Russia should not be allowed to perceive it can act unchallenged

NATO needs to decisively acknowledge Russian danger in Baltic Sea region and significantly increase presence of ground and air forces, as well as of navy says a fresh report. 

At the start of the year the US think tank RAND made waves with its report concluding that NATO was currently unable to defend Baltics from invasion by aggressor. They thought the situation could be improved by boosting deterrence measures.

In a report ordered by Riigikogu’s national defence committee, International Centre for Defence Studies (ICDS) research fellows Kalev Stoicescu and Henrik Praks arrived at the same conclusion. Unlike their US colleagues, ICDS additionally takes into consideration political aspects and aspects related to deterrence, touching upon all components or armed forces.

«The picture of defence capability Baltic States, Poland and other NATO allies in not dark,» Postimees was told by Kalev Stoicescu. «Even so, we found that in order to ensure sufficient strategic balance, such as would deter Russia, the allied presence need to be continually increased.»

Change of trend not in sight

Doubtless, the ICDS analysis is the more relevant that these past weeks have featured fresh provocations by Russia like its fighters buzzing over US navy vessel at exercises on Baltic Sea, shortly followed by another Russian fighter disturbing a US military airplane.  

Mr Stoicescu believes that nobody will begin to shoot the Russian planes down before they attack seriously violate the sovereignty of NATO nations. He does, however, note in the report that Russia poses a clear and immediate threat to NATO’s eastern flank while the Kremlin shows no signs of altering it policy built on confrontation with the West.  

«The West has not been able to prevent Russia from attacking its neighbours not using military means for political and economic gain even as far away as in Syria. The general NATO deterrence may not necessarily hinder Russia from triggering a new «local» military adventure even against a NATO member state, especially in the Baltic Sea region,» the authors noted in the report.

Which means that we are currently able to speak about two potential dark scenarios: the first and less likely is an attempt to «do Donbas» in Narva; the other and much more credible scenario prescribes occupation of Baltics.

The research fellows do not think that trying to bring in «little green men» would yield the expected results in Estonia. «Narva is no Crimea or Donbas,» reads the report. «The alliance and the Baltics in particular will not yield regarding territorial integrity.»

Also, the approach has failed to grant Russia its expected results in Ukraine and the alliance itself has thoroughly studied hybrid warfare and its tricks.

Alas, here the second scenario enters into play, deemed much more likely by the authors: «President Putin would surely prefer not to just tease the alliance and risk serious losses, but would rather bring a deadly blow against NATO i.e. execute a scenario which would include separating the Baltic territory from the rest of the alliance, and their potential occupation.»

This has repeatedly been exercised by Russia and, as has been stated, would constitute a much mightier political blow against both NATO and the European Union. For Mr Stoicescu, this is their weightiest conclusion. He would underline that the likelihood of such a scenario is the smaller, the stronger the allied presence in Baltic Sea region.    

Not limited to pointing to the existing problems, the report pointedly brought out the need to boost allied presence. «NATO needs to acknowledge that it is no longer bound towards Russia by any obligation to abstain from placing vital troops on Eastern members territories,» the authors put it plainly.

And that – evidence of allied presence in the Baltics – would be the very thing that might work to deter Russia. But that would only relate to the so-called hybrid invasion. «With a larger-scale attack, these troops must be ready for steady resistance in order to make the aggression costlier and gain time to bring in additional forces. The battle capacity of said troops would also serve as a kind of a trigger to ensure that the conflict will not remain local and will bring about a forceful counter-attack by the alliance.»

Financially doable for NATO

Thus, among other things the authors foresee vital add-ons to presence in land, in air and at sea in the region. Meanwhile, they do not think the deterrence would be above NATO’s financial means. «NATO has got all the forces and means actually needed in the Baltic Sea region, except that these are currently in a wrong place,» reads the report.

The authors are open about Russia doubtless reacting negatively to any attempt by NATO to boost protection of its Eastern flank and will probably be accusing NATO in upping the ante. Which will not mean that the alliance should yield to such extortions.

«Considering the speed at which developments evolve in Russia’s policy, and the level of unpredictability, these plans have to be elaborated in detail, agreed and implemented as soon as possible.,» concluded the authors. «Russia should no longer be allowed to perceive the Baltic Sea area as one in which its military can act unchallenged.»

As acknowledged by authors in introduction to the analysis, the paper reflects the personal opinions of the authors and is based solely on public information.  Further decisions and details are expected in June, at the next defence ministers’ meeting, and finally from the NATO Summit in Warsaw, in July 2016.

FROM THE REPORT

  • Russia follows an increasingly aggressive anti-Western policy of revisionism and has become a direct and open threat to NATO. It is implementing an ambitious military modernisation programme and has demonstrated a tendency to use force against weaker neighbours.
  • Russia will strive to avoid a full-scale war with NATO, but it could be tempted, nevertheless, while being guided by misperceptions, to provoke and exploit a «local conflict» to test and undermine the Alliance.
  •  Finally, in communicating its posture to the Russian side, NATO needs to signal that the Alliance is united and determined, that it has the capabilities to respond to possible Russian moves, and most importantly, that its actions are of a purely defensive nature and do not pose any threat to Russian security.
  • The time factor is essential, not only concerning NATO’s ability to react to an imminent threat, but especially with regard to the actual build-up of NATO’s regional deterrent in the Baltic Sea area. It goes without saying that the deployment only of combat-ready Allied troops makes sense. 
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