It has been a tricky time for US security guarantees. “Have no doubt that we stand with you united, in a common cause”, US Defence Secretary Mattis said reassuringly to the Lithuanian President back in May. Less than two weeks later, President Trump failed to endorse NATO’s mutual-defence clause, Article 5, in Brussels. While this omission was corrected at a White House press conference last month, Mr Trump’s unpredictability and penchant for deal making has caused many to worry that the US may think twice before going to the aid of a NATO ally.
This worry is particularly pronounced in the Baltic states. Here, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are members of both the EU and NATO. Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent war in Ukraine, territorial defence has been back on the agenda. NATO has sought to reassure its most eastern members and last year committed to deploying small battalions to the Baltic states and Poland to act as a deterrent. The first batch of British troops arrived in Estonia in March.
Some don’t think this is enough. A 2016 RAND report probes what it sees as NATO’s vulnerabilities. Through a series of simulations the respected US think tank lays out how Russia would be able to take two Baltic capitals within 60 hours. They conclude that the alliance is outnumbered, outranged and outgunned. Moscow would have an advantage in a local conflict, and by taking territory would be able to “demonstrate NATO’s inability to protect its most vulnerable members and divide the Alliance.” The report has since been the bedrock of many an article outlining the prospect of a Baltic invasion. Any invasion of the Baltics would have severe implications. Not only would it challenge the territorial integrity of EU member states, it would trigger Article 5 of the NATO Charter, testing the core principle of the alliance. But is it likely?
Geography make the Baltic states difficult to defend. Russia maintain local dominance and can move equipment and personnel around its border on existing infrastructure. This shouldn’t be a surprise. While on paper the Russian military is weaker than NATO, Moscow would likely win a quick battle. Damage could be done in hours. For some commentators this is enough. But dig below the realisation that Russia is a big country with an army that can move and there is little convincing about an invasion of the Baltic states.
Taking land is one thing; holding it is another. Assume the Russian military push quickly towards a Baltic capital — what then? There would be no plausible deniability; no exit strategy. Moscow doesn’t have the numbers to sustain an occupation in a country where the majority of the population don’t want it. The Russian military has transformed itself over the last decade but remains a work in progress. Reliance on mass mobilisation has kept troop numbers up, but stretched and thrown together divisions would be no match for the Baltic states. While the emergence of small elite units for shock operations have proven effective in Ukraine and Syria, Moscow are well aware of the risks associated with their deployment in a theatre where NATO’s Article 5 could be triggered. The range of responses, military to economic, would be crippling.
Another scenario played out is a repeat of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Here we would see political warfare based around the protection of ethnic Russian minorities. This could escalate to a low-level insurgency, with the prospect of ‘Russian peacekeepers’. The protection of compatriots abroad is outlined in various Kremlin documents and briefings. This confrontational approach to identity is based on the perceived duty to protect not just Russian citizens, but ethnic-Russians, Russian speakers and even those who merely identify as Russian — regardless of borders. Such protections were used prior to the 2008 Georgian war and the annexation of Crimea.
On the surface this seems more plausible. It wouldn’t immediately violate NATO’s Article 5, but it would still challenge the alliance and erode confidence. Yet even this is not all that convincing. Too often comparisons are made between Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and the Baltic states without addressing the specifics. Crimea was a unique situation; the Peninsula’s history, the high number of ethnic Russians, the weak relationship with Kiev, and Russia’s Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol. Crimea was taken with relative ease. In Eastern Ukraine, political warfare, subversion and state sponsored insurgency ultimately failed. It took the intervention of thousands of Moscow’s elite troops to save the separatists from defeat. Hardly a blueprint to take elsewhere.
But could something similar happen in the Baltics? Estonia and Latvia have a large ethnic Russian minority and Russian speaking population. The Kremlin regularly criticise all three governments for failing to protect minorities. In 2014 the Russian Foreign Ministry made it clear that Moscow would protect Russian speakers. Many NGOs and charities on the ground, co-opted through Moscow’s compatriot fund, focus on the lives of these Russian speakers, as well as ethnic Russians.
It’s true that there are integration problems, particularly in the eastern industrial areas of Estonia and Latvia. Here, pockets of the population remain susceptible to Russian influence. Yet by and large they are so because of socio-economic conditions. More should be done by policy makers to assist integration and dialogue. Progress has been made. Rights for non-citizens are improving. Political and economic opportunities are increasing. Citizenship processes have been simplified. The reality is that even those who feel distant from their central government have little interest in joining another. Those who look eastward increasingly see an isolated, economically unstable and political corrupt project with little to offer. The idea that Baltic state populations are ripe for a Russian led uprising is not persuasive.
Intent, strategy, how we view Russia
Capabilities are important. So is intent. For all the think- pieces that outline how Russia would take the Baltics, few are able to say why. There is no evidence Moscow is territorially interested. This doesn’t mean the Kremlin won’t interfere, probe, disrupt and distract. It will. But Russia uses, and threatens to use, military force as a political instrument to exert influence and shape behaviour; to control an environment for as long as possible at minimal cost. An invasion of a Baltic state offers little opportunity for this.
A lesson to consider from Ukraine is not the what, but the why. Here, conflict is not about taking territory — it is about keeping Ukraine, and others within Russia’s near-abroad, under the thumb and out of Western institutions. While the current bluster from President Trump over NATO is counterproductive, Moscow take the mutual-defence clause seriously. This is not to diminish the threat Russia poses to the Baltic states. NATO is right to roll out assurance measures. The alliance should make its ability to respond with force unequivocally clear. But this shouldn’t come at the expense of trying to understand Moscow’s political motivations. Simply filling the Baltics with NATO troops will do little to address how Russia uses power. It would also be naïve to think Moscow needs additional territory to demonstrate NATO inadequacy or disunity.
The skewed discussion around a Baltic state invasion is part of a wider problem we have with talking about Russia. In one breath President Putin can be caricatured as a villain of mastermind proportions — a grand strategist. In another he can be regarded as incompetent enough that anything other than total failure in a theatre like Syria is so remote, planning for it would be intellectually demeaning. This not only warps perspective, it paralyses response. All the while Moscow has managed Western expectations through its own model of coercive diplomacy. Some of the more dramatic predictions of Russia’s expansionist ambitions may demonstrate the relative success of this model.
Moscow seeks a world of multipolarity and realpolitik where it can break rules and wield influence. In doing so it has sought — albeit haphazardly — to undermine the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This will continue. To properly defend the Baltic states one has to consider everything from energy sector monopolies to corruption, organised crime and cyber security; not just how long it takes to get a Russian helicopter to Tallinn. Recognising that the West’s own governance shortcomings and political disunity have been exploited by Moscow will also be essential. Confronting these will be necessary to protect not only the Baltic states, but the rest of Europe.
Published June 2017