NATO’s deterrence moves in the Baltic States: falling into Russia’s trap?

Dr Rod Thornton

NATO has decided to increase the number of troops it has operating (technically, either training or exercising) in the Baltic States. Included  in this contingent will be no less than four British tanks. The stated reason for this deployment is to ‘deter’ Russian aggression against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All well and good on first inspection, but scratch the surface and such actions might appear outmoded, more reminiscent of the 19th century than appropriate to the conditions of the 21st.

What are these new forces intended to deter? The answer, seemingly, is a full-scale Russian invasion of a Baltic country. Yet it is far from clear whether this danger is a realistic one. Is it likely that the Kremlin will send tanks rumbling over its neighbours’ borders any time soon? Putin and his generals are perhaps not that maladroit. They will have done the maths. Where such an action is concerned, the cost-benefit balance is very much in favour of the former. Major war is not part of Russian plans – but they do want to create the impression that it might be. Hence, we now have the likes of Moscow’s sabre-rattling; its high-profile preparations for nuclear war, and its bellicose actions in Syria. Such Russian aggression has two goals: 1) to make Russia – aka Putin – look more powerful, and 2) to create divisions in opponents over how best to deal with this aggression and to thereby weaken these opponents.

The Baltic States are on the front-line of all this. For several years now, they have been the target of a substantial Russian (thus far non-violent) hybrid warfare campaign. All manner of means are being used – from information warfare (including cyber warfare); through the funding of pro-Kremlin academics and right-wing groups, and all the way up to using agent provocateurs who organise protest movements and strikes. The overall aim is to raise tensions and to thereby create the divisions that destabilise these targeted states: governing structures are weakened; faith in authority is undermined, and individuals made to turn against each other. A state becomes divided against itself. An ‘inner decay’ is created. And the greater the degree of decay then the more easily – so the theory runs in the case of the Baltic States – it is that Russia can leverage events in these states to its own advantage. Indeed, the ultimate goal of this Russian hybrid warfare is undoubtedly to foster the election of national governments who would look more favourably on Moscow and, by extension, less favourably on NATO and the West.

In essence, the Russians would see a truly successful hybrid warfare campaign as being one that does not involve the use of any external military force. But in the case of the Baltic States it is of enormous benefit for Moscow that its troops are regularly exercising just beyond their borders; that new missiles are being placed in the Kaliningrad exclave, and that Russian ships and aircraft regularly test regional defences. Merely the latent character of such force can create a profound psychological pressure that helps raise the level of tension and thus of instability within these three states.

Moscow, moreover – and here is a crucial element – has another and more convenient way of increasing the level of tension in the Baltic States: namely through the use of Russian minorities within those countries. Ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers constitute over a quarter of both Latvia’s and Estonia’s total populations. Riga and Tallinn, cities where the populations are almost 50 per cent Russian, have voted in mayors with links to Putin’s own political party. Thus, there is plenty of support for Putin and for Russia within the capital cities of these two NATO member-states. It is also worth noting that Russian minorities are mostly denied the chance to vote in national elections, but can do so in municipal ones.

These minorities are referred to as ‘compatriot Russians’ by Moscow and they are worked on assiduously as part of the hybrid warfare campaign. Of course, many of these ‘compatriots’ are quite content with their lot and are not minded to agitate in any way. A substantial number are, however, not content and it is not unimaginable that having been subject to the intense propaganda of a Moscow-directed information warfare campaign for a number of years they will eventually turn against their Baltic hosts. Moscow would probably like nothing more than to see these ethnic Russians protesting on the streets and then being subject to attacks by right-wing groups or to a violent clampdown by local security forces. This is how Russian troops will, if they ever do, re-enter the Baltic states – not in an outright invasion, but rather in a ‘humanitarian’ operation to ‘protect’ fellow Russians. The scenario often raised here relates to a possible reaction to trouble in the Estonian city of Narva. The city is 90 per cent Russian and lies just over the border from Russia itself. Would Russian troops stand idly by if ‘compatriot Russians’ were being killed in disturbances within sight of the border?

