The Nature of Russia's Threat to NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States

By Captain Michael R. Kristek, Sr., U.S. Marine Corps

Editor's Note: Captain Kristek's thesis won the FAO Association writing award at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.  We publish this short version because of space restrictions.  To see the full thesis with this article, contact editor@faoa.org.  We are pleased to bring you this outstanding scholarship.

Introduction

In the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent military support to separatists fighting in Eastern Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has deployed Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) forces to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland to reassure NATO’s members and deter Russian aggression. The EFP suggests policy makers consider a Russian incursion into the Baltic States a significant possibility. 

Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Army maintained a series of field manuals that analyzed the organization, doctrine, operations, tactics, and equipment of the Soviet Army. These field manuals served as the basis for how U.S. and NATO ground combat forces organized and trained to fight a Soviet adversary. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Army now maintains only a generic, non-country–specific, opposition force (OPFOR) series on adversary organization, operations, tactics, and equipment. 

While the Army’s current OPFOR publications are based on post-Soviet forces and account for many changes in Russian force structure and organization, the Russian military continues to modernize, experiment, and reorganize. These reforms began with an attempt to transition from a mobilization force built upon conscripts to a professional force. 

Following Russia’s poor yet effective 2008 performance in Georgia, Russia instituted its “New Look” reforms to address organizational and battlefield deficiencies. In response to NATO’s EFP in Poland and the Baltic States, however, the Russian military is reverting back to Soviet-era formations. As security experts, defense officials, and policy makers are considering the possibility that NATO and Russian forces may engage in combat within the Baltic States, contemporary analysis of Russia’s order of battle (OOB), tactics and lessons-learned in current conflicts within Syria and Ukraine, and combat preparations through joint- strategic exercises (JSE) is prudent for NATO ground forces to understand the nature of the Russian threat.

Conclusion

Open-source assessments of Russia’s military capability, regardless of methodology or the specific number of BTGs fielded, all point to the same general conclusion: Russia has local superiority through an overwhelming capability in manpower and combined-arms forces. Russia can deploy an overwhelming force without warning, and can follow up with reinforcements to sustain momentum or reinforce its position. Despite reforms, economic and demographic decline, as well as operational commitments would limit the Kremlin’s ability to sustain such an operation indefinitely, especially if required to commit to a multi-front defense.

These capabilities seem to portray a bleak military situation for the Baltic States and NATO, especially considering Russia’s A2AD and nuclear capabilities. Despite Russia’s comparative advantage in a Baltic-States scenario, Russia has not yet demonstrated the will to embark on any such action. While Russian forces train for such a scenario in their strategic exercises, this does not communicate intent; all militaries train to carry out their functions. What is more relevant than wargames is that Russia’s military intervention against non-NATO forces in Ukraine have not achieved any political settlement after three years of protracted conflict. Because the Russian military faces increasing fiscal constraints and growing mission creep against non-NATO forces in Ukraine and Syria, it is not in Russia’s interest to engage in a third conflict against a committed alliance. NATO’s EFP, although insufficient for defending the Baltic States, is sufficient for deterring any conventional Russian force from entering the Baltic States, regardless of size.

As security of the regime is the Kremlin’s primary goal, a military adventure in the Baltic States presents a losing proposition. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have led to a stalemate that is slowly whittling down their economy, already suffering from the drop in global oil prices and soon to be followed by a net drop in global oil demand. Fears of Russian revisionism in the Baltic States have led to NATO placing more troops in the region. NATO’s commitment to reinforcing deterrence in the Baltic States stands in stark contrast with Georgia and Ukraine. Although it has aggravated the Kremlin and drawn sharp critique, the West has demonstrated through EFP its resolve to uphold the alliance. As Russia is not likely to use conventional force against NATO, NATO’s resolve and deterrence will be further enhanced if it can come to a consensus on what constitutes, and how to respond to attacks in the cyber domain and electromagnetic spectrum.