Since 2014 the relations between Russia and NATO has reached the levels of Cold War. Russia has annexed Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and wages proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has also made intervention into Syrian civil war. Russia has increased arms race and military buildup causing NATO countries to respond. Right now in NATO summit in Warsaw has decided to increase its military presence within Baltic States and Poland by deploying four international battalions in Baltic States under Canadian command while US will deploy 1,000 additional troops in Poland. In so Baltic region will become a NATO war base. This decision will create increase of Russian military near Baltic borders and inside Kaliningrad region. However, since 2013 Russia has already increased its presence and already outmatches and will outmatch the NATO forces in the region. Last two years in Baltic States the social tensions have been increased by the fears of war and Russian invasion. Is this a still far-fetched nightmare created by historic past and inner insecurity or a real threat and does the invasion already taking place by non military means? What are the possible scenarios for Russian invasion? What are the reasons for Russia to invade and not to invade the Baltic States? What consequences it would make for both sides. These questions will be discussed here.
NATO vs Russia. Balance of Military Power in the Baltic Region
Baltic States have population of six million and all three countries suffer from significant depopulation issues. So creating a sizable military force for all three countries is impossible task both financially and by means of manpower. Estonian Defense Forces has 6,500 active officers and 12, 600 in paramilitary Defense League. In case of war Estonia plans to use 30,000 men and woman. Estonia spends 2,07% for military the required amount by NATO guidelines. Land forces have 2 infantry brigades, infantry is well equipped with NATO, Swedish, Finish and Israeli firearms and special weapons. The army motor pool is currently being expanded and consists mainly of infantry fighting vehicles. Estonia employs compulsory service. Latvian National Armed Forces have 5, 350 active personnel. In case of war NAF could gather 50, 000 soldiers. Latvian infantry has modern firearms from NATO, Sweden and Israel with bit outdated artillery and only for last two years it has begun supplying its motor pool with infantry fighting vehicles. Along army the National Guard is a sizable force. Latvian National Forces are currently most underfunded in the region with 1,4% spending on defense. For years the Latvian government has neglected the defense spending and only for last two years are trying to improve the situation. Ādaži training poligon has been improved and regularly hosts foreign troops on rotational training. Lielvārde Airfield has been fixed to host advanced NATO aircraft for landing. Latvian Navy is on path of improvement and is regularly involved in patroling Latvian waters checking for passing Russian naval vessels. Latvia is the only country in Baltic States with professional military service. Lithuanian Armed Forces have 8,120 active land troops with two mechanized infantry brigades. Lithuania has the most advanced vehicle force and artillery. Lithuania has reverted from professional to compulsory service on 2015. The Šiauļai Air Base that hosts NATO Baltic Air Patrol mission is one of the most important military objects in the area. All three countries have small air forces suitable for training, local search and rescue missions and patrolling.
This means that all three countries are heavily reliant on support from NATO allied countries. Closest military ally with significant active force of 120,000 man and woman is Poland with its sizable Air Force and Navy. Polish forces have key importance in securing so-called Suwalki gap, containing Russian forces in Kaliningard and assisting Lithuanian army. Currently there are no constantly present NATO troops in the region. During last two years US, Germany, Poland, UK and other countries have sent their forces for temporary period for training. These mostly brigades and battalions stays in Baltic for few months then head to next assignment. That is about to change as Warsaw summit in July 9 2016 has decided to station permanent troops in Poland and Baltic States. In Latvia 450 a battalion sized Canadian contingent will arrive, in Poland 1,000 US troops will be stationed. This actually means the NATO Article five on invading allied country will come fully into effect as in case of invasion in Baltic States or Poland the stationary troops will be first to be involved. This serves as clear warning to Russia that if it would wish to undertake the invasion there would be almost no chance to avoid a World War 3 situation.
