After the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, a sense of unease settled over the European community. In particular the Baltic States seemed to sit in a position of intense vulnerability. With many in the West asking whether Russia is capable of conducting such an invasion, is this the right question to ask? A more pressing question is not whether Russia maintains the military capacity for invasion, but whether Russia would actually make such a choice. Former U.S. Army Officer and West Point graduate John Rugarber discusses the reasons that fuel the belief that Russia will invade the Baltics, the main issues with those reasons, and finally offer alternatives to the current courses of action in the region.
The recent U.S. deployment of troops and equipment to the Baltic region is based on a 2016 Rand Corporation study that stated that in the event of a Russian invasion, the Baltic states were indefensible and would be overrun in a matter of hours. The report’s recommendations were especially pertinent given Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which like the Baltic States, has a significant Russian minority within its population whose Russian-engineered supposed oppression might be used as a pretext for further hard power intervention within the Baltic States. The Economist also cited the Baltic states’ history—once being a part of the Russian and later Soviet Empires—as reasons why President Putin would destabilise, annex, or invade parts of the Baltic states. Other experts point to recent election-related cyberattacks originating from Russia against Western targets, as well as military provocations in the Baltic Sea as further proof of a state of Russian aggression and assertion that could threaten stability in the Baltic region.
There is no doubt that Russia has the military capacity to overrun the Baltic states in short order. However, just because they can, does not necessarily mean they will. Here I would like to address some of the flaws with the belief that Russia will invade the Baltic region—starting with the Ukrainian comparison.
While Russia has, and continues to have, an active military and political role in the conflict in Ukraine, Ukraine is dramatically different than the Baltic states. Ukraine is and was a non-aligned member of NATO: ergo, it did not fall under the protective umbrella of Article V. Thus, the Kremlin leadership correctly assessed that it could directly intervene in Ukraine without provoking a hard power response from NATO, as it would be extremely difficult to drum up domestic support among the Western population to start World War 3 over a violation of the significantly lesser-known Budapest Protocol—especially when the circumstances surrounding the West’s involvement in the build-up to Maidan remain murky. Unlike Ukraine, the Baltic states are full-fledged members of NATO and thus come under the full protection of Article V: any attack, whether it be conventional or a hybrid attack, would be met with the full force NATO (which includes several nuclear states). Since Russia undoubtedly knows this, it seems very unlikely that it would wage a Crimea/Donbass-style hybrid operation against the Baltic States.
Another area in which the Baltic States differ from the Ukraine is their Russian minorities. While each of the states have significant Russian minority populations who have strong cultural and historical ties to Russia, those populations do not have any desire to fall under Russian political influence or geographically merge with Russia. Thus, it is unlikely that the Kremlin would be able to use perceived oppression of a Russian minority as justification for a military intervention in the Baltics. Furthermore, even if Russia did try to ferment unrest among the minority population, it is unlikely to succeed given NATO undoubtedly currently anticipates such an operation, and is likely well-poised too respond. “Fool me once…” would likely echo through the halls of NATO headquarters.
The Imperial Russia argument also does not seem to hold water. While Russia will undoubtedly maintain influence in the Baltic region given its common border and geographical proximity, there is no evidence to suggest that it has designs on acquiring the ports of Riga or Tallinn for greater additional access to the Baltic Sea given that Kaliningrad is still very much a part of Russia. Furthermore, if Russia were to invade and hold the Baltics (provided the conflict did not go nuclear), it would have to immediately sustain the Baltic states’ economies and since the latter would be cut off from the outside world, such a move could prove to be a sunk cost economically, just as Donbass is proving already. Also, to borrow from the history of the last two Russian Empires, successfully managing the Baltic states’ economies has been difficult to do in periods of relative stability; imagine the challenge of trying it during an all-out war with NATO.
Briefly coming back to Ukraine but staying within the confines of history, while there is strong domestic support for Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine— “the birthplace of Russian civilization”, a similar conflict waged against the Baltics would not likely meet with the same level of support given that the Baltic people are not historically considered Russian; they do not even share a similar alphabet (something that should not be ignored given the historical angst caused by proposed language laws in the region). Nor would the ensuing devastation caused by World War III be all that appealing to the Russian population either. Thus, the Imperial Russia theory appears to fall flat: for it to have any sort of merit, one would have to assume that President Putin is an irrational actor who is willing to risk an all-out war with NATO for the partial re-establishment of a failed state; and while Putin may appear unpredictable to the West, he is anything but irrational.
What Could Happen Instead?
That is not to say that NATO should sit idle; the repeated cyberattacks are far from innocent, and Russian actions in the region should continue to be thoroughly scrutinized. Provocations by both sides run the risk of inadvertently starting a conflict in the event of ill-advised response or miscalculation. However, rather than respond with hard-power solutions to the tenuous situation in the Baltics, NATO could look for alternative means to lessen tensions. For example, Western NATO powers could work with the Latvian government to help its nearly 260,000 “non-citizen” ethic Russians obtain Latvian citizenship. NATO could appeal to the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s High Commission on Minority Rights for help in resolving this issue. By doing so, NATO would not only be taking away a potential source of instability Russia could exploit, and could potentially even end up cooperating with Russia—since the latter is a member of the OSCE—to resolve an issue that benefits both sides, as Russia would be seen acting in a peaceful manner to take care of its citizens abroad.
Another idea is for NATO to send a signal to Russia that it is interested in holding unconditional informal talks to discuss ways to lessen tensions in the Baltics. By keeping the talks informal, there is no pressure on either side to make concessions or reach policy decisions. If chaired by and held in a neutral country, such informal talks could lead to an exchange of ideas that could generate options and potentially pave the way for formal talks in the future to establish policy decisions. While not designed to resolve the situation, if the informal talks are attended by both sides, it is a positive step back from the continued brinkmanship polices practiced by both sides over the fate of the Baltics.
After the above analysis, the answer to the question of whether the Russians would invade the Baltics is clear to me: they would never do it. The Baltics are not Ukraine: the conditions that made action in Ukraine possible do not exist there. They are full-fledged members of NATO, who benefit from the protections of Article V, and do not have a truly exploitable Russian minority population. Nor does the Imperial Russia re-establishment idea hold water when looked at from a cultural, situational, contextual, or consequential standpoint. While the provocations and cyberattacks should absolutely be taken seriously, it is important to remember that President Putin is a rational actor and while he might push the envelope, there is a line which neither he nor his people are willing to cross. But rather risk a miscalculation in response to a hard power move by either side, both sides should reinforce the instruments of peace such as the OSCE and informal talks to lesson tensions in the region: after all, what is the worst that could happen should these peace efforts fail? Continued brinkmanship?
John Rugarber is a former United States Army Captain and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. John is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Conflict Management.
Photo credit: Saab JAS-39 Gripen (Czech Air Force) at Šiauliai Airport, Lithuania, by Milan Nykodym from Kutna Hora, Czech Republic