European Affairs

NATO Warsaw Summit: The Threat to the Baltics     Print Email

john barry 1Brexit, the wholly unpredicted vote of the British electorate to leave the European Union, faces Europe with its greatest political challenge in half a century. Less headlined is that Europe looks to be facing the biggest threat to its security over a like period. The NATO summit opening tomorrow (July 8) will be dominated by a single topic: how to defend the alliance’s Baltic members against Russian attack. The gathering in Warsaw will be the most consequential for NATO since the ending of the Cold War.

President Putin has made no secret of his conviction that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are part of Russia’s patrimony, illegitimately sundered from the Motherland on the collapse of the Soviet Union. History doesn’t support his claim. The trio were brought under Soviet rule when the Red Army swept over them in 1940. Purges swiftly followed: Stalin’s secret police chief Beria had tens of thousands of Baltic nationals shot or sent to the gulag.

The Russian hyper- nationalism which Putin fans sweeps that aside. The Balts belong to Russia. More urgently, they pose a mortal threat to Russia’s security. An absurd claim on the face of it: a combined population of six million threatening 143 million Russians? But in 2004 the three joined NATO, breaching the “buffer zone” of nations between Russia and NATO members that Putin decrees is fundamental to Russian security. Javier Solana, the Spanish politician who as NATO Secretary General in the 1990s set in train the multiple steps to the Balts’ membership, was clear-eyed about what he was doing. He understood Russia’s visceral fears of a western military alliance on its doorstep, especially an alliance including Germany; he thought a “buffer zone” was prudent. But the Balts? “They are on Russia’s doorstep. Russia will one day want them back. They cannot defend themselves. Their only defense is NATO membership,” he once explained.

So it has remained for the intervening twenty-plus years. Article Five of NATO’s founding charter -- pledging that an attack on one will be regarded as an attack on all --- has been the Balts’ shield. Even Putin once joked that he would be “mad” to attack an Article Five nation. What’s new is the growing perception within NATO that Putin may just be desperate enough now to risk moving against the Balts. That fear will dominate the upcoming Warsaw summit.

When Putin sent troops into Crimea and eastern Ukraine in the early weeks of 2014, western opinion tended to assume these were opening moves in some cunning chess game. Chess is Russia’s revered pastime, after all. President Obama accused Putin of operating on “some kind of Cold War chessboard”. When Putin sent a sizeable air expeditionary force into Syria last fall, the metaphor endured: Syria, Obama said, was “not some superpower chessboard contest.”

It was a Russian chess genius, grandmaster Gary Kasparov --- prudently self-exiled in New York --- who pointed to the truth: Putin hasn’t been playing chess; he’s playing poker. Putin has never made a secret of his goal to reassert Russia’s Cold War status as a superpower rival to America and Europe. To achieve this, he’s been willing to take high-stakes gambles -- relying, as a good poker player will, on his opponents’ hesitation to risk calling him.

Putin’s problem is that neither gamble has brought him much. His Ukrainian expedition has caused him nothing but trouble and cost—including sweeping economic sanctions which Europe and America show little sign of relaxing. His air-onslaught over Syria has killed thousands of civilians, but to what end? Putin has allied Russia to a despised Arab leader, presiding over a country so ruined and so impoverished that it will take a century to rebuild its fabric, while internal peace will likely never be restored. Worse, the despised Arab leader whom Putin is supporting adheres to a sub-sect of Shiite Islam, while Russia’s twenty million Muslims are Sunni and ISIL’s Sunni call-to-arms resounds across the Russian Federation’s southern band of Islamist satrapies. Thousands of Russian Muslims --- Putin acknowledges as many as seven thousand; others reckon ten thousand or more --- are already with ISIL in Syria.

So much for Putin’s triumphant reassertion of Russia as a major player in the Middle East. The historian Tacitus recorded what he said was the bitter comment of a local chieftain whose people and lands had been ravaged by the Roman Army: “They make a desert and call it peace”. That was two millennia ago; the same will likely be said of Putin and Syria’s President Assad.

Ukraine has been orders of magnitude less bloody then Syria, but even less successful, while its costs to Putin rise steadily. The two oblasts in eastern Ukraine that Putin is supporting remain isolated hold-outs amid a populace looking west. (Putin’s efforts to foment a third defection in Kharkiv, capital city of eastern Ukraine, failed utterly.) Donetsk and Luhansk, the oblasts which do look to Russia, are basket cases. Their ruined industries will cost billions to salvage. Rebuilding Debaltsevo’s devastated airport will alone likely cost over a billion dollars. Even the local water mains and power lines, destroyed in artillery duels, have yet to be reconstructed. The Ukrainian government in Kiev periodically demonstrates its power by shutting down the electricity supply. An average of three Russian convoys a month have to truck in food and medicine: 57,000 tons of supplies by the end of last year, according to Russia’s Emergency Ministry, which boasted: “Russia’s humanitarian convoys prevent a humanitarian disaster.” Just so.

