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.
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.