Radioactive in Riga: The Latvian Nuclear Standoff of 2018, Part II


Note from the author: The purpose of this scenario, which stretches over three years, is to gauge potential future developments in NATO-Russia relations. While it is a work of fiction, and thus largely speculative, it is nevertheless grounded in a close study of Russia’s geopolitical mindset, and of its recent strategic behavior. The goal is not to engage in alarmism, but rather to explore plausible pathways to conflict, in the hope that through their examination such grim futures can be forestalled. Scenario development, whether through alternate histories, science fiction, or wargaming, can help us befuddled mortals peer just a little further into the fog of the future. That being said, it is my sincere hope that none of these events come to pass, and more importantly, that readers should find the scenario more thought-provoking (and entertaining) than genuinely troubling. Last but not least, it should provide a useful reminder that despite recent events in Syria, the Russian challenge to European stability is not likely to go away any time soon. Please read Part I, which relates the events of 2016.


2017 was marked by heightened turmoil in both Moldova and the Baltics. In May 2014, senior Russian figures had already warned Moldova of the consequences of pursuing exploratory talks on NATO membership and of deepening its relationship with the European Union. With the victory of the pro-European parties in the parliamentary elections held at the end of 2014, Western European nations had hoped for a greater degree of influence over the small nation’s political trajectory, and for a furthering of Moldova’s EU and NATO integration agendas. It became rapidly evident, however, that Moldovan politics remained deeply polarized and tainted by corruption scandals, while the central government proved increasingly incapable of enacting any meaningful reform.

When in October 2017 the Moldovan prime minister announced the indefinite postponement of an Association Agreement with the EU, university students took to the streets of Chisinau. Lamenting their lack of socio-economic opportunities, the students called for greater integration with the more prosperous European Union. They were soon joined by trade unionists and members of the Moldovan lower middle class, who denounced the spread of corruption and cronyism, and accused the prime minister of kowtowing to Russia. To Moscow, this looked unnervingly similar to the Maidan protests in Ukraine just a few years before. Determined not to bear witness to yet another state’s absorption into the Western sphere of influence, Russia immediately dispatched hundreds of “security advisors” to Chisinau. When queried on their provenance, an anonymous Western intelligence officer described them as being “drawn almost entirely from the GRU,” and described how leading members of pro-Europe parties had received a number of threats from Russian intelligence assets. Shortly after the arrival of these advisors, the Moldovan demonstrations took a more violent turn, with numerous young protestors falling victim to sniper fire. Interviewed on CNN during the G20 summit in Germany, President Vladimir Putin denied any responsibility in the deaths of protestors, declaring that the snipers in question were

simply Moldovan nationalist thugs attempting to force their extreme agenda on a weak regime. CNN would be well advised to investigate who provided these fascists with such lethal weaponry in the first place.

He then proceeded to stun the international community by announcing the formal annexation of Transnistria,

In accordance with the longstanding desires of our compatriots in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, we have decided to end their long isolation from the motherland. In light of the anarchy reigning in Moldova, we have also decided to further enhance our troop presence in the region, and develop a rapid reaction force with the ability to restore order within our zone of privileged interests.

Continued Ethnic Unrest in Latvia

As Moldova continued to be roiled by violent protests, incidents of ethnic unrest were also becoming more frequent in the Baltic states-and in Latvia in particular.. Baltic officials reported a surge in Russian covert activity, with Russian intelligence personnel deepening their control over pro-Russian political parties and NGOs. In October, the Latvian interior minister revealed that the Russian embassy in Riga was actively recruiting Russian speakers in Latvia to join the insurgency in Ukraine. More disturbingly, there appeared to be a growing overlap between organized crime and the Russian FSB, with a number of the more moderate figures within Baltic Russian advocacy groups falling victim to what appeared to be highly targeted muggings and extortion. These actions, noted the interior minister, pointed to a “deliberate strategy on the part of the Russian government,” which “aims to replace the more democratically-minded leaders of Russian minority groups with hardliners subservient to the Kremlin.” Shortly after the press conference, the Latvian ambassador to the Russian Federation was expelled from Moscow. In response, the Latvian government deported two Russian political counselors accused of “blatant acts of espionage.” As the diplomatic crisis unfolded, a number of Latvian and Estonian government websites were targeted by mass distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS), subsequently attributed to the cyber-wing of a Russian nationalist youth group, as well as a more shadowy organization called the Russian Business Network (RBN).

