Closing The Baltic Gap

As NATO’s Warsaw summit in July looms, closing the “Baltic gap” will be its most pressing task. A new report by the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence Studies highlights the problem—and the means necessary to solve it.

The elements are simple. Russia has developed capabilities that can credibly confront NATO, which it regards as an adversary, and frustrate the reinforcement of the alliance’s most vulnerable members.

In January 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the re-activation of the 1st Guards Tank Army and the formation of three new armored divisions in the military district adjacent to the Baltic states. This signals a move back to a Cold War-like military posture, central to which was preparation for high-intensity, large-scale combined arms warfare.

In short, Russia can attack anywhere, whereas the Baltic lifeline to the rest of NATO can easily be severed.

The Kremlin has also shown it is prepared to take risks in pursuit of its geopolitical goals, the most important of which is to divide and discredit the West. Russia and its ally Belarus have a 1,400-kilometer land border with the Baltics. By contrast, the “Suwalki gap”—the border between Poland and Lithuania—is only 65 kilometers. In short, Russia can attack anywhere, whereas the Baltic lifeline to the rest of NATO can easily be severed. Russia has “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) capabilities, particularly in air defense, which would prevent the alliance bringing in reinforcements.

Faced with this, NATO countries deploy tripwire forces in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: rotations consisting of company-sized infantry units, occasional visits by warships, and a handful of fighter aircraft engaged in air policing.

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The ICDS report’s main recommendation is a bigger “forward presence,” i.e., turning a tripwire into a speed bump. It suggests a multinational “battalion-plus” battle group for the region, plus a battalion-sized American presence in each Baltic country, backed up by a stronger aviation and maritime presence. It adds that at least a battalion’s worth of heavy equipment should be pre-positioned in each Baltic state. At present, most Western weapons stored in Europe are in arms dumps dating from Cold War days—places like Norway—far away from today’s frontline states.

Even then, Russia will have “escalation dominance”—the ability to raise the stakes quickly and with intimidation. The report suggests that NATO signals clearly to the Kremlin that Russia’s loose talk of using sub-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons to end a conventional conflict would in fact raise it to a new level.

The same should go for cyber weapons. Russia has already showed its willingness to attack computers and networks in Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine. Though NATO itself does not have an offensive cyber capability, several of its members do. NATO should make it clear that it will not hesitate to use this arsenal if any part of the alliance is attacked. Most importantly, NATO should signal that there is no such thing as “limited conflict.” If the alliance is attacked anywhere, it can and will respond everywhere.

Yet NATO’s biggest weakness is not muscle but brain: it works on the basis of consensus, which takes time. The Baltic states—thin and flat, with no defensive depth—don’t have much time. So America, Canada and the more martial European allies should also signal that they are willing and able to respond individually to an attack on the Baltic states, even before NATO has made up its mind.

Finally, the report argues, a “general change in mindset” is needed. Instead of hoping that difficulties with Russia will abate over time, the alliance should start seizing the initiative.

I endorse every word. But where are the Western leaders who are willing to act on these recommendations? As Ukrainians have found to their cost, Vladimir Putin’s biggest asset is not his military strength, but our political weakness.

This article was originally published by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Edward Lucas is a senior vice president at CEPA where he leads the institute’s Information Warfare Initiative.


 

3 Comments

  • Mark says:

    I am mystified by this dominant narrative re. Russia’s intentions that you are trying to sell here.

    There is no conflict between Russsian “values” and European “values.” The problem is that the Cold War alliance between Europe and the “five eyes” can’t survive the non-existence of a Russian threat… So it has to be created.

    Russia did not advance to NATO’s borders, NATO advanced to theirs. It’s patently obvious.

    Did Russia create the mess in Ukraine? Throughout the Russian position has been conciliatory. When the EU made it a binary choice the Russians were willing to consider a trilateral agreement. When the Maidan created a constitutional crisis the Russians, French and Germans tried to save the Ukrainian constitutional order. When this resulted in a coup again the Russians, German and French have worked doggedly to hold the country together via the Minsk accords.

    There is literally NO Russian agression involved in the whole sequence of events.

    It is a complete con-job by Russo-phobe war-mongers like you who have the temerity to mention European values while distorting the truth and giving succour to the very worst impulses in Ukrainian and Baltic society. Racial hatred and ethnic cleansing.

