sense in terms of resources and costs, and it would certainly escalate tensions and the possibility of conflict with Russia. On the other hand, NATO cannot afford to leave its allies in the Baltic region too vulnerable, allowing Russia to contemplate the possibility of a quick and successful “localized conflict”, and consequently facing the likely prospect of losing territory, coherence and credibility.
Therefore, the Alliance has to increase its forward presence and activities in our region to an optimal level that does not present a real offensive threat to Russia (including the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave), but is sufficient to deter Russia from undertaking a military adventure against the Baltic States or any other countries in the region. In fact, this means achieving a stalemate, instead of the present situation in which Russia most likely assumes that it can defend Kaliningrad Oblast, whereas NATO cannot stand effectively for its Baltic allies.
The key word for deterrence is credibility, and credibility means strong political will and suitable resources (military capabilities). Against this background, deterrence against Russia in NATO’s North-Eastern flank, looking from both national and Alliance perspectives, is a multi-layered pyramid (from bottom to the top):
National resilience of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland
1. Determination of indigenous political leaderships, armed forces and formations1, and above all the local populations, to defend their countries and act in a hostile manner in the event of an outright or camouflaged aggression.
2. Preventive measures implemented by indigenous governments in order not to allow Russia to conduct espionage, diversion and sabotage operations, especially concerning sensitive military facilities and key civilian infrastructure.
3. Long-term commitment by indigenous governments to maintain defence expenditures at least at the level of 2% of their country’s GDP, and to prioritise the acquisition of best possible self-defence armaments and equipment, training of combat units, and provision of necessary host nation support for allied forces.
Allied military efforts
4. Increased allied forward defence on the territories of the Baltic States and Poland, and in the Baltic Sea, through a sufficiently larger presence of adequate ground forces’ manoeuvre units, air formations and air defence assets, naval forces and operational command structures, as well as prepositioned equipment.
5. Readiness of allied roll-back forces to be speedily and amply deployed to the Baltic operations theatre. Routine medium and large-scale NATO exercises in the area, using also prepositioned equipment, must demonstrate the required capabilities.
6. Robust collective defence planning aimed at the neutralization of Russia’s potential main effort (separation of Baltic States through the Belarus – Kaliningrad Oblast axis and around the Eastern coast of the Baltic Sea) and subsequent course of action (direct invasion of the Baltic States across their eastern borders), paying special attention to Russia’s most advanced and difficult to counter capabilities (especially air and coastal defence, air and artillery/missile power, electronic warfare, cyber offensive capabilities).
NATO’s political deterrent
7. Demonstration of allied solidarity as the very foundation of NATO’s collective defence and the credibility of Article V of the Washington Treaty.
8. NATO’s political messages and military actions should leave no doubt to the Kremlin leadership that – while the Alliance has no belligerent intentions and seeks to avoid conflict with Russia – a Russian aggression, in whatever form and against any allied nation, will not remain “localized” and without adequate response.
9. The image of ultimate failure must be advanced through NATO’s deterrence by denial and punishment against Russia. The Kremlin should be clearly signalled – through preventive measures rather than words – that it won’t be easy for Russia to achieve even initial success, and its subsequent losses, leading to inevitable defeat, will grossly exceed potential gains.
NATO’s Summit Meeting in Warsaw, in early July, should be focused on collective defence and deterrence against Russia, considering the aspects discussed above. The message that NATO will deliver to Moscow from Warsaw will be tremendously important at this critical point in time, when Russia struggles to impose peace in Syria on its own terms, relations between Russia and Turkey have become explosive, Russia may relaunch high-intensity warfare in Ukraine’s Donbas at any time, the US is caught in presidential elections, the EU is burdened by the migration crisis and Brexit prospects etc. The Warsaw Summit cannot result in a disaster, in the sense that the 2008 Bucharest Summit did, after which Russia launched aggressions against both Georgia and Ukraine.
1 Territorial defence voluntary armed formations: Kaitseliit (EST), Zemessardze (LAT), Iron Wolf (LIT), National Guard (POL)