However, the size of newly stationed troops in region will be still be minimal. Russia had begun its buildup of military forces already before 2013 and has modeled conflict with NATO in its massive drills before conflict in Ukraine. Russia has divided its military in four main military regions with most of its European part is called the Western military district. Russia has gathered already more that 20, 000 men and woman in Western Military district and 10, 000 men and woman in Southern Military district in Caucasus region. A special territory of importance is Kaliningrad region. Formerly German East Prussia it was divided between Poland and Soviet Union on 1945. Soviets established forward army in naval base in more far west region of USSR to support Soviets stationed in Poland and East Germany and gain entry for Soviet Baltic Navy to Atlantic. That changed after 1991 when Kaliningard region became sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland cutting direct land supply routes. After both countries joined NATO the Russian army and Navy considered themselves surrounded in 15,100 km² small area. So steps were taken to improve regions defense. Now Kaliningrad has become the most militarized region in Europe with 225,000 military personnel (2014 data) the main Baltic Naval base in Baltiysk. The region hosts about 60 different military units, has functional airfields, early warning radar station and radio listening stations. The 941,873 large regional population affected by militarization and constant propaganda emphasizing 1945 victory and military strength is considered one of the most loyal supporters of the Moscow policies. Kaliningrad is also a vulnerability and burden for Russia. Since it cannot supply it and deploy more forces by land it its forced to use the only route along the Baltic Sea from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad. This is done by air and sea transport. Since the narrow route is between Baltic State and Swedish and sea and air space the task is made difficult because Russian Air Force and sea vessels always impose secrecy on their routes and never allows to track them by use of radars. Transponders are always off and ships do not respond to identification calls from NATO Air force and Navy. For this reason the NATO Air Policing mission always have to take off to scramble and identify Russian warplanes and NATO navy must detect ships and submarines that passes by. This equal harassment so far has always ended peacefully, however we must take note of Turkish experience when SU-24 that supposedly entered Turkish air space was shot down on October 29 2016. Russians themselves are sometimes risking to cause a serious incident by making low pass fly by over USS Donald Cook giving US warning signal that Baltic Sea belongs to them.
Another point of argument is Belarus. Belarus is one of the most loyal allied states to Russia, not to mention Armenia. It has force of 62,000 active men and woman, sizable tank and air force. Whats more to add to importance is that Belarus hosts Russian troops and probably will host more as answer to NATO buildup. While Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko officially seeks a partnership with EU countries he has stated many times that in case of Russian conflict with NATO Belarus will side with Russia and take direct part. That means Belarusian army is a threat to Latvian eastern region of Latgale and to Lithuania particularly to Lazdijai and Druskinkai municipalities along the Polish border that have Belarusian border on the east and Russian border on the east. Presumably both forces could attempt to take the region to cut off Baltic States from Poland and Western Europe. So far there has been insignificant opposition towards Russian military presence among Belarusian society. That could change if economic difficulties deepen for Belarus.
Two nearby Scandinavian countries Sweden and Finland with sizable military, but are not NATO members are concerned over worsening security issues in the region. There are many in both countries who advice to join NATO or at least expand the cooperation with NATO. Sweden that has maintained long history of neutrality and now it as the crossroads. Russia knows this and ha begun campaign of intimidation against Sweden to weaken their will to join NATO. Finland has very long border with Russia and historical policy of keeping neutrality with Russia, however that may change at some point and how Finland would react to the assault against ethnically close Estonia? So involvement of these two countries remains a question.
Russia’s reasons for invasion. For and against.
Baltic States provides almost no valuable natural resources for Russia to plunder. Financial gains might be the worth, however Russia already gains from Baltic States by trade, transit and gas supplies. Baltic States are trying to shake off reliance on Russian energy export, most successful in this matter is Lithuania. That’s way as same in Ukraine, Russia’s goal is to prevent Baltic States independence on energy sources and that can be done by multiple means.
One of the main reason for invasions are political and emotional. Baltic States was possession of Russian Empire and was under Soviet occupation for most of XX century. Moscow highly regarded the European cultured territory and invested much in their industrialization and militarization. Now what is left is mostly empty carcasses of abandoned factories and war bases but what was left as inheritance was large numbers of Russian speaking immigrants in Latvia and Estonia. Both countries in early nighties did crucial and disputable actions to deny citizenship for most of these people creating a massive disappointment towards Latvian and Estonian ethnic population. The creation of large non-citizen community had political reason – Latvian national parties feared that Russian speaking voters could elect anti-western political force that would disrupt Latvian and Estonian path to NATO and US. In last 20 years the naturalization laws have allowed non citizens to obtain citizenship and indeed most of them vote for parties supporting Russia. While still significant size of non citizens remain and they are material for Russian special foreign policy to support Russian speakers outside Russia.
The policy to support Russian speakers by civil and military means was already introduced during Boris Yeltsin and fully deployed by Vladimir Putin. Moscow spends millions of rubles to create so-called Russian World a net of organizations committed to protection of Russian language, education and culture outside Russia. In Latvia some of these organizations like Non Citizen congress, Russian party “Zarya”, Russian National Union and others are openly rebellious towards Latvian government and have been persecuted by law agencies. In Georgia 2008 and in Ukraine 2014 Russia claimed that Georgians and Ukrainians are creating violent actions against Russian speakers and was obliged to protect them. In Baltic States only violent outburst was Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn on 2006 when Russia instigated massive cyber attacks and sent the provocateurs from Russian border. With financial capability and willing agents Russia could instigate a violent provocation to get casus belli for invasion. So far from 2014 various pro-Russian and anti-Russian demonstrations have taken place with small incidents not enough to cause outrage. Russian speaking community nevertheless is important recourse for Russia and worry for Riga and Tallinn. Tallinn has made many successful steps for Russian speaker integration, while Latvia has its ups and downs. The largest parliamentary fraction in Latvian Saeima the Harmony is kept in opposition and for its ties with Kremlin the major Latvian parties had vowed to keep it out of power. While Harmony is charge of Riga and Rēzekne municipality and is plagued with corruption scandals it has enough voter support base. On 2012 Russian national radicals managed to hold referendum for Russian as second state language and failed. Russian and Latvian languages both have been politicized by both sides and is used in political argument.The latest surveys show that Russian speakers feel most endangered by Latvians in areas where they live the most like Riga, Daugavpils and Latgale region while in Kurzeme (Courland) and Vidzeme with Latvian absolute majority they feel almost no danger and support Latvian policies. So Russia has many reasons both real and imaginary to use military action to protect Russian speakers in the region. However, as today it seems highly unlikely that Baltic States would impose any repressions towards its Russian speaking community.