    The fact that this has now brought us to the point that ex-defense secretary William Perry is describing this as being the most perilous moment of nuclear brinksmanship INCLUDING the Cuban Missile Crisis should make you search your conscience before it’s too late for all of us.

  • Franz says:

    Mark, you seem to believe the easily refutable narrative of the KGB strongman media. 1. “non-existence of Russian threat”. It is not NATO who attacked and annexed a neighboring country, but Russia. No NATO planes ever crossed the Russian airspace in violation of their border, but Russian jets did so tens of times only in the past two years. And not just NATO, they do this to Finland and Sweden who are in no military alliance – so clearly an aggressive act repeated many times over even to the militarily weaker. Difficult to deny if you know this happened so many times for no valid reason other than “yes, we can, we are Russia”. 2. There is no “values” conflict between Russia and Europe, but there is such conflict between Putinist regime and Europe. There was no such problem when Nemtsov was deputy prime minister. Now this man is dead, he was killed near the Kremlin under possibly tens of “unworking” cameras. Yes, it would be great if Russia were democratic, friendly and strong economically and politically. It is only strong militarily unfortunately and weak in many other aspects. This could lead to anything from their side and we should be prepared. 3. The alliance can survive non-existence of the Russian threat very well. There are too many other threats for it to survive well. If you do not see them, just look around Europe.
    4. If there is someone who started to talk about the other being not a friend but possibly enemy, it was Russia. Long before anyone in NATO countries warned that Russia might do this or that, there was quite stunning and frequent talk in the Russian state controlled media (unfree media) about NATO as an adversary. 5. “Russia did not advance to NATO borders, NATO advanced to theirs”. Once I believed Russia will be part of NATO as you say there are (were) the same values. NATO is a treaty about helping each other if one is attacked, nothing more. Russia could have joined years ago, but instead chose creating the image of enemy who surrounds it. If someone is paranoid and thinks “they go after me” there is little we can do about it. Why did the Baltics want to join an alliance is clear when you are at their borders with Russia and see their planes and ships violating their borders without saying “sorry”. To believe NATO would attack Russia is simply crazy – even if NATO were aggressive, there is nothing to take. Oil? There are so many oil rich countries that are much much weaker and NATO does not occupy them. Oil can be bought, does not have to be stolen and NATO never does that. What Russia has except oil, is not worth risking a conflict even if NATO were aggressive. Much easier to conquer anybody else than Russia, isn’t it? Then why this KGB regime paranoia? Maybe it is vice versa: somebody in trouble needs to create an outer enemy to keep power. The same reason why Nemtsov and hundreds of journalist died, the same reason there is no opposition access to state TV in Russia, the same reason there are no opposition parties in the Duma. 6. Yes, Russia created the mess in Ukraine. It signed Budapest memorandum promising UA borders will be acknowledged and guarded, then simply took a piece of UA territory and created trouble in another. Even if you want to start with downfall of Yanukovich, he was Putin ally and brought UA on the verge of economic collapse. Presidents who bring their countries on the verge of bankruptcy usually leave office sooner, everywhere. But maybe you choose to believe the Putinist narrative that the West created it somehow. How? Would it be a good idea when having enough trouble with financing the eurozone southern debts to create another money consuming issue in the Ukraine. I think this is clear enough that this is just the Putin narrative.

    hroughout the Russian position has been conciliatory. When the EU made it a binary choice the Russians were willing to consider a trilateral agreement. When the Maidan created a constitutional crisis the Russians, French and Germans tried to save the Ukrainian constitutional order. When this resulted in a coup again the Russians, German and French have worked doggedly to hold the country together via the Minsk accords.
    There is literally NO Russian agression involved in the whole sequence of events.
    It is a complete con-job by Russo-phobe war-mongers like you who have the temerity to mention European values while distorting the truth and giving succour to the very worst impulses in Ukrainian and Baltic society. Racial hatred and ethnic cleansing.
    The fact that this has now brought us to the point that ex-defense secretary William Perry is describing this as being the most perilous moment of nuclear brinksmanship INCLUDING the Cuban Missile Crisis should make you search your conscience before it’s too late for all of us.

  • Franz says:

    sorry I forgot to delete what I copied from Mark’s post starting with “hroughout…”, this all belongs deleted.

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