2015-05-08 By Robbin Laird
With the Russian approach to Ukraine as defining a threat envelope, the question of Baltic defense has become a central one for NATO. And deterrence rests not simply on having exercises and declarations but a credible strategy to defeat the Russians if they decided to probe, push and dismember the Baltic republics.
How can NATO best shape a credible defense strategy which meets the realistic performance of the key stakeholders in defense and security in Northern Europe?
It is no good talking in general deterrence terms; or simply having periodic exercises. The exercises need to be part of shaping a realistic engagement and defense strategy.
As one Russian source has put it with regard to characterizing with disdain NATO exercises:
The West keeps accusing Russia of aggression towards neighboring countries and this is largely bluff in order to make it appear strong, Alexander Mercouris, international affairs expert, told RT.
He suggests it’s a dangerous game because it does bring NATO troops very close to Russian borders.
RT: We’re seeing this massive build-up in the Baltic states, while another NATO member, Norway, is also holding massive military exercises on Russia’s borders.Is the US-led bloc preparing for war?
Alexander Mercouris: No I doubt they are preparing for war, I doubt anybody seriously contemplates war with Russia which is a nuclear power, and it will be a suicidal idea. What I think we are seeing is a show force basically to conceal the fact that Western policy over Ukraine is falling apart, and all sorts of Western politicians and political leaders who made a very strong pitch on Ukraine now find that they have to do something to show that they are still a force to be counted on.
RT: How justified are these claims by some Western officials that Russia could be preparing to test NATO’s resolve by invading a member country?
AM: There is no justification for that whatsoever. Russia has never attacked a NATO-state. It didn’t do so when it was a part of the Soviet Union. There is no threat from Russia to do so, and this whole thing is completely illusory. I’m absolutely sure that everybody in the government, in the West, in NATO knows that very well.
And providing token forces as symbols of intent are not enough as well.
When the secret cables about NATO planning for Baltic and Polish defense were released in the WikiLeaks scandal, a Polish source characterized what he thought of symbolic measures:
Earlier this year the US started rotating US army Patriot missiles into Poland in a move that Warsaw celebrates publicly as boosting Polish air defenses and demonstrating American commitment to Poland’s security.
But the secret cables expose the Patriots’ value as purely symbolic. The Patriot battery, deployed on a rotating basis at Morag in north-eastern Poland, 40 miles from the border with Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, is purely for training purposes, and is neither operational nor armed with missiles.
At one point Poland’s then deputy defense minister privately complained bitterly that the Americans may as well supply “potted plants’.
The Russians with the advantage of having significant Russian minorities in the Baltics can play a probing game similar to Ukraine if they deem this necessary or useful.
The probing certainly is going on.
As a piece written by David Blair and published in the Daily Telegraph on February 19, 2015 put it:
The trap was laid with meticulous precision. The target was a senior officer in Estonia’s version of MI5 and the bait was supposedly vital information about organized crime. Eston Kohver was lured to a meeting in a lonely woodland at 9am on a Friday.
Lest the spy be thought foolish or naive, he went to the assignation with a posse of bodyguards.
Yet his erstwhile contact was accompanied by an armed snatch squad from Russia’s FSB intelligence service.
Mr Kohver’s escort was swiftly neutralized with stun grenades; for good measure, their communications were also jammed.
Then the spy was spirited at gunpoint across the Russian border five miles away.
This brazen abduction of an intelligence officer from his homeland took place on September 5 last year, only two days after President Barack Obama had visited Estonia to offer reassurance about America’s commitment to its security.
Mr Kohver was later paraded on Russian television and charged with subverting the very state that had carried out his kidnapping.
Deterrence is not just about arming and occupying the Baltic states in ADVANCE of the Russians doing something and given the geography such actions seem unlikely at best.
As a landpower with significant Baltic sea assets, it is difficult to imagine the Russians providing a long period of warning for the USAF to deliver significant US Army forces to the Baltic states to deter Russian attack. This is not a US Army led operation in any real sense.
And building up outside forces on the ground in the Baltics takes time and could set off Russian actions which one might well wish not to see happen.
This latter point is crucial to Balts as well who would not like to be viewed by the Russians as an armed camp on their borders in times of crisis, and not only the Russians living in Russia, but those in the Baltic republics themselves.
Credible defense starts with what NATO can ask of the Baltic states themselves.
In the 1980s, there was a movement in Western Europe which called for “defensive defense,” which clearly applies to the Balts.
Greater cooperation among the three states, and shaping convergence of systems so that resupply can be facilitated is a good baseline.
Add to that deployments of defensive missile systems designed for short to mid-range operations, and the ground work would be created for a stronger DEFENSIVE capability which would slow any Russian advance down and facilitate the kind of air and naval intervention by NATO which would mesh very nicely with the defensive capabilities of the Baltic states.
