Is This the Right Time to Relieve the Building Pressure in the Baltics?

December 20, 2016

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“War, children, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.”

— The Rolling Stones

With relations between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies having reached the lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we should all be greatly concerned that both sides are fielding destabilizing weapons upgrades while also deploying their military forces in a more forward posture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Baltic Sea region. It is here that one finds a major concentration of military power in a very small space fraught with historical tragedy and contemporary geopolitical angst. Both NATO and Russia have placed a very high strategic value on this region and have steadily raised the stakes involved, following a classic security dilemma script. Packing ever-larger amounts of increasingly sophisticated and lethal military hardware into a space this size under heightened political pressures leaves very little margin for error, for which the consequences might be catastrophic.

Whether the present situation constitutes a “new Cold War” or not, extant geopolitical tensions must certainly give one pause, assuming that the avoidance of actual conflict is a mutually agreeable goal. But some, including Mark Stout writing recently in War on the Rocks, posit a full-blown, “inadvertent” war between Russia and NATO as made more likely by the election of Donald Trump, owing to the latter’s “coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin” and his apparent low regard for the NATO alliance in general. Sir Richard Shirreff, until 2014 Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (making him the highest ranking European officer in the alliance), in a recent and widely reviewed book envisions a fictional war with Russia in 2017 made inevitable by naïve European politicians who impose severe cuts in their defense budgets and otherwise accommodate a predatory Russia.

These warnings miss the mark when it comes to what actually matters for minimizing the chance of fighting between the two sides: the urgent need to reverse the trend of rapidly increasing deployments, operational tempo, and exercises involving their respective military forces. With a new U.S. president suggesting a more conciliatory stance vis-à-vis Moscow taking office in one month, the time may be right for a proposal of ways to reduce the dangerous friction and the mutual perception (or misperception) of threat inherent in the present situation.

NATO’s Path to Here: The Inertia of Unfolding Events

All problematic geopolitical situations have antecedents, including the present one in the Baltic region. Thus, it might seem overly simplistic to call out the Russian invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in early 2014 as the catalyst that led us to this particular place and time of potential conflict. The Crimean crisis itself has deep historical roots and was also precipitated by prior events and the national security dynamics of a number of states both within and external to Eastern Europe and Russia. It is, nevertheless, the fact that both the United States and the European Union responded to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea by imposing a series of economic sanctions. More importantly, NATO also began to significantly bolster its military forces in its member states adjoining or close to Russia. President Barack Obama underscored America’s commitment to the alliance’s collective defense of all of its members in a speech, not coincidentally, in Tallinn, Estonia, on September 3, 2014. At its summit meeting in Wales shortly thereafter, NATO approved a “Readiness Action Plan” intended to respond “…to the challenges posed by Russia and their strategic implications.” The plan added, “No one should doubt NATO’s resolve if the security of any of its members were to be threatened.” Further, approval was granted to establish a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force “to respond to challenges that arise, particularly at the periphery of NATO’s territory.” That definition would, of course, include the NATO Baltic states. At its next summit in Warsaw in 2016, NATO agreed to take further steps to establish an “enhanced forward presence” with battalion-sized units rotating into Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia beginning in early 2017. The fact that these units will rotate rather than be permanently based is a nuance that will not alter Russian perception of escalation.

NATO took other steps to enhance their military posture in the Baltic zone. The size of NATO’s Baltic training exercises in the region increased dramatically after the Crimea crisis. What was once the largest of these took place in 2013 and involved some 6,000 personnel. By 2015 and 2016, exercises exceeded 30,000 and were much more ambitious in scope. The Baltic Air Policing mission, established when the three Baltic states joined NATO in 2004, has been progressively upgraded. NATO (especially U.S.) air forces have significantly increased their presence in the Baltic region through various exercises and training deployments. In August 2015, the U.S. Air Force deployed its premier air superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor, to Europe for the first time as a means of “sending a message to Russia.” Ongoing upgrades for NATO aircraft and associated weapons provide ever greater operational capabilities. The recent announcement that the United States will sell the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) to the Polish Air Force is a case in point. It will allow a Polish F-16 to attack a target from a distance beyond the reach of Russian air defenses.