The only unequivocal benefit Putin has gained from either assertion of Russia’s renewed greatness has been a flood of Arab refugees from Syria and Iraq so unquenchable it has provoked a crisis of governance across the European Union. Putin may not initially have foreseen this, but Russian aircraft soon began to bomb unimpeachably civilian targets in rebel-held areas of Syria like hospitals and refugee centers, foreseeably spurring yet more thousands to flee.

So what gamble might Putin make next? What might further his goal of damaging what the revised National Security Strategy he signed last year explicitly identifies as Russia’s main adversary, NATO? If a modest commitment of Russia’s military in Syria could result in such damage to Europe’s primary political institution, what action elsewhere along Europe’s periphery might damage the institution fundamental to Europe’s military security? The answer is that a Russian military move against the Balts would confront NATO with an existential crisis.

How should NATO respond? That will be Topic One in Warsaw.

History is disquieting. NATO has a standard planning procedure while prospective members jump through its hoops. Its military staff, bolstered by the planning staffs of NATO’s bigger militaries, game out how these candidate nations might be defended in the (hopefully unlikely) event of attack. As a dozen new members joined in the decade from 1999 -- all but two of them former members of the Warsaw Pact – NATO planners worked through those exercises. Well, not quite. When U.S. Air Force General Joseph Ralston took over as NATO Supreme Allied Commander in spring 2000, he was disconcerted to discover that only the sketchiest of notions yet existed for the defense of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Why the usual planning hadn’t been worked through was never wholly clear. The simplest explanation was that the Balts were regarded as essentially indefensible against any plausibly-sized Russian armored assault. Their only defense, as Solana had assumed, lay in NATO’s Article Five pledge.

Ralston put tactical planning in hand. The conclusions reinforced the doubts. NATO’s strategy through the Cold War rested on three pillars: deterrence; delay; reinforcement. The situation of the Balts undermines all three. 

Deterrence: Through the Cold War, NATO’s “deterrence” was, ultimately, a threat to use nuclear weapons. That was just about credible if the freedom of western Europe was at stake. But, despite President Obama’s ringing pledge at Tallinn in June 2014 that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius are just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London. Article Five is crystal clear, an attack on one is an attack on all…” a threat to use nuclear weapons to deter attack on three small Baltic states is not credible. There is not the remotest chance that European governments would risk Berlin or Paris or London to save Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. Actually, it’s Russia which now is using the nuclear threat as deterrence against conventional attack. Putin signed in December 2014 a revision of Russia’s nuclear doctrine to allow the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the European theater. Then, in swift succession through spring 2015, he warned Denmark it would be a nuclear target if it agreed to the basing of a new American radar; declared he had been prepared to put Russia’s nuclear weapons on alert to protect its annexation of Crimea; and threatened to use nuclear weapons in the event of a clash in the Balts. (More recently, he has threatened to use nuclear weapons against Turkey and Saudi Arabia if they send forces into Syria to oust President Assad.)

So defense of the Balts would have to rely on conventional forces. But how?

Delay: NATO strategy was to trade space for time. Front-line forces deployed down the length of the West German border would slowly give ground against a Soviet assault to buy time for reinforcements to arrive --- mostly from America. But the Balts are a thin coastal strip. From the Russian border to Tallinn is around 125 miles, to Riga 130-170 miles. Lithuania has the most depth, roughly 200 miles from its border to the Baltic; but its capital Vilnius is unique among the three in being well inland: barely 25 miles from the border. Against a Russian assault, the Balts would have no space to trade for time.

Reinforcement: Cold-War NATO had made elaborate preparations -- exercised mostly biennially – to handle the expected torrent of reinforcements: ports; airfields; assigned rail lines and interstate highways; warehouses bulging with tanks and heavy weaponry maintained for immediate use; legions of logistics specialists practiced in operating the elaborate schedules. To forestall inevitable cries of ‘war-mongering’, NATO chose not to publicize these beyond, at most, bare announcements of this or that exercise. However little reported, the preparations were serious and impressive.

Little – mostly none – of that survives. One example: transporting main-battle tanks any distance requires flat-bed rail-cars. In his illuminating June 30 report, Sam Jones, defense editor of The Financial Times, records “a senior officer” in NATO’s eastern European command center recalling that NATO used to have access to 2000 flat-beds: “Right now, we have around a hundred.”

The reality is that, even if NATO did still have stockpiles of armor, artillery and other heavy weaponry, and flat-beds to transport them – which it has not – it would be impossible to get these to the beleaguered Balts in the event of conflict. Russia would shut down access. The Balts’ land-links to the rest of NATO comprise two roads and one rail-line running north from Poland up into Lithuania through the “Suwailki gap”, also called the “Kaliningrad corridor”. That’s at most 90 miles wide. To the east lies the frontier of Belarus; to the west looms Kaliningrad, Russia’s fortress on the Baltic. Even if Belarus were to stay out of any conflict, Kaliningrad houses more than ample air and land forces to close down the corridor. It’s not clear how NATO’s supposed counter to sudden attack – its “Very High Readiness Task Force” of some 5,000 troops, allegedly ready to deploy in 48 hours – would even muster in time (since it has no permanent base) or command the transport to get to the Polish/Lithuanian border. If the task force did manage all that, it would then commit suicide running the Kaliningrad corridor.

