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The U.S. Navy in an Irregular Baltic Conflict: Seapower’s Role in Countering Russian Hybrid Warfare

Editor’s Note: The article below is derived from a forthcoming CNA report. The paper, tentatively titled Baltic Contingencies and the Role of Sea Power, is the first in a series set to explore the role of sea power.

It’s four in the morning in the Baltic Sea. Somewhere, across the rolling waves far onshore, Russian compatriots in the Estonian border city of Narva seize the city hall, police headquarters, and the main telecommunication hubs. A U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) conducting mine countermeasure training near Scotland with the Royal Navy is the most significant sea-based U.S. presence for miles. What can the Navy do?

This article explores the role of U.S. sea power in deterring and responding to irregular incidents in the Baltic region. Though the wider debate on Russian hybrid warfare has ebbed and flowed since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, discussing the role of sea power has been noticeably limited.

I will attempt to remedy this below, first by detailing some basic characteristics of unconventional scenarios, then by utilizing these characteristics to construct my own notional Baltic Sea crisis. This fictitious incident provides a sounding board against which we can investigate way in which the Navy does (and does not) have a dog in the Baltic fight.

Baltic Scenarios

The first of the two major scenario types commonly seen in irregular or unconventional conflicts is Leveraging Compatriots. In this circumstance, an aggressor (Russia, here, as the potential American adversary in a Baltic crisis) empowers or encourages sympathetic compatriot communities abroad to occupy or in some way take control of a city or territory. The result would be a de facto appropriation of territory by the aggressor via a large co-ethnic population. Once co-ethnic forces were in control, they would cease hostilities immediately, presenting opponents with a fait accompli.

Prior to the military intervention in Ukraine, Russia employed a political warfare campaign that worked with select pro-Russia Ukrainian elites to mobilize protests and empower fringe political movements and generate political instability. This tactic is consistent with broader Russian foreign policy guidance, which calls for the “protection of and support for compatriot populations.” The risk, however, is that the aggressor miscalculates and foments a political rebellion that it cannot entirely control. In Ukraine, for example, unrest in Crimea quickly sparked movements in Donetsk and Luhansk that were difficult for the Russians to manage.

This lack of control underscores some of the potential value in the second scenario type, the infiltration of “little green men.” Should the aggressor look to maintain greater control over escalation, it could choose to act through surrogates, militias, or unmarked special operations forces to provide direct tactical and operational support to compatriots during an emerging crisis. In the run-up to more overt Russian involvement in Crimea, for example, Russian Special Forces and elite infantry shaped the battlespace, seizing key access roads and bolstering claims to local self-declared people’s republics.

These scenarios share several important characteristics that will help us better discuss the role of the Navy in the final section, including: