Baltic countries; risks and responses 21-Jun-2022
There is trouble brewing between Lithuania and Russia (Reuters 20-Jun-2022). Russian officials are saying that it will certainly respond, that it views Lithuania’s actions as hostile (BBC 21-Jun-2022), and that Lithuanians will “feel the pain” (Reuters 21-Jun-2022).
This has enough of the right ingredients to escalate and cause a very big problem for the West.
Kaliningrad is a full part of the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation is not yet at war with Lithuania, yet it’s blocking Russian access to its own territory. It’s an imperfect analogy, but how would the US respond if Canada prevented it from supplying or reaching Alaska, for example, or an important military base like Hawaii? The blockade of West Berlin in the early stages of the Cold War was not exactly overtly hostile but it certainly wasn’t friendly. It formed part of setting the tone and relations between East and West for the next few decades.
Some notable announcements have come out of the UK military establishment. They are notable because 1) the UK is a US subordinate and it tests/prepares public attitudes ahead of government decisions e.g. the so-called “dodgy dossier” regarding WMDs and the Iraq War, 2) British military intelligence is itself good and part of the Five Eyes partnership, and it’s reasonable to be confident that it knows or has spotted something, 3) the UK leads the European response to Russia in Ukraine, so it is almost certainly preparing for what may come next, and 4) except for perhaps France, the UK has by far the strongest military and military industry in Europe outside of Russia (Frontier Mogul 13-May-2022).
Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, the leader of the British Army, said in internal messaging that the UK must prepare for a land war in Europe again, against Russia (Sky News 19-Jun-2022). Former director of the Special Forces, General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, is speaking even more freely about what he sees as the need for the UK to prepare for tougher action against Russia (Daily Mail 20-Jun-2022). Take away the press sensationalism. It’s the job of a military to be prepared for war, for many circumstances, and Russia is a larger threat than before. It is more interesting that these stories are prominent than just their content. It matters that these ideas are put into the public consciousness.
War isn’t just about troop movements and strategy. It’s about motivation and politics too. In the West, this means preparing people for what may be to come, or preparing them for what the government wants to do. Between Russia and Lithuania it may mean Russia finding an excuse to invade i.e. its being prevented from properly supplying and defending its territory in Kaliningrad, and Lithuania is in violation of some agreement or international law or whatever. It may not matter whether Lithuania is morally or legally right or wrong. It may matter more whether or not this means a NATO and EU member is at risk of dragging more countries into war against Russia. Or perhaps they won’t go to war. It may matter politically if Russia wants or has prepared for either escalated conflict or does not expect the West to react militarily at all.
Could or would the West defend the Baltics? What might that defence look like and how would it be spun?
Call my bluff - Western risk taking
They had certainly better be prepared to defend the Baltics. Otherwise it’s playing a very, very risky game. It looks like the West is testing Russia in Lithuania.
Lithuania is pointing to compliance with EU sanctions to excuse its blockade. Russia will almost certainly read this as Lithuania taking orders to blockade Kaliningrad. If the West didn’t want Kaliningrad blockaded, it would not be blockaded.
State TV in Russia is already referring to the war in Ukraine as WW3. This is because of how much Western support Ukraine is receiving in weaponry. How much of a leap is it for escalation of war elsewhere? The Lusitania was sunk because the US and UK were using civilian ships for carrying war materiel. The sinking of this ship was then used as a pretext for the US to enter the war in Europe.
This bluff is particularly risky for the EU. At what point does Russia blame the EU, not just Lithuania, for blockading Kaliningrad? In the short term, whatever the case, any defensive moves would have to come from Europe.
Come back later - defence of the Baltics today
A Russian invasion of the Baltics is perhaps unthinkable because of their EU and NATO membership.
Regardless, militaries must consider their responses to all sorts of scenarios. What would happen if Russia did invade the Baltics? Let’s assume that nuclear war would not be the first response from NATO, and that things would have to escalate quite a lot to get there.
The first question the West would have to answer is whether it’s worth spending the lives to defend and/or retake the Baltics. If not, NATO is meaningless, and where does it draw the line? Poland, Germany, France?
It’s reasonable to assume that NATO would have to at least be seen to be doing something. What could it realistically do in the short term?