NATO’s Enhanced Military Presence

Throughout 2017, Russian naval and air assets continued to engage in acts of military provocation, regularly buzzing Western ships and violating Western airspace. Analysts detected a clear pattern to Russian assertiveness. Indeed, most coercive military actions appeared to be directed either at nations contemplating joining NATO, such as Sweden and Finland, and at smaller, more vulnerable states such as the Baltics. Unsurprisingly these actions proved highly counterproductive for Moscow. In August 2016, both Sweden and Finland entered formal discussions to join NATO. By the end of 2017, the profoundly revisionist nature of the Russian regime was no longer in doubt, and public opinion polls in Europe showed record levels of concern over Russian belligerence. In the course of just two short years, Moscow had intervened militarily in Moldova, Syria, and Ukraine, and had illegally annexed both Transnistria and Crimea. Meanwhile, it appeared more and more evident that despite sporadic bursts of cooperation, Russian and Western goals were fundamentally incompatible in Syria. Tensions grew behind the scenes, with occasional firefights breaking out between Western special operations forces (SOF), and their Russian counterparts. After both Le Monde and The Guardian published interviews of Kurdish fighters claiming they had seen a CIA handler and a French paratrooper sergeant get killed by a group of “blue-eyed foreigners wearing balaclavas,” relations between Russia and the West sank to an all-time low.

Meanwhile, the debate over the shaping of NATO’s conventional deterrent had acquired a new sense of urgency. Already in November 2014, the United States announced that it would maintain a troop presence in Poland and the Baltics for at least another year, with the “persistence presence” mission of overlapping units continuing into 2015. In 2016, Washington not only extended this presence indefinitely, but also substantially raised troop levels from a few hundred to several thousand. In addition, the European Union announced that it would provide several million euros worth of assistance and non-lethal equipment to Baltic police forces; and several European nations accelerated the tempo of their air patrols over Baltic, Nordic, and Polish airspace.

At the 2017 NATO summit, secretary general Jens Stoltenberg announced that while the formation of the “future readiness spearhead” of the NATO response force had encountered some “protracted birth pains,” it should be fully “operational within the next year or so.” In the course of the summit, the Polish president created something of a stir, by vociferously arguing in favor of the permanent stationing of NATO combat units in Central and Eastern Europe, and for an abandonment of the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act:

Under the circumstances, it appears absurd to continue to play by these old rules, even as Moscow proceeds to trample every international law and treaty under the sun. We in Warsaw have long lived with Russia at our door, and understand the mindset of the men currently occupying the Kremlin. I have tried to convince our German friends that by continuing to abide by the Russia-NATO Founding Act, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

Indeed a number of frontline states expressed doubts over the continued operational viability of NATO’s strategy of “defense-in-depth,” pointing to the spread of Russian anti-access and area denial systems along Europe’s periphery. Russia deployed additional regiments of advanced defense systems — most notably in the form of the S-400 Triumf — in Kaliningrad and Belarus; and many Eastern and Central European states now found themselves caught under domes of densely layered anti-air defenses. Meanwhile, Russia’s 15th Coastal Missile Artillery Brigade, based in Sevastopol, steadily ramped up its deployment of anti-ship missile systems, to the point at which much of the Black Sea was now considered a potential lockout zone for allied surface vessels. How could smaller frontline states rely on NATO for their protection, argued one Romanian official, if in the event of crisis its much-touted rapid reaction force found itself incapable of surging by land or air?

A Surge in Russian Nuclear Threats

Meanwhile, Russian officials repeatedly depicted NATO’s revamped military presence in Central and Eastern Europe as evidence of its expansionist ambitions, and of its deep-seated desire to contain Russia. Feeding into Russia’s traditional fears of encirclement, state-controlled media framed the “liberation” of Crimea and Transnistra as successful “sorties” from a Russia under siege. In their public statements, Russian defense planners frequently drew attention not only to the nation’s rise in defense expenditure, but also to Russia’s growing stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons, which largely surpassed that of the United States and its allies. Indeed, analyses pegged Russia’s inventory of tactical nuclear weapons at over 2,000 operational weapons, whereas the United States was believed to deploy 150 to 200 gravity bombs under nuclear sharing agreements in Europe.

Declassified CIA documents reveal that Russian strategists and nuclear scientists advocated the fielding of sophisticated low-yield nuclear weaponry, and bombs with so-called “tailored” radiation output as early as the 1990s. By the end of that decade, it had become clear that the Russian Military had internalized that,

in addition to their traditional global task, nuclear weapons had acquired a new regional mission. On the regional level, the arsenal’s mission became to deter, and if deterrence were to fail, to terminate large-scale conventional aggression through a limited nuclear use in the theater of military operations.