Beginning in FY 2015, the United States enacted the European Reassurance Initiative, which provides operational and infrastructure funding for American forces in Europe, in particular Eastern Europe. The funding for this initiative has increased significantly, with the amount requested for FY 2017 being over three times that approved in FY 2015. Furthermore, according to the Pentagon, the rationale for the initiative has shifted from “reassurance” to “deterrence” in light of “the potential for Russia to further advance its military adventurism into NATO countries.” The deployment to Eastern Europe of an armored brigade combat team drawn from U.S. bases as part of the ongoing Operation Atlantic Resolve is evidence of this conceptual shift. A battalion from these deployments will typically move forward into the Baltic states with its organic tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and other equipment. Although U.S. infantry and airborne troops have made any number of deployments to the region, as one Army officer put it: “We may take slightly longer to deploy than lighter forces, but there is nothing like a tank if you really want to achieve effect.” Be assured that the Russians have taken notice but perhaps not with the deterring effect intended. Indeed, the question of what constitutes conventional deterrence in the present NATO-Russia context has been widely discussed in War on the Rocks and elsewhere, and suffice it to say here that forces sufficient to give sufficient pause to Russian General Staff planners far exceeds what is presently contemplated and certainly what is politically feasible.

It’s Kaliningrad, Stupid: Russia’s Baltic Moves

As many have noted, the realities of geography and the balance of military forces favor Russia when it comes to a potential conflict with NATO in the Baltic Sea region. Russia’s superior land and airpower capabilities in this space render the geographically exposed and militarily weak NATO Baltic states indefensible over the short term, even with reinforcements deployed there from other alliance countries. Further, Moscow has introduced qualitatively advanced weaponry into the region — especially air defenses and short-range ballistic missiles — that would definitely make this a “high-end fight.” Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast between Lithuania and Poland poses a huge strategic problem for NATO, as it is heavily defended and would have to be neutralized before any longer term efforts to re-take the NATO Baltic states could proceed.

Putin and his national security establishment know, of course, that they have created a geopolitical challenge here for the alliance and they can adjust the temperature of it with relatively little effort. This they do regularly by several means. First, the Russian armed forces conduct large military exercises, often in areas adjacent to the Baltic states. Short-notice drills in particular increase the anxiety level in neighboring countries. Secondly, the Russians make their own forward deployments —  in particular to Kaliningrad — with no attempt to disguise the fact that they have done so. They have transferred nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles and S-400 surface-to-air missiles, which raised the threat level for NATO forces in the Baltic region. Russian defense officials state that such force enhancements are in response to NATO actions and in some cases are merely a part of exercises, but recent open source research revealed that construction is well underway for the permanent basing of an Iskander brigade in Kaliningrad. Finally, Russia has ramped up its air operations in the Baltic region and elsewhere. As Michael Kofman wrote last year in War on the Rocks, Russia has made very effective use of a relatively low cost tool, making these sorties “the hallmark of a targeted policy of aggravation” that especially irritates the United States. On occasion, the Russians will punctuate their message by making very low passes over NATO warships in the Baltic Sea — at times in a manner simulating an attack — or by intercepting U.S. intelligence collection aircraft, closing to distances seen by the Pentagon as unsafe.

It’s Time to Go to Vienna

Stephen M. Walt famously and cynically remarked that he could see the leadership in Brussels as being secretly pleased that Putin had moved against Ukraine because it served to reinvigorate the alliance. As noted above, since the storm over Crimea broke, NATO has indeed had the bit  between its teeth, and the primary vector in which they are headed is northeast to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Given that, and the fact that Russia has replied in kind, we find ourselves in this geopolitical standoff between increasingly more rancorous parties. Is now not the time to pause and consider ways to step back from this dangerous upward spiral of military equipage and activity in the Baltic region, and perhaps build on any success there toward a wider reduction in tensions — dare we say a rapprochement?

There already exists an overarching structure to facilitate NATO-Russia engagement: the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE. Further, the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) provides a forum for taking on concerns of both parties. Lastly, the Vienna Document on Confidence-and Security-Building Measures, an OSCE template, requires the signatory parties to share information on their military forces and events involving them, the latest version of which is from 2011. As Ian Anthony has made clear, the Vienna Document is in need of updating, and taking on incremental and immediately relevant tasks such as airspace and maritime de-confliction agreements, as daunting as even those will be, just might open the door to larger issues of security assurance and mutual transparency of operations if political trust can be restored. The fact that NATO and Russia cannot yet agree on a requirement for all aircraft operating in Baltic regional airspace to fly with their transponders on does not augur well for success, but at least such discussions continue and might achieve better results in a new political climate.

