a bitter melon

Towards the NATO summit: Baltic panic

The Baltic situation is one of the issues certain to be discussed during the 2016 NATO summit this week. Shortly after the invasion of Crimea on March 18, 2014, NATO and other officials began speculating about a Russian invasion of the Baltics.

Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Richard Shirreff, for example, predicts a Russian invasion of the Baltics within a year, in his recently published book:

The Independent -- Former Nato commander’s new book predicts invasion of Baltic (May 18, 2016)

General Sir Richard Shirreff, who served as Nato’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe between 2011 and 2014, said that an attack on Estonia, Lithuania or Latvia – all Nato members – was a serious possibility and that the West should act now to avert “potential catastrophe”.


General Shirreff said that Mr Putin could be persuaded into an intervention in the Baltic by a “perception” of weakness in Nato, and predicted that, as in Crimea, the Russian president would present his actions as an act of defence to protect the large Russian-speaking minorities in those countries.

General Shirreff provides no explanation of what Russia would gain by invading the Baltics. The comparison to Crimea does not work: the Russian invasion of Crimea served to secure access to the crucial port of Sebastopol, the only harbour that provides Russia with access to the Mediterranean Sea.

It is hard to see what, if anything, Russia would gain by invading the Baltics, while it will severely and irreparably harm Russian relations with the West, if not cause an outright war. So why would Russia want to do that? It doesn't make any sense.

But still the story keeps surfacing, as if the Russian desire to invade the Baltics is an established fact.

What is an established fact is that Shirreff's colleague at NATO during 2013 and 2014, Philip Breedlove didn't mind exaggerating Russian military strength to try and steer the political leadership towards a confrontation with Russia.

It is not just military commanders at NATO. Breedlove and Shirreff are just some of the voices in a loud and influential chorus that has been calling for an aggressive expansion of NATO presence in Eastern Europe, despite the fact that the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 frowns on the "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces". But the Founding Act isn't a problem, according to The Heritage Foundation. The USA just need to be persuasive about it:

The Heritage Foundation -- The 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act Does Not Prohibit Permanent NATO Bases in Eastern Europe (Apr 29, 2016)

Work with reluctant allies in NATO. Some NATO members, such as Germany, incorrectly interpret the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act as an excuse not to support new NATO bases in Central and Eastern Europe. The U.S. should work with these allies to alleviate any concerns they might have about the legality of permanent bases.

When you're at at the point where you're explaining why you no longer have to honor your agreements, you have to stop and think. The only justification for that would be an imminent Russian invasion of the Baltics. But is this the case?

Think tank RAND Corporation certainly seems to think so. They have been loyally churning out a steady stream of publications that proceed from that assumption.

This RAND piece (from the beginning of February judging by this Facebook post), for example, recommends training the Baltic public in tactics of guerilla warfare:

RAND Corporation -- Unconventional Options for the Defense of the Baltic States

What else could be done to deter aggression, and, in case of invasion, to buy the Baltic states time until sufficient NATO reinforcements can enter the fight? Part of the solution might come from considering unconventional options, such as those that were part of the Swiss national defense strategy during the Cold War: training and equipping independently operating local defense units (supported by regular forces in accordance with a national strategy), preparing transportation infrastructure for demolition, and instructing members of the military, as well as the general public, in how to effectively participate in decentralized, ubiquitous, and aggressive resistance activities, along with a coordinated information operations (IO) campaign.

But probably the most influential RAND piece was the following, which estimates that a Russian invasion force could "easily reach Tallinn in between 36 and 60 hours". RAND Corporation -- Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank

Across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga is 60 hours.

The piece was widely quoted, directly or indirectly. The estimate of between 36 and 60 hours is repeated in publications from Foreign Policy, The Telegraph, The Daily Express, The National Interest, Bild, NRC, Business Insider.

It's not that the analysis is wrong -- it's that it presumes what needs to be proven, namely why Russia would want to invade the Baltics in the first place.

But RAND never makes that case in any coherent manner, despite having supported permanent stationing of NATO troops in the Baltics -- in violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act -- since at least March 2015:

RAND Corporation -- Stop Putin's Next Invasion Before It Starts (Mar 2015)

Geography makes the Baltic republics vulnerable to Russian aggression. Should Russia choose to attack, no one seriously thinks that their defense forces and the other NATO troops currently in or close enough to Eastern Europe to respond could stop them.

It is not just intelligence think tanks like RAND. Stolid The Economist was also seen clamoring for reinforced military presence in the Baltics:

The Economist -- Putin’s war on the West (Feb 12, 2015)

Just as urgently, those former Soviet countries that have joined Western institutions must be buttressed and reassured. If the case for sending arms to the Donbas is doubtful, that for basing NATO troops in the Baltics is overwhelming, however loudly Mr Putin squeals. Western leaders must make it clear, to him and their own people, that they will defend their allies, and the alliance—even if the struggle is covert and murky.

And here is the normally placid Newsweek Europe, just half a year ago, with some frenzied speculation:

Newsweek -- Counting down to a Russian invasion of the Baltics (Jan 12, 2016)

It is important to think about how a Russian attack might begin. Russia might launch a concerted series of probes, initially of a non-military and non-kinetic nature, to prevent the utilization of the new Lithuanian terminal at Klaipeda, stop Latvia from passing new energy legislation, or prevent deployment of larger and more capable NATO forces in any of the Baltic states.