In a piece by Thomas Theiner called “Peace is Over for the Baltic States,” he looks at what kinds of actions by the Baltic states make sense in terms of collaborative defense within the bounds of realistic expectations.
The key is not simply to wait for NATO’s so-called “rapid reaction force” to show up in time to view the Russian forces occupying the Baltic states.
Most importantly, the three Baltic nations need a modern medium range air-defense system and tanks.
The air-defense systems currently in service, namely RBS-70, Mistral, Stinger and Grom man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) , do not reach higher than 4-5km and have a range of just 6-8 km.
The three Baltic nations do not need a high-end long-range system like the SAMP/T or the MIM-104 Patriot.
What the core Nordic states (Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland) can do is create a more integrated air and naval defense.
If the Russians believed that the Nordics most affected by a Baltic action could trigger what other NATO nations can do, there is little incentive for them to do so.
This means leveraging the Baltic Air Patrol to shape a Northern region wide integrated air operations capability that the US, France, Germany and the UK can work with and plug into rapidly.
It is about modular, scalable force with significant reachback that would kill a Russian force in its tracks, and be so viewed from the outset by the Russians.
And because it is not based in the Baltics, but the air controllers could well be, it is part of the overall defensive defense approach.
Naval forces are crucial as well, not only to deal with Russian naval forces, but to support the Baltic operation as well. Modern amphibious forces are among the most useful assets to provide engagement capabilities, ranging from resupply, to air operations, to insertion forces at key choke points.
By not being based on Baltic territory, these forces are part of the overall defensive defense approach, and not credibly part of a forward deployed dagger at the heart of Russia argument that the Russian leadership will try to use if significant NATO forces were to be forward deployed upon Baltic territory itself.
Shaping an effective defensive template, leveraging collaborative Baltic efforts, with enhanced integrated air and naval forces will only get better as Western naval and air transformation occurs in the period ahead.
There are a number of key developments underway which can reinforce such a template.The first is the Dane’s acquiring the missiles to go with the sensors aboard their frigates and to position their frigates to provide area wide defensive capabilities which can be leveraged in the crisis.
The second is the acquisition of the F-35 by key states in the region whose integrated fleet can lay down a sensor grid with kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities, which can operate rapidly over the Baltic states by simply extending the airpower integration already envisaged in the defense of the region.
The Norwegians, the Dutch, and possibly the Danes and the Finns will all have F-35s and a completely integrated force which can rapidly be inserted without waiting for slower paced forces has to be taken seriously by Russia. There is no time gap within which the Russians can wedge their forces, for Norway and Denmark are not likely to stand by and watch the Russians do what they want in the Baltics. With the integrated F-35 fleet, they would need to wait on slower paced NATO deliberations to deploy significant force useable immediately in Baltic defenses.
The third is the coming UK carrier, which can provide a local core intervention capability to plug into the F-35 forces in the region and to add amphibious assault capability.
The fourth is that the USN-USMC team coming with F-35B and Osprey enabled assault forces can plug in rapidly as well.
The fifth is the evolving integration of air and naval systems. The long reach of Aegis enabled by F-35/Aegis integration can add a significant offensive/defensive capability to any reinforcement force, and the Norwegians are a local force that will have such a capability.
By leveraging current capabilities and reshaping the template for Baltic defense, the coming modernization efforts will only enhance the viability of the template and significantly enhance credible deterrence, rather than doing what RT referred to scornfully as “US troops drills in Baltic states is more a political than military show.”
A key advantage of the approach is that it is led by the Nordics and gets away from the Russian game of making this always about the US and the “US-led” Alliance.
Putin and his ilk can play this game, but European led capabilities are crucial to reshaping Russian expectations about how non-Americans view their aggression as well.
And what might be the implications of not having an effective defense of the Baltic states on the US and NATO?
In a piece published by Yoel Sano Head of Political Risk, BMI Research, the implications are projected as follows:
Russia’s triumph over the most powerful military alliance in the world could prompt several Eastern European countries in the EU to reach some sort of accommodation with Moscow.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would probably accept Moscow’s hegemony in Eurasia. A victorious Kremlin could then press the US and EU for some sort of formal division of Europe into rival spheres of influence.
Europe would be set for a multi-decade new Cold War, although this would not be global in scope, because Europe’s economic importance has declined substantially since the 1980s. Also, there would be no ideological dimension to the new struggle.
In Russia, the president would bask in the success of re-establishing control of the Baltic republics, and patriotic fervour would surge, but the economy would be devastated by major Western sanctions. Given rising economic pressures, the president could steer Russia towards formal authoritarianism.
Elsewhere, the unreliability of collective security treaties would encourage Japan and South Korea to bolster their defences against China and North Korea respectively, probably by developing their own nuclear arsenals. Similar trends would play out in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and several of its neighbours fear the consequences of a nuclear Iran.
Also see the following:
For some Baltic defense stories: