The Skeptics

Why on Earth Would Russia Attack the Baltics?

When the Cold War closed many people believed that history had ended. Peace had descended upon the earth. The lion was about to lie down with the lamb. The Second Coming seemed on its way. Europe was certain to be free and undivided.

Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. But no worries. At least NATO officials are happy. Following Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine the alliance rediscovered a sense of purpose through its old enemy, Moscow. The Obama administration just announced a multi-billion dollar program to bolster U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. Now a Rand Corporation report warning that Russia could easily overrun the three Baltic members of NATO is raising additional alarm.

Said David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson: the “unambiguous” result of a series of war games was that “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” Russia’s forces took at most 60 hours to reach the Estonian and Latvian capitals. Such an invasion would leave the alliance only with bad options:

“a bloody counteroffensive, fraught with escalatory risk, to liberate the Baltics; to escalate itself, as it threatened to do to avert defeat during the Cold War; or to concede at least temporary defeat, with uncertain but predictably disastrous consequences for the Alliance and, not incidentally, the people of the Baltics.”

The Rand researchers recommended a substantial allied—which, in practice, means U.S.—military presence. Seven brigades, three armored, would “prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.” This would prevent Moscow from, as the report says,

“being able to confront NATO with a stunning coup de main that cornered it as described above, an attack on the Baltics would instead trigger a prolonged and serious war between Russia and a materially far wealthier and more powerful coalition, a war Moscow must fear it would be likely to lose.”

Shalapak and Johnson dismissed the cost, estimated at around $2.7 billion, but more commitments require more force structure, and that burden almost certainly would fall upon America rather than the Europeans. Just like the administration’s new initiative for Eastern Europe involving a single brigade. Nevertheless, argued the report’s authors, better to deter than invite “a devastating war.”

Their conclusion illustrates the folly years ago of treating NATO as a social club and inducting new members which were irrelevant to the continent’s security and possessed minimal military capabilities. At the time, Russia was too weak to make much of a fuss and U.S. officials assumed that mere words would suffice to defend those inducted. NATO expansion was considered a great success. But now the alliance realizes that it is obligated to war against nuclear-armed Russia on behalf of three essentially indefensible countries.

Equally striking is how NATO membership has discouraged the Baltic nations from doing much for their own defense. After the administration announced its plans for the new rotating brigade, Roman Kuzniar of the University of Warsaw said “It is clear that the European Union can no longer adequately respond to Russia’s demonstrations of power, so it is comforting that at least the United States is finally stepping up.” Actually, the problem is not that the EU cannot, but that it will not, step up. In contrast, the United States has been stepping up for more than six decades.

The three Baltics never hesitate to insist that they at great risk, but they spend little on their militaries. Despite recent outlay increases, only Estonia spends more than $200 per capita. Last year Latvia and Lithuania devoted 1.06 percent and 1.14 percent, respectively, of GDP to the military. Estonia was 2.04 percent—the first time Tallinn met the official NATO standard.

No one believes the Baltic states are capable of defeating their large neighbor in a full-scale war. But if they truly believe themselves to be at risk they should spend sacrificially to create a military capable of inflicting substantial pain on any invader. Being ill-prepared militarily is the most important invitation to a Russian attack.

Yet the surging fear over Russian adventurism distorts Moscow’s interests and ambitions. Vladimir Putin is a nasty fellow, brutal at home and abroad. However, he seems to well represent much of his country’s power elite and public. There is little apparent support for Western-style liberalism. Oust Putin and “le deluge” to follow would not likely be pretty.

Putin’s behavior is bad, but poses little threat to America, “old” Europe or even most of Russia’s neighbors. He is behaving like a traditional Tsar, not a reincarnated Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler. He has taken Moscow back to the Russian Empire, not the Soviet Union. His government is not interested in an ideological crusade and sees no inherent conflict with the West. Rather, Moscow demands respect for its status, protection of Russia’s borders and consideration of its interests. In pursuing these ends Putin is practical and measured, if perhaps imprudent and myopic—and, of course, dismissive of the cost to others.