If the raising of tension in order to drive divisiveness and instability is a prime factor in any hybrid warfare campaign then the best way that the Russians can do this is through the inculcation of fear. Fear will, in particular, create the overreactions that destabilisation programmes thrive on. The fear of war is obviously a crucial variable in this respect. Moscow’s media messaging to both native Balts and to the Russian minorities plays on this fear. Included in this messaging – this signalling – are reports of everything from Moscow schoolchildren conducting their nuclear-protection drills to the bombing of Aleppo. In particular, this bombing, ostensibly designed to kill ‘terrorists’ in situ, also acts as a means to advertise to others who might oppose Russian interests just how ready Russia is to use lethal force. The Balts naturally do not want their own countries to become subject to the same use of force – to become the battlegrounds they have so often been in past wars. It could be argued that they would do anything to avoid this – including developing friendly relations with Russia. Thus, the more that Russia can stoke up a fear of war in the Baltic States the more likely it is – in theory – that Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians will, in national elections and to lessen the likelihood of that war, bring to power governments that are more amenable to Moscow.

Here is the main threat to the Baltic States from Russia. It is in the creation, though non-violent modes of hybrid warfare, of internal processes that lead to outcomes that suit Moscow’s interests. This Russian threat is an internal one, far more than it is an external one; i.e. from a military invasion. Russia does not need to invade to achieve its strategic objectives.

Indeed, Russia has played a very steady hand so far in its hybrid warfare campaign against the Baltics – there has been, for instance, no creation of terrorist incidents (a ‘late stage’ aspect of any hybrid warfare campaign), which clearly the likes of the FSB, SVR or GRU could organise if they were so inclined.

Thus, it could be argued that what matters most in terms of thwarting the Russian threat to the Baltics is to keep tensions down. This is why sending extra NATO troops to the region at this time may be seen as problematic. It is an easy sell now for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to generate angst among the Balts by providing pictures of long columns of NATO vehicles with the strapline of, ‘here is NATO – all ready to fight a war in your country!’ And to the Russian minorities it is even easier – ‘here are NATO forces – arrived with their tanks to deal with you – the Russians!’

Moreover, there are now four MBTs in the Baltics. These are the only tanks of any description in these three states – and they are all British! So, who is then going to be made out to be the ‘aggressor’ by Moscow in the Baltic States?

Yes, of course, a deterrence posture has always to be maintained by NATO vis-à-vis Russian activities in regard to the Baltic States. But it could be argued that the few NATO ‘composite battalions’ who are already there are sufficient in deterrence terms – low-profile but sending the right signal to Moscow. That is, they were a tripwire – attack the Baltics and you attack NATO itself. Fine. So just what extra deterrent value comes from having a few more troops but who are still so small in number that they still represent nothing more than the same tripwire? Where is the logic given the propaganda coup it is for Moscow?

In essence, NATO has to do its own cost-benefit calculation – to what degree do deterrence measures become part of the problem and not part of the solution? In its new deployment of forces to the region, has NATO merely done exactly what Moscow wants it to do in terms of raising tensions – and thereby fallen into a trap? NATO needs some 21st century thinking.

Image: Russian President Putin Listens as Secretary Kerry Speaks During Their Bilateral Meeting Focused on Syria and Ukraine in Moscow. Courtesy of US DOS Flikr.

One comment

  1. Rod, I don’t know of any so-called composite battalions which have already deployed to the Baltic states because the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence units will not deploy until early 2017. Therefore the UK currently has no main battle tanks currently deployed in Eastern Europe, because our own EFP deployment to Estonia will only begin in May 2017, as per the Secretary of State’s announcement on 26 October. Further, I don’t think that these tanks will be “the only tanks of any description” in the Baltic states, given the rolling desployment of a US heavy brigade (i.e. Abrams and Bradley) combat team to Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, from January 2017. Finally, it remains to be seen whether other NATO allies contributing forces to EFP will also deploy MBTs.

    More widely, I think that the purpose of EFP is as much about reassuring Poland and the Baltic States as it is about deterring Russia. This deployment surely contributes to strengthening our allies’ resolve and reducing their subsceptibily to the sort of Russian military exercise-based coercion that you describe.

    Like

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