The third reason is common Russian political strife against NATO. Vladimir Putin and his ruling elite started its carrier during last decades of the Soviet Union and deeply regrets its fall. Many of them blames directly US and West for the breakup and still suspects US of plotting against them. Some authors suggest that Putin at first wanted to create good relations with US and UK by trying to create good impression on Tony Blair and George W Bush, but, was deeply disappointed when they made steps that contradicted his own interests. Such was Eastern Europe’s admission to NATO and western support for democratic movements in Georgia, Ukraine and Russia itself. Putin’s inner circle has always blamed all the democratic revolutions in former Soviet countries as CIA plot and deeply feels that such plot could be carried out in Moscow. Russian propaganda has created the story of Fortress Russia that is encircled by NATO and China. So to contain this “threat” Russia has increased its military strength and severely limited political freedoms since 2012. One of the Russian strategies is to stage a preventive war to prevent NATO to attack or expand further to Russian borders. Currently preventive wars are being carried out in Ukraine to prevent in ascension to NATO and EU and in Syria to keep the Damascus pro-Russian regime and do not lose valuable Tartus Naval base. If Russia would feel further endangered by NATO increasing presence in the Baltic States it may choose a “preventive strike” to remove NATO “threat” from its close borders. Question yet remains and cannot be answered – does Kremlin really do believe its being threatened by Western countries or it’s just propaganda phantom for Russian people made to justify Kremlin foreign and inner policy actions.
Fourth last reason for invasion is the use of war as tool for mass control. Russian society was deeply moved by annexation of Crimea and had its support for war in Eastern Ukraine and intervention in Syria. War was and is central part of Russian propaganda since Soviet times and it is enough to hold massive support for the region despite economic difficulties. A war against NATO an event both feared and propagandized would be last and final straw for Kremlin to keep support of its people should there be danger of economical collapse. Also its a “leave nothing behind us” thinking by some of the Kremlin people who would rather perish in war then be arrested or hanged during revolution. That’s why Russian military doctrine does not fear using nuclear weapons.
The main reason for not invading the Baltic States is obvious: they are part of NATO. Russia may gamble that for sake of their own citizens and soldiers NATO countries might sacrifice the Baltic States, but as NATO has decided on permanent presence in the region the military conflict with all the member states will be impossible to avoid. Secondly such action will result complete international isolation of Russia that only contribute to its difficult economical and political state caused by War in Ukraine. Thirdly the failure of this invasion may in light variant my cause breakdown of regime in worse case – nuclear war.
Scenarios for Invasion.
There are two possible scenarios for invasion. First: full-scale invasion. Second: limited, non-direct like it’s happening in Eastern Ukraine. Full scale invasion would require much use of land, sea and air force. The main Russian objectives would be securing control over the air and blockade the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad region would be used to blockade the land route trough Suwalki, Poland to Vilnius and Riga. Russia would not necessarily need to assault Suwalki itself, but rather secure control over Lithuanian towns of Kybartai, Marijumpole, Kalvarija and Druskinskai. First cities to fall would be Narva, Tartu, Balvi, Kārsava, Rēzekne, Krāslava and Daugavpils. Since Vilnius is close to Belarusian border it would be first Baltic capital to be attacked. The question of further advance will determined in the skies over Baltic, in the sea and the Suwalki gap zone. If Russia manages to secure access points to Baltic States it has chance to overrun the NATO forces trapped in encirclement. NATO forces in every way has technical and numeric advantage over Russia and using it NATO would eventually break the blockade and force Russia to retreat. So NATO objective is to prevent the Baltic blockade and cut off Russia from Kaliningrad. Air, Naval and tactical superiority is in need.