Against the backdrop of Russian hacking and Moscow’s role in the humanitarian disaster in Syria, there is no denying that any proposal to engage the Kremlin on just about any subject at this time might seem seriously out of touch with reality. But it should be recalled that several major arms reduction and other high-stakes national security agreements were forged during the real Cold War. Indeed, in its communique following the Warsaw Summit, NATO stated that it remains “open to a periodic, focused and meaningful dialogue with a Russia willing to engage on the basis of reciprocity in the NRC, with a view to avoiding misunderstanding, miscalculation, and unintended escalation, and to increase transparency and predictability” and “to constructively engage” on updating the Vienna Document.

Right now is the time to start talking about that in earnest.


Ralph S. Clem is Emeritus Professor of Geography at Florida International University, and is a retired Air Force Reserve intelligence officer.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Syreetta Watts

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13 thoughts on “Is This the Right Time to Relieve the Building Pressure in the Baltics?

  1. So this author proposes what, a downward spiral in the NATO commitment that is the most fundamental reason for its very being, that is, to defend its members from attack by non-members? NATO exists because of Russia. If Russia did not exist neither would NATO.

    That would be the ultimate victory for Putin, giving him his sphere of influence in eastern and northeastern Europe at the cost of, what, just stationing some weapons in Kaliningrad and striking fear into the hearts of pacifists and isolationists?

    I think the proposed action in this piece is nothing less than sheer defeatism in the face of a belligerent, threatening Putin.

    Putin is no dummy. He intends to reestablish the former Russian sphere of influence, and he intends to do so at little to no cost to himself since his nation is bankrupt and on a downward spiral. His chief tool of intimidation is fear, not the use of actual physical weapons that he would otherwise have to dare to expose and likely lose in a real shooting war with NATO. Putin is always bargain-basement shopping for fearful pacifists and isolationists to do his work for him, letting them do the work that his military is incapable of performing – defeating NATO.

    1. NATO existed because of the Warsaw Pact under the Soviet Union.

      It is time we revisit whether or not we need the bureaucracy of NATO in its current form.

      It’s clear the majority aren’t interested in contributing as much as the US and UK does to the effort

      1. More to the point, NATO existed as a means of tying U.S. nuclear weapons to the defense of Europe. Moving the edge of that umbrella to the borders of (or even within) former Soviet republics is more provocative than simply moving the edge of a European defense alliance to the same place. That doesn’t come up too often in discussions like this, but the Russians have assuredly never lost sight of it.

        1. Neither you or McGannon get it.

          NATO was the brainchild of Winston Churchhil, who famously stated quite succinctly the following:

          “The purpose of NATO is to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

          That was true in the late 1940s … and it is equally as true today.

          Note that Churchhill did not say “Soviets” – he said “Russians”.

          1. That was Lord Hastings Ismay who said that upon becoming General-Secretary of NATO. That was under the Attlee administration.

            Churchill after returning as Prime Minister tried to restore the Grand Alliance but Eisenhower wanted none of it.

          2. DTR: You’ve now personally attacked the author of this article twice in comments I did not allow through. I think you need a one-month break from the comments section.

      2. Russia is eternal … the Warsaw Pact was just a temporary blip in Russia’s eternal effort to dominate its geographic neighbors. Russia was always the enemy, not the “Warsaw Pact” which consisted only of Russia and its forced toadies in eastern Europe in the immediate post-World War two era.

        Russia is the eternal enemy of its European and Asian and American neighbors (yes – only the narrow Bering straits separates the USA from Russia), going back many hundreds of years.

      3. No. NATO was created in 1949. The Warsaw Pact was created in 1955. Intra-European alliances such as the Western European Union and bi-lateral / multi-lateral alliances such as the US/UK/Canada pact were created even earlier. The Cold War was only in its infancy. The rationale behind NATO was to prevent a return to the decades of petty parochialism and pure power politics (excuse the massive alliteration) of European states and the isolationism of the U.S. It’s no coincidence that NATO was formed around the same time as the European Coal and Steel Community (or “Compact?” I can never remember); the ECSC was the forerunner of today’s EU and linked France and Germany’s heavy industries together. The point of all these groundbreaking treaties was to prevent another war between France and Germany foremostly and war among any other Western European powers secondly. Nobody could conceive of a war between France and Germany today, despite the fact that three occurred in less 70 years prior to NATO.

