No threat to Russia militarily speaking, the US battalions in Baltics would irritate the Kremlin by their mere presence at Russian border. In response, just to flex muscles, the latter may move over its most modern armaments.
On basis of rotation, NATO states are preparing to place four battalions in Baltics and Poland, which would equal about a thousand of troops in each plus the technology. The arrival of the battalions must be approved by the upcoming summer summit of NATO in Warsaw.
«Of course, these couple of battalions pose no threat and the attack capacity of the currently hypothetical grouping is zero,» Pavel Baev, a well known Russian army expert at Oslo Peace Research Institute and one-time employee of research institute of Soviet defence ministry said in Norway. «But to Russia the mere fact of US soldiers appearing at their borders is highly unpleasant. The more so that such symbolic presence immediately excludes forceful pressurising of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In politics, however, the option of applying such force is often seen to be more effective than the pressure itself.»
Secondly, said Mr Baev, by stirring the threat of conflict near Baltics, Russia wishes to send a stark warning to Finland and Sweden, lest these join NATO.
Thirdly, Russia is certain that by placing units in Baltics and Poland, NATO is breaching the 1997 cooperation agreement with Russia, said Mr Baev. According to Russia’s interpretation, it was agreed that NATO will not amass troops in Eastern Europe. Though NATO does not consider itself bound to that after annexation of Crimea and the war in East Ukraine, Russia in principle deems the agreement to be important and, according to Mr Baev, wants to punish the enemy for breaking his word. Thereby, Mr Baev thinks Russia will respond to the potential placement of NATO troops not according to parity, but by a move manifold mightier militarily.
To predict a potential Russian move retired colonel Viktor Murahovski, a chief military commentator at major Moscow newspapers, a former tank battalion commander and member of general headquarters of Russian armed forces, claimed that Russian defence ministry deems not the North-Western direction of greatest importance and thus in high likelihood there would be no immediate reaction to «symbolic NATO forces» placed in Baltics.
But what of Russia still does react? Mr Murahovski pointed out five potential responses by Russia to NATO next to Baltic Sea.
Placement of modern Russian air and space defence systems next to Baltic borders, so these will be able to close the skies above Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Placement of modern anti-ship rocket complexes on the shore, closing access to Eastern part of Baltic Sea.
Placement of modern operative-tactical rocket complexes near Baltic borders and/or placement of Kalibr guided missiles on Russian Baltic Sea navy vessels so a strike is possible against any spot in Baltics.
Aiming of armaments at Baltic infrastructure granted into NATO: military airfields, ports, railway junctions, headquarters, communication nodes, arms and equipment storages, power stations etc.
According to Mr Murahovski, Russian general headquarters views NATO activity in Baltics as part of US and NATO activity in entire Eastern Europe and Russian Western border: the building of air defence systems in Romania and Poland (which irritates Russia manifold more than NATO battalions placed in Baltics), NATO headquarters in lots of East-European states, NATO air policing in Baltics, Polish F-16 fighter pilots training in the USA, creation of strike teams, building of military infrastructure etc.
«That [in the eyes of Russian general headquarters] is a sign that in these regions NATO is preparing for war,» said Mr Murahovski, who among other things is adviser to Irboska Club, a well-known group of conservative Russian political scientists and experts. «Makes no difference which form of military activity NATO is planning: defence or attack.»
Another well-known Moscow analyst and member of social council at Russian defence ministry Ruslan Puhhov noted that Russia will definitely respond to a decision at NATO summit. «Also, as a military analyst, I am only ashamed and puzzled by the activity of both NATO and Russia,» he said.
According to Mr Puhhov, some battalions will obviously not help Baltics or Poland in case of conflict. Rather the opposite is true: it will only call for more strikes against them. «Truly, the help is highly symbolic and one must admit that Russian politicians and military make an elephant out of a flea,» said Mr Puhhov. «Equally clearly, should Russia and NATO engage in full scale war, Russia will immediately use the nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, [Russia’s] attempt to sway conventional armaments balance into their favour means excessive military spending which will end very poorly for Russia just as it did for the Soviet Union.»
According to political scientist Aleksei Makarkin, the Kremlin is using any military move by NATO in its interests. «In its confrontation with the West, Russia sees itself as the party that needs to be defended. This is not just propaganda – though this does play a part –, but also a deep conviction – which was created after the Kosovo war in 1999 – that the West is a threat to Russia,» said Mr Makarkin. «Therefore, any NATO activity in the East is seen as confirmation of that phobia.»
