Recently, my colleague John Rugarber published an excellent piece on why a Russian invasion of the Baltic States is, in his opinion, unlikely. While his analysis is certainly reasonable, we at Encyclopedia Geopolitica do not believe geopolitics to be an exact science, and that the height of analysis is the point-counterpoint argument. As such, in this piece I will examine the factors that could potentially motivate Moscow to engage in a military expedition in the Baltics, and why I believe that such a move is possible.
In 2016, RAND corporation published a report highlighting the extreme strategic vulnerability of the Baltic States to a Russian military incursion. The report issued two key findings; across multiple scenario simulations, the longest hard-fought delay inflicted on advancing Russian forces left them entering Baltic capitals within 60 hours, and that such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with limited options of response. The report identified that seven full NATO combat brigades with complimentary support elements would be needed to adequately defend the region in the event of a conventional incursion, however such a massive reinforcement would almost certainly leave Russia feeling vulnerable. Unsurprising given that NATO’s eastern border in Estonia sits only 150km from St Petersburg.
RAND was not alone in imagining such a scenario. In “2017: War with Russia” General Sir Richard Shirreff, the former Deputy Supreme Commander for NATO in Europe, imagines a scenario in which Russia stages a hybrid warfare-type incursion into Latvia, and paralyses a NATO response by threatening nuclear retaliation, destabilising the mutual defence Alliance.
Geography is often said to determine destiny. Russia is more acutely aware of this than most states. Despite the fact that geographic Russia is staggeringly vast, strategic Russia is small, with the Moscow-St. Petersburg corridor representing the overwhelming bulk of the nation’s economic, industrial, and therefore strategic value. Both cities sit on the great flatlands of the Northern European Plain, with no geographic barriers to hold back invading armies. This strategically-weak hand has left Russia vulnerable to invasion repeatedly throughout history, with little option but to engage in costly wars of attrition against invaders, delaying their advance until the brutal Russian winter arrives to reinforce the defenders.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a robust buffer zone in the form of Soviet-occupied Europe with which to absorb the blows of an approaching invader. Additionally, the Carpathian mountains provide a geographic barrier that narrows the European Plain and provides a strategic choke-point at which Moscow could concentrate defensive forces. Today, however, Russia’s borders sit further east and alongside those of NATO, placing alliance fighter jets within minutes of the valuable Moscow-St. Petersburg corridor. This new border spans the widest point of the Northern European Plain, and without a huge and impractically-costly standing army, is incredibly difficult to defend. Perhaps this is why Putin himself called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “Greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
Adding to this sense of vulnerability in the Kremlin, the Gulf Wars demonstrated the West’s truly devastating capabilities in armoured warfare through air-land battle concepts. Coalition tanks stormed Iraq practically overnight in a flat, open environment that from a tactical perspective could be compared to that of the Northern European Plain. This has left Russia with a defensive weakness which Putin would be keen to mitigate.
Beyond these immediate and tangible temptations for Moscow, NATO as an organisation is crucially dependent on Article V, which states that an attack on one member will be treated as an attack on all. Should NATO fail to respond to a Russian incursion in the Baltics, the alliance’s credibility would be severely undermined, and many eastern states might be tempted to reorient themselves towards Russia. This would achieve three key objectives for Russia:
- The re-establishment of a strategic buffer-zone to protect the Russian economic-industrial heartland.
- The weakening and potential outright dismantling of NATO through a credibility crisis.
- The reconstruction of Moscow’s sphere of influence over Eastern Europe.
While these would certainly be great rewards for Russia, the risks involved are not insignificant.
A conventional option?