Again, the Newsweek or Economist analyses are not wrong. It must be overwhelmingly clear to anyone that you don't fuck with NATO. But that doesn't mean NATO can unilaterally decide to ignore the Founding Act, because that would mean negotiations with the alliance are meaningless. Force and the threat of force then become the only options for dealing with NATO. Does that lead to increased security? Of course not.

Even the notoriously hawkish National Interest allows that the case for a Russian invasion of the Baltics is shaky (granted, published in the section "Skeptics"):

The National Interest -- Why on Earth Would Russia Attack the Baltics? (Feb 7, 2016)

So what would Russia gain from attacking the Baltics? A recalcitrant, majority non-ethnic Russian population. A possible temporary nationalist surge at home. A likely short-lived victory over the West.

The costs would be far greater. Grabbing the Baltics likely would spur population exodus and trigger economic collapse. Launching a war without the convincing pretext present in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine might leave the Russian public angry over the retaliation certain to come. Worse, Moscow certainly would rupture economic and political relations with the United States and Europe and probably start a losing conventional war with NATO. Even more frightening would be the prospect of a nuclear conflict, whether intentional or inadvertent.

So where does the notion that Russia wants to invade the Baltics come from?

Russia under Putin generally telegraphs its intentions from miles away. There is reason to believe that Putin warned about the Crimean invasion as far back as 2008, during a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Bucharest:

UNIAN -- Russian journalist: Kremlin’s plan on Crimea’s annexation born in 2013 (Nov 19, 2015)

The journalist added that the Kremlin’s idea to return Crimea was not spontaneous: "Back in 2008, at a Bucharest summit, Putin said that, if Ukraine joins NATO, it risks being left without Crimea and the East[ern part]. Over time, the age-old Putin's mantra "We need to deal with Ukraine, or we lose it" evolved into "If Ukraine joins NATO, we will take Crimea."

Of course it is difficult to establish exactly what was said during a private meeting, but similar claims are reported by Kommersant, News Russia and The New Republic.

Now regardless of what was said in private, it is clear that Putin had deep concerns over NATO expansion, as evidenced by his public speech after the NATO-Russia Council:

President of Russia -- Press Statement Following Meeting of the Russia-NATO Council (Apr 4, 2008)

We view the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders, a bloc whose members are subject in part to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, as a direct threat to the security of our country. The claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice. National security is not based on promises. And the statements made prior to the bloc's previous waves of expansion simply confirm this.

Interestingly, Putin remarks on the Baltic states as well:

We have eliminated bases in Cam Ranh (Vietnam) and in Cuba. We have withdrawn our troops deployed in eastern Europe, and withdrawn almost all large and heavy weapons from the European part of Russia. And what happened? A base in Romania, where we are now, one in Bulgaria, an American missile defence area in Poland and the Czech Republic. That all means moving military infrastructure to our borders. Let's talk about it directly, honestly, frankly, cards on the table. We want that sort of dialogue.

Or, for example, immediately after the Baltic countries joined NATO jet fighters appeared in the sky. To resolve what problems?

(emphasis added)

We hear a lot about Russian infractions into the Baltic and Scandinavian waters and airspace, but little about the manoeuvring by NATO and USA.

According to The Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to NATO, the number of US and NATO flights near Russia doubled from 2013 to 2014:

Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to NATO -- Russian and NATO states’ military flights (Jan 29, 2015)

Particularly, in 2014 one could notice considerable growth of flights by US and NATO States’ reconnaissance aircraft over the territory of the Baltic States, as well as over the Baltic and Barents Seas – up to 8-12 flights per week. Their air routes laid in the immediate vicinity of Russian borders.


NATO States’ tactical aviation aircraft based in Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria take active part in joint exercises and training with host states’ Armed Forces. The total number of NATO States’ tactical aviation flights near Russian and Belarusian borders exceeded 3.000 in 2014 (twice as many as in 2013).

None of this -- even if it is true, which can be doubted -- excuses Russia's more egregious provocations over the past year or so. But it does put NATO and USA protestations of innocence into perspective.

Returning to the question, where does the idea come from that Russia wants to invade the Baltics?

The strongest candidate for this idea appears to be a claim by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that Putin threatened to be able to take "Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius" in just two days (Poroshenko repeated the claim a year later):

Süddeutsche Zeitung -- Putin soll Europa massiv gedroht haben (Sep 18, 2014)

Laut einer Gesprächszusammenfassung des Auswärtigen Dienstes der Europäischen Union, die der Süddeutschen Zeitung vorliegt, berichtete Poroschenko dem EU-Kommissionspräsidenten José Manuel Barroso am vergangenen Freitag während dessen Besuchs in Kiew von den Drohungen. Wörtlich habe Putin zu ihm, Poroschenko, gesagt: "*Wenn ich wollte, könnten russische Truppen in zwei Tagen nicht nur in Kiew, sondern auch in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warschau oder Bukarest sein."

(emphasis added)

There is no way to verify what was said or what the intention was, but obviously it is in Poroshenko's interest to emphasize any real or perceived threat if he is to capture the attention of his easily-distracted 'friends' in the EU and Washington. Who can blame him?

In the final analysis the question is not about Poroshenko, but about whether the legitimate concerns of Ukraine and the Baltic states are served by escalating tensions and military brinkmanship. If NATO wants to be taken seriously it must assume responsibility for its actions and make it absolutely clear that the alliance will always honor all of its agreements -- not just the convenient ones.