A logical question then arises what about nuclear weapons? First no country has ever had experience of using nuclear weapon against country that also have them. However, the common sense and most military doctrines is to use nuclear weapons after the warring country has exceeded all conventional means. Their forces are defeated and are on rout and country is on breakdown. That is one of the actions Russia would possibly choose. However, Russia has far-fetched doctrine of using nuclear detonation to prevent NATO for acting further. A scenario in mind that Russia would use tactical nuke against military unit or city and then in fear of nuclear war would try to impose ceasefire advantageous for them. However, such strategy is a gamble. One country might possibly not respond and seek solution while other fires tactical nuke in response, creating response after response leading to ultimate nuclear annihilation. So using or not using nuclear weapons it’s a question of common sense.
Second scenario is limited invasion like the one that takes place in Ukraine. Russia could try to form Russian peoples republics in Narva, Daugavpils and Rēzekne and try to instigate revolts in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. Same as in Ukraine Russia has large Russian speaking population to use for their goals, many of them including some Latvians would support pro-Russian revolt. Russia might still try to blockade Baltic sea and Suwalki gap, but it will refrain from taking all countries completely. Border areas would fall for Russian control and there Russia would try to create environment for frozen conflict that would bleed out three Baltic States and NATO trying to help them. Such scenario may avoid discussion of using nuclear weapons, however, Russia would have hard time to prove that there are no Russian troops in Latgale.
In both case of full and limited invasion Russia would fall under tougher sanctions and isolation. Russian populace at first would support the invasion., however basing on military success or failures it would change drastically. Victory if such is possible would lead to Russia as totalitarian fortress in opposition against western block for times to come. Defeat would cause an unpredictable series of events, like state breakdown, civil war and foreign intervention. Limited frozen conflict in Baltic states will lead to same Russian totalitarianism and isolation only to hope find agreement over the conflict. Failure and loss of national prestige will leave its regime vulnerable.
For Baltic States its means great loses of lives, destruction of infrastructure and economical breakdown. In some ways the limited invasion and frozen conflict would be more crucial as it would be a constant bleed out.
For the world it would mean the danger of WW3. Not to mention fear of use of nuclear weapon, the conflict might spread to Poland, Caucasus, Moldovo everywhere where NATO and Russian troops might encounter each other. This would be major political and economical disruption for EU countries and US and UK that are already plagued by social disturbances. By all means such conflict would be highly disadvantageous for both sides.
The Covert Soft Invasion Already Taking Place
The Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu has stated that the supreme way to win the battle is to win it without fighting it. This is soft power, propaganda, espionage and subversion of state and society. In many accords this is already taking place for many years and has intensified. Russia clearly is aware of all the risks mentioned above. Thats why its obvious goal is to create climate in the West and Baltic States where its leaders and people are unwilling to fight a war. First its massive emission of Russian propaganda in all languages using all possible ways. Often this has success like Western Media still has issues who are the armed people in Donbass – separatists, terrorists, or Russian soldiers and mercenaries. There are people who are against sanctions and don’t see the need for supporting Ukraine and Baltic States. What Russia needs is for such people to be in large numbers and elect populist, nationalist or far left politicians who leads against so-called establishment and will contribute to lifting sanctions, recognize Crimean annexation and weaken NATO. Such politicians gained their successes recently in UK and managed to disrupt the EU and cause divide within British society. In France, Czech Republic, Austria, Greece ect. there are forces who wish to come to power and are supported by Russia. In US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump who has proved he almost no understanding about European and Russian policy wishes to achieve deal with Russia and question the need American involvement in NATO. Trump might be a gamble for Moscow to weaken the US by populist Russia sympathizing president. But, Trump is highly unpredictable person with zero experience in politics. If he keeps his America First! doctrine he would soon find that his deals with Russia are playing against him and will break them and cause problems for Russia. In similar way Napoleon and Hitler broke his deals with Russia after they found disadvantageous for them. In countries like Poland and Latvia where nationalistic conservative forces have taken power but are ideologically against Russia a another phenomena is taking place while these forces are generally against Putin’s regime, they are very found of his conservatism and authoritarian methods. On both countries these forces are trying to sit on fence – while supporting military alliance against Russia they try to impose same laws that Putin would impose. Such situation is anomalous. The greatest fight for European hearts and minds are taking place now and will decide the events on battlefield if such takes place.
As it was discussed here war in Baltic States are not advantageous for both sides and will lead to plenty of worse consequences. So its fair to say that likelihood of such invasion is not possible. However, as long as Russia continues its war in Ukraine, does not end occupation of Crimea and continues intervention in Syria the danger of Russian military aggression stays. As it was stated here Russia often does not need a logical or rational reason to start a war the decision can be based on fear, hate, power mongering and oversight. Thus the war can be caused by simple unforeseen incident like in Sarajevo 1914 when few shots brought whole Europe to war that was waiting for it for last few years. So there is no reason to competently override the danger of Russian invasion. As long as aggressive, suspicious and totalitarian regime is in power in Moscow that relies heavily on its military success the danger will stay and should be considered and prepared for.