Deeply concerned over their growing conventional inferiority vis-à-vis both NATO forces to the West, and Chinese forces to the East, Russian nuclear doctrine laid out what can best be described as a two-tiered approach to deterrence.

The first, global nuclear deterrence, aims to deter nuclear aggression. It is based on a threat of retaliation by a strategic nuclear arsenal— largely a prolongation of familiar Soviet practices. The second type of nuclear deterrence aims to deter a large-scale conventional war. Implicitly, it is based on a threat to strike with a non-strategic nuclear arsenal.

Russian nuclear strategy thus places a heavy emphasis on the threat of limited nuclear strikes as a means of projecting deterrence, offsetting conventional inferiority, and for purposes of “demonstration and de-escalation.”

Starting in 2014, however, Russian strategic discourse appeared to place a greater emphasis than before on the potential utility of tactical nuclear weapons for purposes of coercive signaling and escalation. In effect, Russian security managers appeared to view their superiority in the field of low-yield nuclear weaponry as a means of providing a “nuclear umbrella” for acts of sub-conventional provocation, or as a “shield” enabling the untrammeled conduct of hybrid or “non-linear” warfare. In August 2014, Putin, speaking at a pro-Kremlin youth camp, declared, “Thank God, I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.”

A few months later, an article in Pravda lauded the Russian leadership for its strategic acumen, presenting its decision to focus on acquiring a superiority in tactical nuclear weapons as having been instrumental in the general “revival of Russian power”:

In Russia, experts were quick to agree that against the backdrop of the post-Soviet geostrategic situation, reducing and eliminating tactical nuclear weapons was unacceptable. After all, it is tactical nuclear weapons that serve as a universal equalizer of forces, depriving NATO of its military advantage. In these circumstances, Russia simply borrowed NATO’s thesis of the need to compensate enemy superiority in conventional weapons by deploying tactical nuclear arsenals on the European Theater of Operations. … The balance of forces in Europe has thus changed in Russia’s favor. When the Americans realized that, it was too late.

In 2017, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the deployment of two tactical missile brigades of SS-26 Iskander ballistic missiles in both Kaliningrad and Crimea. These deployments were described in the official press release as “strengthening Russian nuclear deterrence in its near-abroad,” and as helping “protect our territories from NATO’s expansionist military forces.” Western Russia-watchers began to point to a disturbing change in Moscow’s strategic discourse with regard to tactical nuclear weapons. Indeed, whereas before Russian nuclear writings referred to low-yield weapons as a means of deterring, terminating, or “deescalating” large-scale conventional aggression conducted within Russian territory, they now also openly alluded to the “tailored use” of nuclear weapons against conventional enemy armored formations, or command and control nodes, within a wider “zone of privileged interests.”

At Track II dialogues, Russian academics and military officers told their Western counterparts that this evolution in Russian nuclear doctrine should be viewed as defensive, and as a “natural response to NATO’s growing military presence in Central and Eastern Europe.” In an interview on Ria Novosti, Putin angrily brushed aside Western criticisms of Russian nuclear doctrine:

The U.S. and its European allies like to claim that our nuclear posture is destabilizing, and that we should reduce our nuclear arsenal even further. But I ask you, which nations today invest in the most destabilizing technologies, with little concern for other nations’ interests or concerns? The United States continues to develop ballistic missile defenses, and high-precision weaponry that is close to mass-destruction weapons in terms of its capabilities. In the meantime, Western nations continue to foment unrest by sponsoring violent non-state actors, and so-called NGOs seek to export color revolutions on Russian soil. And we are the aggressors?

As 2017 drew to a close, it was clear that NATO had yet to devise an effective counter to the unique set of deterrence challenges posed by Russia. Conflicting strategic priorities within the alliance had exacerbated longstanding collective action problems, and an insufficiently robust counter-unconventional warfare doctrine had diluted NATO’s ability to respond to Russian irregular warfare with sufficient agility. Last but not least, there was no clear consensus amongst the three nuclear allies (France, Britain, UK) over how best to respond to Russian nuclear coercion. The effects of this deterrence deficit were to become brutally apparent in 2018.


Iskander Rehman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Project for International Order and Strategy (IOS), at the Brookings Institution. He holds a doctorate in political science, with distinction and a specialization in Asian Studies, and a master’s degree in political science, as well as a master’s degree in comparative politics, from Sciences Po. He can be followed on Twitter @IskanderRehman.


Photo credit: Oma teos