Russia’s Baltic Threat

U.S., NATO Must Act to Deter Russia Threat to Baltics

Rssia’s recent aggressive “buzzing” of an American naval ship in the Baltic Sea should not have come as a surprise.  Despite the reluctance of many to recognize the fact, Moscow has entered into an era of aggressiveness even exceeding that of the later years of the Soviet Union. Emboldened by inadequate U.S. defense budgets, and strengthened by a lopsided arms treaty that gave it a lead in nuclear weapons for the first time in history, the Kremlin is increasingly acting in a manner which suggests it is moving towards an armed incursion into more nations than just Georgia and Ukraine.  If it chose to do so in the Baltics, studies conclude, it would defeat NATO forces handily.

In March, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenber noted: “When it comes the security situation in the Baltic Region we see a changed and more challenging security environment. .. We have seen a significant Russian buildup, military buildup in …the Baltic region with more planes, with more naval presence and also with more troops…”

Stoltenber’s remarks were expanded on by his Deputy, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow:

“… Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – including the first changing of borders by force in Europe since World War II – represented what I called a ‘new strategic reality,’ one that is even starker today. Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, Russia has continued to undermine the post-War and post-Cold War international order, an order based on respect for the sovereignty of nations, for the rule of law, and for human rights.  Russia is trying to turn back the clock to a time when it dominated countries within its sphere of influence through force and intimidation…

“Russia has embraced the promotion of insecurity, and withdrawn from all manner of military transparency agreements.  Russian combat forces can move along the full length of its border with great speed and stealth.  It also has considerable anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons that could impede NATO reinforcements (its so-called anti-access/area denial capability).  And it has shown in Ukraine that it can combine military power with unconventional ‘hybrid’ methods – cyberattacks, subversion, disinformation – to destabilize its neighbours.”

Moscow’s threat is greatest in the Baltic region. The Rand organization conducted an analysis of potential Russian aggression in that area, and the results are highly disturbing. The outcome, it reports, is unambiguous: “NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” Indeed, according to Rand’s study, the Kremlin’s forces could complete their conquest in about 60 hours.

The Center for New American Security worries that NATO has not kept up with growing challenges, particularly those of Russia’s current tactics and strategy:

“NATO is no longer as strong or resilient militarily or institutionally as it should be. Its disinvestment in force structure over the past generation, even as its core decisionmaking bodies have become calcified in their approaches to challenges, have left the organization inflexible in the face of emerging hybrid threats. Lastly, the alliance has become increasingly aware that it no longer has a coherent strategy to confront a rapidly changing world, and that the world knows it. This conveys a sense of institutional vulnerability, inviting a response. Russia’s aggression on the eastern flank of Europe and the unrest in the Middle East with its ensuing migration crisis both reflect the strategic vacuum that is Europe, drawing in conflict as a black hole draws in matter. NATO must gather its collective wisdom and present a united strategic front to the world.”

Other nations have noticed NATO’s increased vulnerability, particularly following the inexplicable withdrawal of American armor by President Obama. The Atlantic Council reports that “… the U.S. is exerting less visible political leadership in the Alliance than before…. a revisionist and externally aggressive Russia poses a short-term threat to the Alliance… For the U.S., responding to security threats in the Baltic Sea region is ultimately about the credibility of its global foreign policy and position as a superpower.”

The  problem of protecting the Baltics is not unsolvable.  The Rand study found that “A force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades — adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities — could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.”

Ironically, the type of weaponry needed to accomplish this is exactly what President Obama withdrew from Europe.

Frank Vernuccio is editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy & Government.

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