Pavel Baev does not believe that in response to the NATO battalions, Russia would take military steps; rather, the emphasis will be on «hybrid operation».
«We are talking about creating such an aggregate of threats in which the US and NATO grouping would be extremely vulnerable and their security therefore very fragile,» said Mr Baev. «They are banking on a situation unacceptable for the USA – the more so for Germany – that these battalions [in Baltics] will be facing definite defeat and are in danger of being taken hostage.»
Militarily, said Mr Baev, Russia would be much more irritated if instead of some battalions NATO would place in Baltics such weapon systems where Russia is lagging behind and against which they lack effective defence. One such weapon would be attack drone with wide range.
As for former scientist at Russian institute of strategic research (RISI) Aleksandr Sytin advised Estonia and all Russia’s neighbours to boost NATO presence as much as possible.
«It is a wrong approach that it would irritate Russia, as currently nobody is protected against anything,» said Mr Sytin, a Baltics expert while at RISI. «I am of the opinion that, to the contrary, NATO troops would be a very strong deterring factor. Russia does not want, cannot, and is afraid to make war. Of that, the best incident is that with Turkey (which shot down a Russian fighter which crossed the border from Syria – J. P.), where military measures were never taken, not even tried.»
None of the three military experts deemed it likely that Russia’s first aim in a potential Russia-NATO conflict would be closing the Suwałki corridor. The 100 kilometres wide corridor at Poland-Lithuania border is the only connection by land between Baltics and other NATO members. It is a strip of land between Russia’s militarised Kaliningrad Oblast and its great ally Belarus. Baltic military leaders warn that in case of conflict, the strip could be easily blocked by Russian and Belorussian troops, obstructing the movement of NATO forces and equipment.
Mr Murahovski says the «Suwałki scenario has been invented» by Western military experts, naming the retired US colonel Douglas Macgregor. «I do not think this is an effective or reasonable move for Russia,» said Mr Murahovski. «I think the operation plans of Russian defence forces feature activities much more unexpected, effective and asymmetrical – in case a military conflict arises with NATO in the North-West.»
Pavel Baev says the Suwałki corridor issue is not strategic but rather political, and depends on Belarus, Poland, Sweden and Finland.
«Is Belarus willing to be battleground for a Russia-NATO conflict? The reasonable answer is no,» reasoned Mr Baev. «Will Poland be just waiting for a solution for a military conflict in Baltics? The reasonable answer is no? Will Sweden and Finland remain neutral in case of Russian aggression? The reasonable answer is no. The sum of these answers reveals the deep vulnerability of Kaliningrad, and Russia cannot neglect considering the worst.»
Aleksandr Sytin noted that closing off the Suwałki corridor would need excellent relations between the Kremlin and the Belorussian president Aleksandr Lukašenka, but there are visible problems between them. «Lately, Mr Lukašenka is visibly trying to pursue an independent foreign policy which irritates the Kremlin,» said Mr Sytin. «Till today, Mr Lukašenka has craftily wiggled out of a Russian air and space force base established in Belarus which is greatly desired by Russian defence ministry.»
Talking about the overall change of security environment around the Baltic Sea since spring of 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, Ruslan Puhhov drew a parallel between Estonia and Finland.
«Did Finnish security decrease after annexation of Crimea? No! Their security situation is stable, whether it be stably bad or stably good, but they are not hysterical about it,» said Mr Puhhov. «They know that in case of war, they will all rise as one man to defend Finland, and that their army is very well armed and trained. I have communicated with Russian generals who say they are therefore very careful regarding the Finnish army.»
On that account, Mr Puhhov also praised Estonia, calling its principles of building up defence forces as «a healthy approach, especially compared to such as Latvians who are a joke». «Among the countries surrounding Russia, Estonian defence policy is among the most prudent: conscription, very reasonable arms and equipment procurements, training of officers and reservists,» he listed.
According to NATO treaty article 5, all member states are obligated to assist an ally who comes under armed attack. In addition to us believing and being convinced that the article will be kept, it is also vital that Russia be convinced that NATO will war for small states. «I have no answer to that question,» admitted Ruslan Puhhov.