Putin Might Decide to Attack NATO and Invade the Baltics

B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber
January 19, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaUkraineWar In UkraineMilitaryNATOPutinBaltics

Putin Might Decide to Attack NATO and Invade the Baltics

Putin might figure that, since the war in Ukraine cannot be won, seizing the Baltic States would at least give him something to pass off as a huge victory and to pass himself off as a contemporary Alexander Nevsky. 

Is Russian dictator Vladimir Putin planning to attack yet another country?

Belgium’s  Chief of Staff, Admiral Michel Hofman, thinks so: “It is possible that they [the Russians] might open a second front at some point in the future, in Moldova, or in the Baltic states.” So do some Ukrainian and Russian analysts. Unfortunately, they may be right.

Beyond Ukraine: What Would Putin Pick for a Target? 

The most likely targets of Russian aggression would be Estonia, Latvia, and Moldova. All three states are tiny (respectively, 42,388 sq. km; 62,249 sq. km.; 32,891 sq. km.), as are their populations (1,202,762; 1,821,750; 3,250,532) and active-duty military personnel (7,000; 7,000; 6,500).

Most importantly, Estonia and Latvia have large Russian minorities (24.5%; 24.5%) that could serve or be perceived as serving as fifth columns, while Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria is still home to some 1,500 Russian soldiers and huge stores of ammunition.

Attacking Moldova would be the hardest logistically, as it doesn’t border on Russia. Moreover, a Moldovan assault would inevitably draw in the Ukrainians and possibly the Romanians. Even if Russia prevailed and captured Moldova, the benefits would be minimal. True, Putin could crow about Russia’s imperial glory—and that might impress some Russians—but possession of a desperately poor country would do nothing to enhance Russia’s prosperity or security. In brief, an invasion could be messy and its benefits would be modest.

Far cleaner, far easier, and far more worthwhile would be to attack either Estonia or Latvia.

As the RAND Corporation concluded back in 2016:

“As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. Across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants in and out of uniform playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours. Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad: 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 scenario was premised on a Russian invasion, but in fact, Russia could achieve the same results with far less effort. All it would need to do would be to replicate the Gleiwitz Incident that launched Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. At that time, Nazis dressed as Polish commandos attacked a radio station in the then-German town of Gleiwitz (today’s Polish Gliwice). Responding to the Polish aggression, Adolf Hitler was, naturally, compelled to defend Germany by invading and, together with his good friend Joseph Stalin, dismembering Poland.

The current Russian security service could easily stage some outrage in which a number of Russians would be killed. A mythical Estonian or Latvian Fascist Front, fronting for the Russians of course, would claim responsibility. In turn, an equally mythical Save the Russians from Genocide Committee would declare that Estonia or Latvia had obviously been captured by neo-Nazis and politely request the Russian Federation to come to their assistance and defend their human rights. Putin would say that his love of freedom and his commitment to defend all Russians everywhere compel him to, alas, intervene.

What Would NATO Do? 

How would NATO respond to such a creeping, “hybrid” aggression? Hungary, Slovakia, and possibly Turkey would nix any generally agreed-upon response. If defending Ukraine makes little sense to Victor Orban, Robert Fico, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then defending the Balts would make even less sense. Since acting jointly won’t work, individual NATO countries will have to decide on their own whether or not to send troops to defend Tallinn or Riga. Finland, the United Kingdom, and Poland just might, but Germany, fully cognizant of the fact that Article 5 of the NATO Charter does not obligate them to an armed response,  will likely call for negotiations, while the French, armed to the teeth with banners and signs, will march with raised fists down the Champs-Elysées.

Will the United States rush to Estonia’s or Latvia’s assistance? President Joe Biden might. A President Donald Trump almost certainly would not.

Whatever response ensues, it will take time, and with every passing minute, hour, and day, Russia’s hold on the Balts will increase, and the costs of a Western intervention will rise. Small wonder that the RAND Corporation’s conclusions were so pessimistic.

M1 Abrams Tank

For everybody, though, with the likely exception of Ukraine. A second front will divert Russian personnel, resources, and attention to the Baltic and enhance the Ukrainians’ ability to fight the war to a successful conclusion—especially as the NATO countries reluctant to get involved in the Baltic compensate for their inactivity with guilt-driven supplies to Ukraine.

Why, then, would Putin do something as strategically stupid as to gain the Baltic states and to lose Ukraine?

He might figure that, since the war in Ukraine cannot be won, seizing the Balts would at least give him something to pass off as a huge victory and to pass himself off as a contemporary Alexander Nevsky, the Novgorodian prince who defeated the invading Swedes in 1240 (and ultimately became the hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film). Or he might figure that exposing the hated NATO alliance as a paper tiger is worth losing Ukraine, even if it undermines his argument that it was fear of Ukraine’s NATO accession that compelled him to invade on February 24, 2022. Or, perhaps most likely, the decision to trade Ukraine for the Balts might be yet another of a series of self-defeating geopolitical mistakes, which all self-enamored dictators are prone to make.

Russian T-90 Tank

What can the West do to forestall an invasion of the Baltic states? Talking tough and offering Estonia and Latvia assurances will work only if countries are willing to send in the Marines as soon as Russian soldiers set foot on Baltic soil. Bluffing won’t fool the Russians, who will “escalate in order to deescalate.”

That leaves one sure-fire response: defeat the Russians as quickly and as massively as possible in Ukraine and thereby nip any possible invasion in the Baltics or elsewhere in the bud.

About the Author: Dr. Alexander Motyl

Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”

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