Surely reinforcement by air would be possible? Not that either. Putin has prepared. Konigsberg, an historic city on the Baltic – renamed Kaliningrad after Soviet forces swept over it in 1945 – was an integral part of Soviet territory until the Soviet Union collapsed and Lithuania declared independence in 1990. Kaliningrad then became what Scrabble players rejoice to call an exclave: an 86-square-mile Russian outpost beyond its national boundary. Russia has access down a rail-line across Lithuania.

Step by step over the past five years, Putin has transformed his exclave into a fortress. Just the ground forces based there – reckoned at 10,000-plus troops in three motorized infantry brigades plus an artillery brigade – are enough to constitute a serious invasion threat to the Balts. Those ground-forces would be supported by fighters, strike aircraft and helicopter gunships based on Kaliningrad’s two military airfields.

Putin’s game-changer, however, has been to emplace on Kaliningrad territory a multi-layered air defense arsenal of such density that Russian missiles and targeting radars are poised to turn the Baltic approaches at least to Latvia and Lithuania and perhaps a third of Poland into a no-fly zone for aircraft. What Putin has established is an “A2AD” – area-denial, anti-aircraft zone. Air-force-speak calls it “a bubble”. “It’s very serious,” Gen Frank Gorenc, commander of U.S. air forces in Europe, warned at the start of this year. “We’re going to have to take this into account.”

Stealth combat aircraft could likely pass through the “bubble” unscathed. But giant military cargo aircraft bringing reinforcements? That’s unlikely. Even if they did survive Kaliningrad’s lethal “bubble”, two further challenges would confront them.

Where would they land? The Balts have few, if any, airfields able to handle giant military transports. All the remotely possible lie well within the range of missile batteries deployed across Russia’s Western Military District, from which an assault on the Balts would be launched.

The second question is: what would they bring? Air-mobile forces are by definition light infantry. At best, they would carry man-portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. What they assuredly will not bring is the heavy weaponry needed to confront, let alone halt, a couple of Russian armored divisions.

All in all, a catalog of bleak realities. The eve of the Warsaw summit is the time to confront them. All summit meetings put the best face on things. NATO’s are no different. Member nations’ timidities, shrunken military budgets and messy compromises are transmuted in final communiques into bold and forward-looking decisions. What’s unique about the Warsaw Summit is that a yardstick exists against which to measure its decisions.

RAND, the iconic defense analysis group, published this past January a report: “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank”. A sub-heading reported its contents: “Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics”. The study reports the conclusions of a series of war-games through 2014-2015 playing out the likely results of a Russians invasion of the Balts. Deliberately, RAND used only unclassified military data, so the findings could be published. They are devastating.

*** “Despite President Obama’s bold words in Tallinn, a series of RAND wargames clearly demonstrates that NATO’s current posture is inadequate to defend the Baltic states from a plausible Russian conventional attack.”

*** Multiple plays of RAND’s Baltic wargame, testing multiple variables, gave an outcome that was “bluntly, a disaster for NATO”. Even when NATO was given a week’s warning time of Russian assault --- a window for the most urgent reinforcements – the study reported: “Across multiple plays of the game, Russian forces eliminated or bypassed all resistance and were at the gates of or actually entering Riga, Tallinn or both, between 36 and 60 hours after the start of hostilities.”

*** Russian victory would be so swift – probably before NATO’s political leaders even had time to concert a response and give necessary approvals to the alliance’s military commanders – that it would amount to “a stunning coup de main”.

*** “Such a rapid defeat,” the RAND analysts point out, “would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad”. A robust effort to re-take the Balts would carry a high risk of nuclear escalation. On the other hand, the minimalist response – “to concede at least temporary defeat” – would have “uncertain but predictably disastrous consequences for the [NATO] Alliance – and, not incidentally, the people of the Baltics”.

The outcomes need not be so catastrophic. In the same series of wargames, RAND’s analysts tested what NATO forces would be needed to stave off that Russian coup. Their calculation: “Having [on the ground] a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades – adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground a ready to fight at the onset of hostilities – might prevent such an outcome.” That force wouldn’t defeat a determined Russian assault; but it would demonstrate to Putin that he couldn’t hope for a lightning victory.

Nobody qualified has challenged RAND’s conclusions. It’s reliably reported that they broadly track with the judgments of NATO’s military committee, the conclave of its most senior officers. Meanwhile, an impressive publication in May from Estonia’s International Centre for Defense and Security, “Closing NATO’s Baltic Gap”, recorded the judgments of four vastly senior but retired NATO commanders. They too broadly supported RAND’s analyses, while hoping that somewhat smaller NATO forces in place would adequately deter Putin.

That’s the challenge. How will the Warsaw summit match up to it?