Every advantage goes to Russia. Russia has proximity and, with it, more troops and firepower.
There are also sizable ethnic Russian populations in Estonia (25%), Latvia (30%) and Lithuania (7%). Many are generally happy in their Baltic countries and don’t particularly want to be Russian. They enjoy European living standards. How many would prefer to be part of Russia? Either way, that won’t matter much to Russia. In Estonia, the city of Narva is very Russian. It would be a prime candidate for a new breakaway republic, East Ukraine style. A lot of the Russian population in Latvia are in the capital, Vilnius, so this would be much harder. The Russian minority in Lithuania is too small and there’s also a substantial Polish minority there too.
Russia may not even have to go through all the Baltic states to take them. One of their best options could be to create a giant kettling move, cutting off the Baltics and any NATO troops there, and detain them. A lot of the Baltic states are marshland or otherwise not very suitable for tanks and heavy infantry. Kettling them would solve the problem of conquering them.
Kaliningrad itself is heavily fortified, a large military centre for Russia, with a lot of anti-aircraft, artillery, and anti-ship defences. The more troops NATO puts in the Baltic, the worse the problem could get for them if they are difficult to supply because of distance, terrain, and if they are cut off.
Any Western response would have to come from Europe. The US is too far away to do anything quickly. It’s not clear that Europe is capable of responding quickly either. Europe’s militaries, except for the UK and France, are mostly small, averagely equipped, and disunited.
How does Europe answer the question about, for example, sacrificing Romanian defence in favour of the Baltics?
What does a Western response potentially look like?
What’s the point?
Thinking about why and what the West could do ought to help inform what a Western response could look like.
Given that the Baltic militaries could not repel Russia, what exactly is the point of them being in NATO or of NATO activity there?
All that NATO can really do in defence of the Baltics is react with the limited manpower and firepower it has there. Perhaps Estonia’s paramilitary and insurgency forces could do a thing or two, but this wouldn’t be enough to retake the Baltics from Russia. Their best bet would be to destroy infrastructure and slow the Russian takeover as much as possible.
NATO presence in the Baltics doesn’t achieve anything militarily useful. It must be political. Does it help reassure the other Eastern NATO members?
Perhaps the answer to the question “what’s the point” is even more cynical. The Baltics and the soldiers stationed there might be useful as sacrifices. If attacked, they give NATO an option for triggering Article 5 and, in doing so, proof that it can be triggered. It’s political. This means that a Western response also has to be political. This is risky. Politics is fickle.
The best bet for NATO seems to be to hold out as long as possible and buy time in the Baltics and wait for the counterattack. This assumes a counterattack is worth it. Is this politically viable though? Does a slow push/pull back to Poland look like a defeat or surrender? It’s demoralising either way. Once NATO is pushed out of the Baltics, Russia almost certainly begins immediately fortifying them. This only gets worse the longer Russia occupies the Baltics.
A Russian invasion of the Baltics could trigger a war but it wouldn’t make sense for NATO/the West to make the war about the Baltics.
Ironically the cynical answer to “what’s the point?” - that having troops in the Baltics would allow NATO to trigger Article 5 and fight Russia - could be the same reason why Russia would invade.
A quick and decisive victory could be useful for Russia. It would boost morale for Russia, demoralise the West, attacking could take fewer resources than defending or retaking, and the unity of the NATO response would be tested.
The best defence for the Baltics would have been European unity and better European militaries. You can’t build these things overnight. Starting now would be better than never.
In the short term, Finnish and Swedish NATO memberships are interesting. They would allow NATO to bypass a lot of the air defences in Kaliningrad and Belarus.
Better air attack capability from the West would help the West defend Estonia and Latvia.
Unfortunately for Lithuania, this may only help it a little. The Suwałki Gap, the land between Kaliningrad and Belarus, would still be very vulnerable. If Russia could take and fortify the Suwałki Gap it would make conquering the rest of the Baltics much easier.
On land the job in the short term would likely have to fall to Poland. Preparations may already be underway. Poland already gave its old tanks to Ukraine (WSJ 29-Apr-2022) and is getting new US tanks for itself (PR 05-Apr-2022).
Is the British offer to Ukraine, to train 10,000 of its soldiers every 120 days (PR 17-Jun-2022), about to extend to other countries in Eastern Europe?