Both NATO’s northern front-line allies—the Baltic states and Poland—as well as officially non-aligned Finland and Sweden now face the possibility – perhaps for many years ahead – of having to co-exist somehow with a huge, confrontational, and aggressive neighbour. They have no rational reasons to ignore a potential Russian military attack, and can only guess when, where, or how this might actually happen.
What do we have?
Russia has blatantly trampled on the European and Transatlantic security architecture that had been constructed for decades to guarantee peace on our continent and beyond. Russia has invaded and mutilated Ukraine, virtually making nonsense of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and many other key international agreements. In addition, the Kremlin has officially terminated the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (the CFE treaty) that also regulated and limited Russia’s conventional military posture in the border areas of its Western and Southern Military Districts, and is potentially breaching the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (the INF treaty) that eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges, i.e. between 500 and 5,500 km. Therefore, we have no more certain rules of behaviour – we do not know what to expect from Russia. The unthinkable has become thinkable, and perhaps probable.
Secondly, Russia has speedily increased its defence budget, in contrast to NATO powers, almost all of which have been in a process of continuous disarmament. This increased spending has significantly enhanced Russia’s military capabilities – especially in training and mobility of troops, as well as the conduct of joint operations involving different branches of Russian armed forces, intelligence and communications, and the introduction of most advanced weapon systems, mostly in the Western direction. Russia has continuously organized, over the past years, massive combat alert exercises, including in the Baltic and Nordic region (e.g. on 5-10 December 2014). One may argue that after the impact of sanctions and decreased oil prices, Russia now hasn’t much financial capability to sustain its overly ambitious militarization plans, and therefore that Moscow cannot become a serious military threat to NATO before 2020, if at all. Indeed, Russia has already announced severe cuts to or postponements of several military modernization projects. On the other hand, one may seriously doubt about the official numbers and qualifications given by the Russian Ministry of Defence regarding massive exercises, the deployment of troops, etc., beyond what was or is directly observable by NATO allies. Given the credibility of Russian propaganda and of its political establishment in general, such statements could be taken to be as reliable as early medieval wartime chronicles: that is, grossly tendentious and exaggerated. Nevertheless, looking at the posture of conventional forces in the Baltic and Nordic region as a whole, it becomes clear that NATO has a rather symbolic presence on the ground (and in the Baltic Sea) compared to Russia (from Severodvinsk through Kronstadt to Baltiysk and down past Pskov to Baranovichi in Belarus). It is also equally clear that under present circumstances (that I would call a “phoney peace”, in relation to the implementation of Minsk agreements) major NATO allies will hesitate to further deploy troops to Poland and the Baltic States, even on an expressly temporary basis. Therefore, a perceived imbalance of forces in the Baltic and Nordic theatre will persist, unless the situation in and around the Donbas does not deteriorate yet again—in which case the Allies could decide to take further steps.
Thirdly, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has created in Russia a schizophrenic atmosphere of war, in order to push ordinary Russians – who already suffer from economic distress and political disaffection—into accepting more sacrifices while continuing not to question the official policy that advocates differentiation from and confrontation with the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has clearly pointed out the main “instigators” that are to be “blamed” for tirelessly pursuing collective Western responses (i.e. sanctions etc)are the Baltic and Nordic countries, Poland, and the “Anglo-Saxons”. Against this background, certain recent statements, e.g. the ones made by the Chairman of the State Duma Sergey Naryshkin, who stated that “Russia does not renounce European values” and called for European and Russian/Eurasian “economic unification”, cannot be taken very seriously. Therefore, the troublemakers are identified and potentially targeted, and the Baltic States and Poland stand first on the line.
Last but not least, Russia may burn out economically in two to five years, perhaps not before Ukraine, but does that really matter when it comes to the potential of Russian aggression in our region? The next two years or so may be viewed in the Kremlin also as a window of opportunity or even as a serious time constraint to do certain “necessary” things that it may not successfully be able to do later on. One should always keep in mind that the main goal of President Putin and his cronies is to stay in power, whatever it takes. Crimea did divert the attention of at least 80% of the Russians from their country’s unreformed and continuously downgrading economy, at least temporarily. By now, Crimea has only added its heavy burden to the Kremlin’s shoulders. Therefore, a new “successful” distraction may be needed.
What do we need?
Do the considerations above inevitably constitute a lethal cocktail? I believe that the probability of a Russian provoked crisis in the Baltic and Nordic region remains relatively high and will increase in time, at least as long as there is no positive solution to Ukraine’s “phoney peace” and as President Putin remains firmly in power without altering his course of confrontation with the West.
By now it is clear that Russia is suffering from the economic sanctions imposed by the EU and other Western countries, as well as from historically low oil prices and other reasons. However, most probably this will not make President Putin to seek to return to the relative détente of the period before the annexation of Crimea, given Western political expectations and demands vis-à-vis Russia’s role in occupied parts of Ukraine. President Putin will probably seek to intimidate European nations even more, sowing discord in the EU and NATO, and eventually threatening the use of nuclear weapons (what else makes Russia look serious right now?).
Therefore, the political, diplomatic and economic steps undertaken by the West to save Ukraine from Russian aggression and deter Russia from any other potential military adventures are indeed strictly necessary, but ultimately insufficient. The Ultimate Deterrent is no other than a sufficiently increased Allied military presence in the Baltic states and Poland that would present to Russia – in case of further aggression against its neighbours – not only huge economic and political risks, but also very serious military difficulties (in other words – no real possibility of success).
One may agree that NATO’s presence in the Baltic States and Poland is sufficient in terms of air policing, which is a peacetime mission, and that the presence has significantly increased by means of various multinational military exercises, occasionally involving also Sweden and Finland. However, a single American company and a small NATO staff element are by no means a sufficient military deterrent against neighbouring Russia. Some argue that deploying a few brigades, or even just one allied brigade, to the Baltic States, as a preventive and temporary defensive measure, will only escalate confrontation with Russia or will be even tantamount to a declaration of war. Given these rather contradictory considerations, I would like to ask: What is – after all – more important for NATO? Is it Article V of the Washington Treaty, the very essence of the Alliance, or is it NATO-Russia founding Act of 1997 that Moscow has repeatedly spit on?
Crimea’s annexation was neither foreseen nor prevented by the West. Next time, wherever, whenever, and however something similar might happen, the West cannot afford to be taken by complete surprise ever again.