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


“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