The Buzz

NATO’s Worst Fear: Losing to Russia in a War (And It Could Have Happened)

In this context, news that Russia could win a localized conventional conflict against small NATO nations on its border becomes rather less alarming than it sounds at first blush. Apart from (perhaps) a brief window of vulnerability in the 1990s, Russia has always had the capacity to threaten NATO with conventional force. Indeed, NATO did not even begin to plan for the conventional defense of the Baltics until well after their accession, on the belief that the faith and credit of the alliance, and in particular its ability to retaliate against Soviet interests in the rest of Europe, would prove a sufficient deterrent.

The RAND wargame suggests that Russia could take the Baltics, and perhaps hold them, for a while. Moscow would begin to pay costs very early in any conflict, however, as NATO forces moved against Kaliningrad, Transnistria and other Russian holdings. The Russian Navy would likely come under severe attack from NATO submarines and aircraft. Long range strikes would debilitate much of the rest of Russia’s air force and air defense network. In short, Russia could grab the Baltics, but only at a cost vastly in excess of the value of holding onto them. This is how NATO conducted deterrence in 1949, and it’s how NATO does deterrence today.

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.

This first appeared earlier in the year.

Image: Creative Commons.