Nato, Russia and Baltic States

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1989, for 25 years the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) started a long-term strategy in Europe based on the fears of a possible Russian invasion in the Old Continent but aware that Russia was not intended to do so.

However, the Moscow’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 and other efforts to occupy other regions of Ukraine destabilized the preceding assumption.
Because of these aggressions, jointly with Russian exercises on NATO’s borders, multiple aerial incursions into NATO territories, armory modernization, dangerous nuclear blustering and political instability forced the U.S. to change its strategy in Europe, especially for all those Countries near the Russian border.
For this reason, American defense priorities have changed.
In particular, Baltic states are extremely exposed to conventional and unconventional threats from Russia. Recall that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gained the independence in 1991, so there still exists a sort of anxiety about possible invasion of Russia. Since they became members of NATO in 2004, they always made the other States aware of concerns about their exposure to Russian attack.
For this reason, they are trying to reach the NATO target of two per cent GDP expenditure for defense. For years, Estonia has maintained it, while Latvia and Lithuania radically increased it starting from 2014.

Due to all the facts above, NATO reacted rapidly in 2014 with new plan for Baltic Countries and Poland, during the Wales Summit. This has been the opportunity to rebalance the Alliance’s strategy, i.e. collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security.
Because of geographical realities, the presence of advanced Russian offensive and defensive weaponry in the Kaliningrad Oblast (region) and the limitations of defensive capabilities of the Baltic States themselves pose significant challenges to North Atlantic Alliance.

Fig. 1: Kaliningrad’s region.

According to the geographical position, the main problem is about the Suwałki gap between Kaliningrad and Belarus. In fact, in case of war Russia would be able to connect its Oblast with its strategic Ally in the area. In fact, Russia is installing a powerful network of air defense, ballistic and anti-ship missiles, in order to reinforce it’s A2AD (Anti Access and Area Denial) strategy that could stymie US and NATO efforts to reinforce Lithuania and the rest of northeastern Europe during a possible crisis. Indeed, Baltic Countries could be completely isolated by Russia.

Fig.2: The Suwałki gap.

Moreover, in October 2016 Estonian officials reported that Russia appeared to be moving powerful, nuclear capable missiles in Kaliningrad. Those missiles, called Iskander-M, have a 500km range and they are more technological sophisticated than other weapons in western armory.
On the other hand, Baltic States are small size Countries. For this reason, they are particularly vulnerable to Russian aggressions and they have limited resources invested in defense expenditures.
In 2016 the Warsaw Summit took place. In this occasion, the heads of state and head of government of the NATO decided to strength the presence in the Baltic States.
In particular:

  • Estonia: 800 troops from United Kingdom and 300 from France.
  • Latvia: 450 troops from Canada, 18 troops from Albania, 160 troops from Italy, 160 troops from Poland, 50 troops from Slovenia and 300 troops from Spain.
  • Lithuania: 450 troops from Germany, 100 troops from Belgium, 22 troops from Luxembourg, 250-270 troops from Netherlands, 200 troops from Norway.
  • Poland: 1000 troops from United States, 120 troops from Romania, 150 troops from United Kingdom.

The composition can change over time, this is the last update from a NATO official document released in May 2017.

There are other concerns about the population structure of Estonia and Latvia. In fact, there is a considerable share of Russian-speaking population who can be vulnerable to Russian manipulation in case of unconventional and hybrid warfare strategies. Notice that Russian speakers, particularly in Estonia, are not well integrated in the socio-economic context.

The most important key feature about this area is having a well-coordinated action in case of necessity.
In the event of a crisis breaking out around the Baltic Sea, the priority is to secure access to strategic infrastructures (energy and communications) that connect the risk area, in order to guarantee the widest possible of movement for the Allies.
Since Finland and Sweden are key providers within Baltic States, NATO should take into consideration also these Countries. In particular, the strategic areas are Gotland (Sweden) and Aland Islands (Finland). Security for these islands rests with their own Governments, however the strategic position implicates a strength synchronize activity between the two Countries and the NATO.

Fig.3: Gotland and Aland Islands.

However, the current situation should be alarming to the Alliance. RAND (an international research organization) has conducted more than 20 war games over a period of three years. The results are not promising for Europe, in fact it demonstrated that the NATO’s current posture is woefully inadequate to resist a Russian attack on the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
In every simulation, NATO has been able to keep Russian forces from the Estonian capital of Tallinn and the Latvian capital of Riga for more than 60 hours. In some cases, they just took 36 hours.
This could have some dramatic consequences, in fact Russia could re-establish its dominance in Baltic States, that are part of the European Union and part of the Monetary Union; for this reason NATO would probably collapse affecting the trans-Atlantic security.
Furthermore, a military exercise called Zapad 2017, the biggest since the Cold War, will take place in Belarus. It will be one of the most important exercise of the area since about 13.000 personnel will take part in it. The official justification is to check Russia’s and Belarus’s capabilities of maintaining security of the Union State. Because of no transparency and lack of official information by Kremlin, we cannot correctly interpret this military action.
Another point of interest is the presence of Chinese warships in the Baltic Sea at the end of July 2017 for an exercise, but there is not official position about a participation in Zapad 2017.
The United States are worried about this situation, for this reason will increase their ability to observe Russian troops movements. There will be ships in the Baltic Sea and air policing in the NATO air space ahead the exercise region.
Nevertheless, a Russian military exercise is not dangerous per se. The Western Countries are worried about it since the past experience with this sort of event. Consider the Russian invasion of Georgia in early August 2008: Russia’s 58th Army had just finished its Kavkaz-2008 military exercise, coincidentally occurring just ahead if the invasion, 15-31 July, and located just north of the Georgian border.
Again, under the guise of another exercise in 2014, from 26 February to 3 March, Russia deployed a large contingent of troops to Crimea and its vicinity. Recall the presence of the so called “Little Green Men”, in other words members of the Russian military. Their guns were the same used by the Russian army, their lorries had Russian number plates and they spoke in Russian accents.
The next step was Crimea’s effective capture by troops which officially had taken part in a regular military exercise. The result was Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Summing up, often these military exercises helped Russia to prepare military operations in the past, and for this reason there is a great attention to Zapad 2017.

In conclusion, Baltic States are under observation by the NATO because of the current position of the Russian Federation. NATO must surely enforce its presence in the area and be ready to a possible invasion.
However, despite of military exercise and reinforcement of the Kaliningrad Oblast, a re-annexation of those Countries seems very unlikely.

Anyway, keep in mind the words uttered 5 August 2008 by Poland’s late president Lech Kaczynski:

“Today, Georgia. Tomorrow, Ukraine. The day after, the Baltic States – and later perhaps the time will come for my Country, Poland!”.

Giacomo Carugo

Giacomo Carugo

Student of Msc in Economics and Social Sciences, I have a bachelor in Economics and Finance. Intern at the Italian Embassy to Tallin during the Estonian presidency of the Council of the European Union.

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