Russian KA-27 helicopter being secured to the deck of the USS Vella Gulf as part of the BaltOps 2003 annual joint military exercises.
Editor’s Note: The Diplomacist would like to thank Fabrizio Tassinari, who currently heads the Foreign Policy Studies unit at the Danish Institute for International Studies, for contributing to the research for this article. Mr. Tassinari is currently also a Visiting Professor at the Department of Social Science at Humboldt University in Berlin.
To: Ms. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs
From: Matthew Finkel, Strategic Analyst and Concerned Citizen
Date: November 15, 2016
RE: Strategic Vulnerability in the Baltics
NATO’s eastern flank is alarmingly susceptible to potential acts of Russian aggression. A dangerous combination of anemic NATO defense spending, perceived lack of political will, and unfavorable military geography has rendered the Baltic states almost entirely indefensible. The Department of Defense recently released a statement indicating that Russian forces are capable of overpowering NATO troops in the Baltics in just 60 hours, with Baltic capitals being especially vulnerable. Russia’s vastly superior military mobilization capabilities place the Baltics in a precarious position, with a revanchist neighbor and wavering political will among NATO members in regards to Article 5.
In a recent series of war games conducted by RAND, staggering vulnerabilities were uncovered in the Baltic region’s defense apparatus. The study’s findings are conclusive: “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” Russia’s anti-access area-denial bubble based in Kaliningrad significantly hampers NATO’s rapid deployment efforts and effectively precludes the use of heavy air support in any Baltic conflict. A lack of NATO installations in Vilnius, Tallinn, or Riga greatly limit the region’s ability to repel a Russian incursion.
Increased Likelihood of Aggression
In the wake of the second surge into Ukraine, the threat of Russian aggression looms large. Claims of historical territorial ownership and abuse of Russian minorities in Ukraine serve as an equally viable pretext for invasion of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russian intelligence penetration is especially high in the Baltic states and Russian rhetoric in regards to diasporic minorities has spiked in recent months. Russian fighter-jets and spy planes have performed flybys in Estonia and Latvia multiple times this past year and Russia routinely holds military exercises near the shared border.
Lack of Political Will
While NATO’s Collective Defense Article 5 has long been posited as a guarantor of member nation security, doubts have arisen regarding the willingness of NATO’s members to rally to the aid of the Baltic states. Polling released recently by Pew Research Center reveals a lack of public support in key western European states for resorting to military force in the event of a Russian attack on a neighboring NATO member. Most Western European member nations fall far below NATO’s target defense spending goal of 2% of GDP and policymakers in France and Germany have been highly critical of NATO’s buildup on its eastern flank. The East-West divide among NATO members has undermined political willingness to create an effective strategic deterrence in the Baltics.
Consequences and Future Developments
- As a result of Russia’s inflammatory rhetoric and military maneuvers in the region, Sweden and Finland are considering entering into closer bilateral military cooperation with NATO. This would significantly alter the strategic calculus in the Baltics, as a closer relationship would likely provoke Russian backlash in the region while also reinforcing the credibility of Baltic deterrence.
- Any surge in NATO deployment in the Baltics will likely provoke further Russian nuclear threats.
- NATO’s recently initiated counter-ISIS campaign will likely divert NATO funding and equipment away from the Baltic region.
- Heavy brigades and armored forces must be forward deployed in or near the Baltic region. According to RAND Corporation, NATO’s nearest armored presence, a U.S. combined arms battalion, would take nearly ten days to arrive in the Baltics from its station in Grafenwoehr, Germany. Considering the recent threat assessment and advanced Russian capabilities, the current posture fails to act as a credible deterrence.
- NATO must seek a to develop greater degree of interoperability in regards to its short-range missile defense apparatus, air and logistical support, and heavy conventional ground forces in the Baltics. While air support and surface-to-air defence instruments are capable of rapid redeployment from neighboring NATO members, their ability to counter the multidimensional threat of Russia’s superior missile and artillery presence in the region is in doubt.
- NATO should enhance its cooperation with NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation) to further engage Finland and Sweden in the defence of the Baltic region through joint training and interoperability exercises. A common core competency in cold weather operations enhances the collective deterrence posture in the region and closer security cooperation would allow for a more multidimensional territorial defence of NATO’s eastern flank.
Matthew Finkel is a sophomore at Wesleyan University, majoring in Government and Latin American Regional Studies with a minor in International Relations.