Notwithstanding their security arrangements, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania resemble ripe fruit fresh for the plucking. The Baltic states are NATO members and enjoy the benefits and assurances that come with alliance membership. In the event of an overt attack upon one of them, Article 5 guarantees that their NATO allies will render aid. Article 5 was a major selling point for the Baltic states when they considered joining NATO. The ‘all for one’ premise was not simply window dressing or an empty promise to Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians. With Russia in such close proximity, the former Soviet republics needed a security guarantee.
NATO membership has not dissuaded Vladimir Putin from eyeing the Baltics covetously and wanting to bring them back into the Russian sphere of influence. As 2017 approaches, the Baltics appear even more vulnerable. The conditions for Russian involvement in the Baltics are becoming favorable. Action, in this instance, would be a hybrid war campaign instead of a more conventional military offensive.
The Baltics have to contend with peculiar geography, and ethnic realities. Two of the three nations are semi-cut off from the rest of NATO. Latvia and Estonia are both bordered by Russia to the east. The third nation, Lithuania, shares a common border with Poland that could serve as a corridor for reinforcements in the event of a crisis. Unfortunately, this corridor is flanked by Kaliningrad to the northwest and Belarus, a Russian ally, to the southeast. Geographically, the positions of the Baltics are untenable at best.
All three Baltic states are home to sizeable ethnic Russian minorities. Latvia’s total population is 26 percent Russian, while Estonia’s is at 24 percent. Lithuania’s, by contrast, hovers at 6 percent. There is much official and unofficial suspicion and concern about the Russian minorities and whether their overall allegiances lay with Moscow or Riga and Tallinn.
When scrutinized, the geography and ethnic make-up of the Baltics provide favorable conditions as well as an excellent foundation for Russia to begin a hybrid war operation. Russia shares a border with Estonia and Latvia, ensuring an unfettered logistical pipeline to support the material needs of pro-Russian insurgents in the event of a local or regional uprising. The main component for such an uprising is already in place in the form of the ethnic Russian minority. It is from this group that fighters and soldiers would come from, and perhaps be aided unofficially by Russian military advisers on the other side of the border. The challenges imposed on the Baltics are not dissimilar to those faced by the Ukraine in early 2014 shortly before the annexation of Crimea and the start of fighting in the Donbas region. That is not to say that because of the similarities with Ukraine a hybrid type of conflict will certainly erupt in the Baltic states at some point in the future. However, the possibility is there and needs to be taken seriously.
The Role of NATO
There is no set definition for hybrid warfare. In a nutshell, it is a combination of elements combined together by an aggressor to achieve a political goal while avoiding acknowledgement or retribution. Conventional warfare, insurgency, cyberwarfare, propaganda, political coercion, and criminal activity are a handful of the more popular facets of hybrid war. They have been implemented to varying degrees of effectiveness by Russia in Ukraine, Hezbollah in its 2006 conflict with Israel, and by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Should one or more of the Baltic states find themselves in a hybrid war situation and invoke Article 5, how the rest of NATO will respond is up for debate. The Baltic states, as previously mentioned, largely view Article 5 as their firewall deterrent against future aggressive Russian action. Yet, because hybrid war can be devised to appear as an internal conflict, insurgency, or civil war, there is concern in the West that Article 5 might not be applicable. The fifth clause of the Washington Treaty of 1949 states that “an armed attack on one or more [members] shall be considered an attack on all” and that alliance members will aid the nation being attacked quickly. During the Cold War, there was little question of its meaning or of the fact that the overt attack was expected to come from the Soviet Union. Now in the 21st Century, as Russia is flexing its muscle, increasing defense spending, and threatening to expand, Article 5 has come full circle. Once again, the primary threat to the alliance is Russia.
Russian action in the Baltics would likely not be a conventional invasion, so how obligated is NATO to intervene militarily upon an Article 5 invocation by one or more of the Baltic states? The truth is that NATO is not compelled to furnish a military counter. The response may include military force but it is not mandated. In fact, NATO is only obligated to take ‘such actions as it deems necessary’ to restore and maintain security. This could mean anything from a formal diplomatic protest to sending forces into combat to assure the sovereignty and security of the Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.
The greatest challenge for NATO will be defining the parameters of what is an attack and what is not. In the Baltics a hybrid war could involve inciting ethnic tensions, a social media engineered propaganda campaign, or a justification for action by Russia in the form of a terrorist attack against ethnic Russians that was staged by the Russian government. What might seem to be an intolerable and obviously armed attack by the Baltic states is not guaranteed to be viewed the same way by Brussels, London, Berlin and Washington DC. Presently, NATO is placing much effort into being able to respond effectively to a Baltic call for help, but the alliance members have to agree when an aggressor has actually crossed the line and initiated an attack. As we have seen with the Ukraine situation, not every NATO member will view the situation with similar views. Granted, Ukraine is not a NATO member, yet it is unrealistic to assume that at least some NATO members will not have similar reservations about using military force in the Baltics. What happens when Paris and Washington favor the immediate deployment of forces to Latvia, let’s say, while London and Berlin are not so certain? Make no mistake about it, a request to invoke Article 5 in response to a hybrid war brings with it the very real potential of causing a fracture in NATO.
The 21st Century West Berlin?
Just like West Berlin during the Cold War, the Baltic states today are serving as the easternmost outpost of NATO influence and power. They are three democratic, sovereign nation-states with NATO membership situated on an indefensible patch of real estate and in close proximity to Russia and Belarus. The amount of Russian military power within striking distance cannot be ignored or dismissed from the equation. Should Russia choose to invade Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, or all three, the fight would be over before NATO could deploy enough reinforcements to the region. In a manner of speaking, the Baltic states are at the mercy of Vladimir Putin.
West Berlin was in a similar fix from 1945 to 1989. In some ways it was worse off, while in others the opposite was true. Berlin was a tiny dot of blue surrounded by a sea of red, situated directly in the heart of East Germany. Like the Baltics, it’s existence was at the mercy of the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin. The ground and air links to the city could have been closed at any time. Had the Cold War turned hot East German and Soviet forces would’ve pushed into West Berlin from every direction.
The city wore many hats. It was made symbol of freedom, as well as Allied unity and determination by the Berlin Blockade and Airlift through to the Berlin Crisis of 1961. The survival of the city was directly linked to the survival of the West and NATO. West Berlin was a bargaining chip too. Nikita Krushchev attempted to use the survival of the city to the Soviet Union’s benefit on more than one occasion with mixed results. Beyond everything, however, Berlin was a flashpoint. When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 it very nearly sparked an East-West confrontation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most pivotal moment of the Cold War, there was concern that if the US had launched an invasion of Cuba, the Soviet response would be to invade West Berlin.
Right now the Baltics do not serve as a symbol of freedom or determination for NATO leaders or to their people. In truth, they are painful reminder of the grim realities of geopolitics and the attached dangers. A sliver of sovereignty that holds the potential of being a spark for a continent-wide conflict or worse. To NATO military planners Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are nations that are nearly indefensible but require a concerted NATO effort to defend them if the time comes. If the times comes when the Baltics find themselves to be threatened, NATO will find itself at a critical juncture and be forced to make a decision which could shape the future of Europe for better or worse.