Beyond Ukraine and Crimea, the most probable flashpoint for future Russian military action in Europe is the Baltic states. The eastern expansion of NATO and the European Union into areas formerly part of the Russian sphere of influence was not well-received by Russia. Most Russians view the encroachment, and presence of NATO military forces on their borders as intolerable. Vladimir Putin has used the situation as a rallying cry to whip up nationalism and help solidify his hold on power. Putin views the NATO presence there as a roadblock to his desire to increase Russia’s standing in the world, and influence events in territories once occupied by Russia. Given that Moscow has already used its military to destabilize Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine to keep them in the Russian sphere, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to assume it could happen in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the future.
The Baltics pose a different situation since all three states are full NATO members. If attacked, their NATO allies will come to their aid. After the annexation of Crimea, the United States and NATO have paid closer attention to the easternmost reaches of the Atlantic alliance. Large exercises are held, air policing missions continue, and frequent appearances by US and other allied forces offer a reassuring sight for the population. Yet if push came to shove, neither the US or NATO could move enough combat power to the Baltics to deter or defeat an overt military move by Russia. It’s a matter of numbers and distances. Russia has its most capable land and air forces in the Western Military District (WMD) as mentioned earlier in this series. This district borders the Baltic States, and the number of available combat units exceeds what the US and NATO have in the immediate area, or what they can generate and move east at the onset of a crisis or conflict.
Despite holding a distinct military advantage over the US and NATO in Eastern Europe, don’t expect Russia to send waves of tanks, and MiGs into the Baltics one day. If the moment arrives when Moscow decides to move, it will be a subtle maneuver, similar to what took place in Crimea. Hybrid war is tailor-made for the circumstances in the Baltic states where the slightest misstep could bring about a major war. The Western Military District has numerous special operations units under its command, and inserting them into the Baltics in the leadup to a ‘crisis’ wouldn’t be terribly difficult. The sudden appearance of ‘little green men’ at key locations, coupled with a series of major cyber-attacks, and riots touched off by ethnic Russians could be enough to destabilize a small nation like Lithuania, or Estonia overnight.
Given the availability of surface-to-air missile batteries, and fighter aircraft in the WMD, Russia can also impose a no-fly zone over the Baltics on short notice. Such a move would hinder the initial US military move in a crisis or conflict, which would revolve around airpower. The US has a respectable number of combat aircraft still based in Europe. This fact has led Russia to base a number of the highly capable SA-21 Growler (S-400) SAM system within range of the Baltics to deny US and NATO warplanes access to the airspace over an area where Russian forces are operating.
With just two combat brigades permanently based in Europe, as well as a rotating armored brigade, the US would not be able to introduce a large ground force into the Baltics at short notice. NATO is in a similar fix. Revisions, and enhancements need to be made to the US military presence in central and eastern Europe to redress the present disadvantage. The effort currently underway is not the determined, unified effort that s needed. In the next segment, we will look at US efforts to balance the military scales in Europe and what direction they are moving in.