How would a war between Russia and NATO in the Baltics play out?
Chances of a Russian invasion of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia appear fairly remote. Even the RAND Corporation, which has been particularly hawkish, suggests that a Russian attack on a NATO member-state is low even though the alliance faces a conventional imbalance. “Our analysis suggests that NATO’s deterrent against a conventional attack by Russia on a NATO member is currently strong,” a recent RAND report states. “While we assess that a Russian attack on NATO in the near term is highly unlikely, it also seems probable that Russia will explore other avenues to signal its displeasure with ongoing U.S. and NATO posture enhancements.”
Other analysts agree that Russia does not have any desire to invade the Baltic States, all three of which were once part of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before it. “The Russians do not seem to have any designs on the Baltic countries,” Olya Oliker, a senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies told the National Interest. “They are, however, increasingly aware that the United States and many of the other NATO allies think they do. While they take pains to deny this, they do see strategic advantage in keeping NATO on edge, and they are certainly not above saber rattling, including in the Baltic Sea region.”
Indeed, from the Kremlin’s perspective, there is no reason for Russia to invade those former Soviet republics. While Russia has since the days of Muscovy has had historical designs on the Baltics—which were conquered under the Russian Emperor Peter the Great during the Great Northern War that ran from 1700 to 1721—in order to secure access to the sea, the current leadership in the Kremlin hopes to build up its facilities in St. Petersburg as a substitute.
“For the past twenty years Russia has been investing billions of dollars to build new seaports near St. Petersburg, so the Estonian and Latvian seaports will not be needed any more,” Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics told the National Interest. “And except from the seaports, which were necessary to export Russian commodities, there was never anything really important in these countries.”
For the Kremlin, reducing Russia’s dependency on the Baltic Sea ports is a high priority. “Replacing the Baltic States logistical capabilities with the domestic ones was really an important priority of the whole Putin presidency,” Kashin said. “It does not make sense to conquer the Baltic States, after all the money was already spent on alternatives.”
Moreover, the Kremlin has limited means to attack the Baltics even if it so chose. Most of Moscow’s conventional forces are concentrated elsewhere—it would take time to amass a force capable of repelling a NATO counterattack. Meanwhile, the Kremlin does not have the option of leveraging the large ethnic Russian populations in those Baltic republics.
“‘Hybrid warfare,’ Crimea- or Donbass-style, however, can hardly be used where it is feared most: in the Baltic States and Poland,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in his book Should We Fear Russia? “Moscow’s intentions aside, the local Russians’ self-identification with the Russian Federation cannot be compared to that of the Crimeans. Even though naturalization in Latvia and Estonia was made hard for local Russians, they are not looking to Moscow for protection and guidance. Daugavpils is not Donetsk-in-waiting, and Narva is no Lugansk. Poland is an even more far-fetched case. The Donbass model is not easily transferable, and employing it on the territory of a NATO member state denies the Kremlin any rationality whatsoever.”
That means that Russia would have to resort to conventional military means to invade the Baltics if Moscow were so inclined. But even there, Russia is not positioned to take such actions. The Kremlin would have to build up its forces in the region before launching an invasion, which would warn NATO of an impending strike. “There is a buildup near the Ukrainian border. If we want to invade the Baltics, there is need to relocate forces, potentially warning the enemy,” Kashin said.
Indeed, as Center for Naval Analyses research scientist Mike Kofman notes, Russian forces near the Baltics are far from Moscow’s best. “Russia’s military modernization and force structure expansion had been ignoring the Baltic region until only recently,” Kofman wrote in the Harvard University Belfer Center’s Russia Matters. “Despite provocative air and naval activity concentrated in the area, Russian forces based there are principally defensive, and aging to boot. There are indicators that a change in the size and strength of Russian forces is inevitable, but it will be gradual, in part informed by what forces NATO chooses to deploy.”
As Kofman notes, it would be possible for Russian forces to move rapidly from the Ukrainian border to the Baltic states, however an invasion would be fraught with danger for Moscow. A RAND study had posited that the Russian military could conquer all three Baltic states quickly using its conventional forces in as little as thirty-six hours, but there are flaws in the analysis. The RAND study only accounts for an initial invasion of the Baltics, it does not cover a NATO counterattack or nuclear escalation.
“Nearly two years of extensive wargaming and analysis shows that if Russia were to conduct a short-warning attack against the Baltic States, Moscow’s forces could roll to the outskirts of the Estonian capital of Tallinn and the Latvian capital of Riga in thirty-six to sixty hours. In such a scenario, the United States and its allies would not only be outranged and outgunned, but also outnumbered,” write David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson of the RAND Corporation in War on the Rocks.
Indeed, other analysts such as the Center for Naval Analyses’ Jeff Edmonds agree that Russia could likely overwhelm the Baltics with the forces they have available. “The Russians have a clear overmatch from there and can overwhelm them quickly,” Edmonds told the National Interest.
But Kofman as notes, Russia would need to size its invasion force to not only beat the local NATO forces in the Baltics but to fight the entire alliance and defeat a counter-attack. Planners in Moscow would have to account for an inevitable counter-attack by the United States and its allies, thus it would not like limit itself to an invasion force of twenty-seven combat battalions as posited by the RAND study. Nor would the Kremlin necessary only afford itself a ten-day timeframe.
“If Russia was planning a full-scale invasion of the Baltic states, it would also have to plan to take on all of NATO and defend against a counter-attack,” Kofman wrote in War on the Rocks. “Great powers typically don’t attack superpowers with cobbled-together forces and hope for the best. Moscow would likely bring to bear a force several times larger than that assumed in the wargame and maintain the logistics to deploy additional units from other military districts. Opinions will vary among Russian military experts about the size of force Russia could muster in a hurry, but one estimate I suspect you will not hear is twenty-seven battalions thrown together for what could be World War III. Think much bigger and not within an arbitrary ten-day time limit [of the RAND study].”
If the Russians do not the intent to invade the Baltics or have the forces in place to start a war, what might start a conflict in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia? Oliker posits a plausible scenario where a misunderstanding could spark a war.
“It is plausible that the saber rattling, perhaps combined with exercises, could lead NATO countries to be concerned that some sort of Russian action in the Baltics is planned,” Oliker said. “If that then results in NATO military actions geared to neutralize Russian capabilities in Kaliningrad, Moscow could, in turn, perceive that as a threat (recall that most of Russia’s scenarios start with some sort of NATO aggression) and take steps to ameliorate that threat. Particularly in the absence of sound communication channels, and if tensions are otherwise high, it is possible that these competing actions could lead to an escalation spiral including, with everyone on edge and predicting aggression from the potential adversary, to conflict.”
If a war were to breakout in the Baltics between Russian and NATO, it might ultimately be irrelevant what the conventional balance is on the ground. “The other problem with the fixation on conventional deterrence in the Baltic fight is that just as in the old standoff between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, this battle is fraught with opportunities for nuclear escalation,” Kofman wrote. “Most Russian experts I know in the military analysis community, including those in Russia, don’t see much of a chance for conventional battle with NATO to stay conventional.”
If NATO forces cross into Russian territory, that might provoke a nuclear response from Moscow. “There is a possibility that if Russian forces are sufficiently degraded or defeated in Kaliningrad that Moscow may resort to or threaten nuclear first use,” Kofman wrote. “Nuclear escalation is not assured, but given the impact of such an outcome, perhaps the best strategy is to make decisions that afford the most opportunities for managing escalation dynamics. That means a force posture oriented toward strategic flexibility, not entrenchment.” Such a war will almost certainly escalate into a full-up nuclear war between the planet’s only two nuclear superpowers—which means everyone loses.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.