While the RAND report mostly focuses on a conventional incursion into the Baltic states, I am inclined to agree with my colleague’s arguments that such a move would be extremely risky for Putin, and would almost certainly provoke a full-scale conventional response from NATO. In such a war, despite extremely high casualties on both sides, it is unlikely that Russia would prevail given NATO’s economic and technological edge. Despite Russia’s announcement in 2014 that it would embark on a massive campaign of military modernisation that would take the military from 10% modernised to 70% by 2020, the reality that followed was one where oil price decline, international sanctions and general economic underperformance left Moscow unable to roll out the program as widely as desired. Proudly announced developments such as the T-14 main battle tank and 5th generation PAK-FA stealth fighter were quietly down-scaled in the procurement stream, and the majority of the Russian armed forces remain equipped with legacy tools, much of which dates back to the Soviet Union.
Beyond this, Russia’s largely-conscript army is not considered to be anywhere near as well trained as its NATO counterparts. While select Russian units have gained valuable combat experience in Syria and Ukraine, this cannot compare to the value gained by roughly 23 years of combined and continuous warfare fought by NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the average Russian junior officer needed to summon air or artillery support, it would likely be for the first time, perhaps even including training. Meanwhile, counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East and Asia have allowed NATO forces to perfect the art of international joint operations. A British Army officer in Afghanistan might have regularly coordinated with Danish Leopard Tanks, while receiving air support from a French Mirage fighter jet.
A more tempting option
Putin, as pointed out by my colleague, is a rational actor. He is fully aware of the existential risks posed by a conventional war with NATO, and as such would be unlikely to follow such a course of action. A more appealing option would likely appear similar in nature to that seen in Ukraine: deniable hybrid warfare. By inserting Russian teams into more remote, Russian-speaking areas of the eastern Baltics, even those without a cultural-gravitation towards rejoining Russia, Putin would be taking on a more tolerable gamble. Washington and the wider community would almost certainly shed blood for Warsaw, Berlin or Paris. They would probably be willing to shed blood for Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius. The democratic governments of the Western alliance would be significantly less hasty to go to war with a nuclear rival over Udria, Vilaka or Zarasai; small areas of the Baltic States unlikely to be found on a map by the average Western citizen.
The 2015 kidnapping of an Estonian border security officer by Russian forces demonstrates Russia’s willingness to blur lines in this region, and allowed Moscow to effectively undermine Estonia’s border-credibility. This act could be seen as a microscopic example of Russia’s hybrid actions in Georgia and Ukraine: short, sharp, destabilising.
Further reducing the risk of such a gamble for Putin is the Trump-factor. In an interview during the Presidential campaign in 2016, President Trump suggested that the U.S. would not provide military assistance to the Baltic States. While Trump appears to have now shifted to a more supportive stance towards collective defence, he has repeatedly criticized the Organisation’s member states for under-spending, and even declared NATO “obsolete“. This unpredictability has made several NATO member-states nervous, and has raised questions about the Alliance’s largest member’s commitment to the defence of Europe as a whole, let alone its far Eastern border regions. Despite several decades of U.S. military leadership on the continent, the question now looms large whether Washington would come to Europe’s aid in the event of war.
While any military option in the Baltic States would carry huge risks for Moscow, Putin now faces a unique opportunity to restore Russian geopolitical greatness and undo the “greatest catastrophe of the 20th century”. A deniable incursion of Russian forces into the fringes of its Baltic neighbours could allow the Kremlin to salami slice away the territory of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and with them the credibility of NATO’s collective defence assurances. These strategies have proven successful in Ukraine and Georgia, not in achieving military objectives, but in undermining the credibility and stability of the targeted nations, who were subsequently prevented from further integrating with the West.
The West is also now increasingly looking inward, and isolationist populism has spread through Great Britain, the United States, and potentially through mainland Europe in the coming months. In such a climate, the Baltic States are likely questioning the reliability of their foreign allies. While Trump would probably shed blood for Paris or Berlin, it seems highly questionable whether “America First” is a policy that could be translated into American combat deaths over Udria, Vilaka or Zarasai.
Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently provides MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to a leading U.S. investment bank.
Photo credit: Michael Mikhin/Михаил Михин