Here's What You Need To Remember: In the end, no clever strategy can change the fact that Russia is big and the Baltic states are small. Nonetheless, as in any situation where there is bullying, simply declaring your readiness to stand up to a bigger aggressor just might deter attack—or at least not leave you feeling so helpless.
The Baltic states have a plan to defend themselves against Russian invasion: mobilize their societies for the struggle.
Should Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania go to war, their civilian populations will play a large part in the struggle, according to two RAND Corporation researchers. However, it’s not by choice.
“As small countries with little strategic depth and limited human and economic resources, they are increasingly adopting a ‘total defense’ approach to national security, which includes enabling civilians to be able to protect themselves and to also support their nation’s professional armed forces in case of a conflict,” write Marta Kepe and Jan Osburg in Small Wars Journal.
The three nations only have a combined population of 6.2 million people, with about twenty-two thousand troops and 450 artillery pieces, but no tanks or jets. Russia can muster 845,000 troops—three hundred thousand in western Russia alone—backed by 2,600 tanks, 5,500 artillery pieces and almost 1,400 warplanes. Planning for a conventional conflict with Russia would be pointless.
The solution, such as it is, in the face of such daunting odds is the traditional response of weaker states: make the invader’s life as miserable as possible until he tires of the conflict.
“The primary goal of asymmetric defense is to defeat the adversary’s will to engage in—or continue with—aggression by denying benefits, increasing costs and influencing their perception of both costs and benefits,” the researchers write. “Resistance to invasion and occupation would also send an important political message to Allied governments, namely that the local population does not accept the new rulers and is putting their lives on the line to defend their national sovereignty.”
Lithuania’s defense strategy, for example, has been inspired since by the 1990s by the nation-in-arms approaches of Switzerland and the Nordic states. “Here, total defense is understood as an approach to national defense that includes not just the National Armed Forces and Allied forces, but also the mobilization of all national resources towards defeating an invader, along with active resistance by every citizen that is in any way legitimate under international law.”
“Lithuanian strategic documents specifically allude to the concept of civil resistance, which is understood as the citizens of Lithuania, either as individuals or formed into small units, engaging in activities against aggression and occupation.”
Estonia has maintained conscription since the 1990s, and Lithuania reinstituted the draft in 2016, though Latvia still has a volunteer military. But Latvia is considering whether to teach military and civil-defense skills to all high-school students (ironically, so did the Soviet Union).
It’s not clear how effective such a defense strategy will be. The Baltic nations can mobilize populations with strong resentments of Russia, but they also have large Russian minorities that might not fight so enthusiastically against Moscow (or may become proxies used by Moscow, like the Ukrainian separatists). Given the history of the viciously anti-Semitic militias that supported Nazi Germany during World War II (there are still parades in Lithuania to honor them), Russia would no doubt portray the resistance as fascist.
Despite popular resistance, an authoritarian nation like Russia might simply choose to absorb the costs of occupying all or parts of the Baltic states. Russia’s hybrid-warfare strategy, using a low-cost mixture of local irregulars backed by special forces and some regular troops, would be a relatively low cost way of seizing Baltic territory.
In the end, no clever strategy can change the fact that Russia is big and the Baltic states are small. Nonetheless, as in any situation where there is bullying, simply declaring your readiness to stand up to a bigger aggressor just might deter attack—or at least not leave you feeling so helpless.