        By expanding NATO to the East, we are in the process of making a war among Slavic and Balkan powers as unlikely as a war between Holland and Norway. There were two Balkan Wars in a four year period prior to WWI. Different Balkan states switched sides–they were cynical wars of greed and opportunism.

        The problem is not Western and Eastern Europe, NATO, the EU, or the USA. NATO is a purely defensive alliance. If Russia wants to avoid a war w/ America and Europe, all it has to do is not attack us. Doesn’t seem like much to ask for.

        As for contributions to NATO, Eastern European states are giving disproportionate funding per GDP. They can’t give more because they’re not as wealthy as the US and UK. Everybody agrees France, Germany, Italy and Spain should contribute more . . . but “everybody” has been saying that since 1949.

        Our investment in NATO is a small price to pay to prevent a return to the inter-war years during which we stuck our head in the sand. Preserving stability in our largest overseas trading partner and preventing an aggressive power from establishing hegemonic control of that partner has been the core U.S. national security interest since 1945. It’s ludicrous to suggest we abandon that policy.

  2. One cannot simply talk to Vlad without putting one’s Cold War hat back on.
    Every de-escalation under Yeltsin and prior is currently viewed as a mistake.

    One pretext or another will consistently be used to blame the west for “forcing” Russia to escalate their “defense” posture while every former bloc country is subverted and willingly or unwillingly put back under Russia’s control.

    As we debate, the Baltics are being flooded with false news, constantly actively attacked by hackers, nationalist anti-NATO political groups are being directly funded by Moscow as far as France, and reporters and bloggers who write about it are harassed and get death threats from Russian phone numbers. See Trolling for Trump here at WotR.

    1989 the Berlin Wall came down. NATO did not attack the Soviet Union.
    By 1991 the Soviet government collapsed, NATO did not attack the Soviet Union.
    1992 America is extending aid, American companies are (getting fleeced) trying to salvage Russian industry and still NATO did not attack.
    1993 the Russian forces are prostrate, unpaid, and are scavenging equipment to sell…
    NATO did not attack.

    Putin doesn’t like the current world order. Russia could have been a successful second order power by now, could have JOINED NATO, not have a trashed economy and chose not to under PUTIN.
    All else is nonsense.
    We, and I include the Baltics, Europe, NATO, the United States do not have a Russian problem.
    We have a Putin problem and he is an old school, Soviet, Cold Warrior.

  3. When Russia is run by a bunch of grown ups who were actually elected, we can talk about rapproachment. Until then, it will be the shotgun that sings the sound.
    Let it also not be forgotten that it took the Russians 15 years and two wars (one of which they lost) to subdue a million Chechens. Even now Chechnya under Kadyrov is effectively independent.
    The Russians want and need to avoid a costly insurgency because they simply can’t afford it. That’s probably why they didn’t march on Kiev back in September 2014.
    The author posits that we couldn’t possibly deter Russia conventionally, but a bunch of rich though small Baltic countries could light quite a fire under the feet of the invaders regardless. And that is a true conventional deterrence.

  4. It is just fantasy to believe that Russia will invade any NATO country. And the main reason for their reticence is the US military. Russia’s Baltic fleet would not survive 10 days when faced with a half dozen Virginia class SSNs. Kaliningrad would have to deal with a thousand cruise missiles. Within 24 hours of the start of hostilities the US would have five F-22 squadrons, three F-35 squadrons and a half dozen B-2s in the theater. Once those stealth aircraft start to work it will not be more than 48 hours before the A-10s, Apaches and F-15s start to roll in. No ground force can survive an opponent that can achieve air superiority and bring many hundreds of aerial combat platforms to bear.

    1. I hope you are right…we Germans couldn’t contribute much to that victory other then left wing demonstrations against US Imperialism and war mongering…So sad…So true!
      It was Steinmeier, our (former) Minister of Foreign Affairs who call the EX ANACONDA 2016 an unsettling and unnecessary saber-rattling and who made sure the German footprint in this exercise was tiny…go figure!!