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

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

Sea power is difficult, though not impossible, to bring to bear in an unconventional Baltic contingency.

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:

  • Speed and distance: Russia holds the advantage, not only in maneuver and local dominance, but in initiative, too. This local initiative is an important dimension of Russia’s risk calculus and how the United States may leverage its Navy. Local power dynamics, as noted by Gerson and Whiteneck, play an important role in how an adversary calculates costs and risk—in the case of the Baltic Sea, advantage Russia.
  • Limited scope: Irregular scenarios are often characterized by limited objectives. Russia could use unconventional tactics to try and degrade trust in the NATO alliance, bolster domestic credibility, pressure regional adversaries, or settle irredentist objectives. Combined with Russian advantages in speed and proximity, the limited scope of unconventional campaigns suggests that a USN response may likely come after Russian objectives are met.
  • Ambiguity: Ambiguity does not refer to confusion over whether or not Russia is involved. Despite the necessary political fiction of Russian noninvolvement in an irregular conflict (which is, after all, what makes them attractive options in some cases), the United States will likely know whose forces are operating. The true consequence of ambiguity is in properly weighing the costs of conflict. In the absence of conventional Russian forces, which could signal strategic and escalatory intent, irregular forces leave decision makers unsure of Russian objectives and resolve. Policymakers are left unable to effectively consider the cost of action or inaction. When confronting an inferior adversary without the capacity to escalate, there is no existential consequence should the United States miscalculate. In the case of a peer or near-peer competitor, however, a lack of information on cost to blood and treasure could force the United States into indecision, at least temporarily, as may have been the case in Ukraine..

But enough with the theory—what would an irregular scenario look like? Below I’ve sketched out an example of how some of these elements might come together to create a crisis in the Baltic region, drawing on historical examples wherever possible.

Crisis in Narva

It is late 2016. Low oil prices have continued to stress the Russian economy, driving Putin’s United Russia party below 30 percent in parliamentary elections. Protests erupt across Moscow to express dissatisfaction with the regime (similar protests were put down in 2012). The nearest U.S. carrier strike group is currently in the eastern Mediterranean supporting operations against ISIL. The nearest deployable warship is a Littoral Combat Ship conducting counter-mine exercises with the Royal Navy off the east coast of Scotland.

To help improve popularity ratings at home, the Kremlin looks for an opportunity to stoke nationalist sentiments. An opportunity arises in late October, during which Russian-speaking ‘Ultras’ (fanatic soccer clubs) in the Baltic States begin agitating against local authorities after a particularly heated match between the Latvian and Russian national soccer teams. While seemingly innocuous, extreme soccer clubs helped fuel the uprising in Egypt during the Arab Spring, while several Russian soccer fans were arrested in France during Euro 2016. After several days of protests in the Baltic states, which seem to grow in size and violence, a small contingent of Estonia border patrol officers is detained by Russian forces who claim the Estonians illegally entered Russian territory. Calls from Baltic leaders for the return of the border patrolmen, and conjecture in the Western media of a potential NATO military response, appear to further mobilize the Ultras, whose numbers have swelled alongside unconfirmed reports of men trickling across the Russian border.

Tensions soon hit a breaking point as Russian ethnic protesters in the Estonian city of Narva demand autonomous rule. Estonian police and local military personnel are eventually overwhelmed by the protestors. Within 24 hours of the seizure of the border guards, Narva’s police headquarters, airport, and municipal center are overrun by Russian-speaking paramilitary forces. Their exact affiliation is unknown but analysts suspect they are a mixture of underground Russian ethnic militias from the region aided by Russian special operators, reminiscent of how Russian forces allegedly helped shape the battlefield during the Crimean annexation. Simultaneously, Russian forces mass on the Estonian border under the guise of a snap exercise. In Narva, an emergency council headed by pro-Russian leaders declares control of the local government and announces the formation of the independent People’s Republic of Narva. Russia, in response, threatens Estonia that interference with the new republic will force Russia to defend its compatriots. A hastily conducted referendum the following day affirms the Russian narrative, claiming that 87 percent of the city wishes to secede from Estonia and reintegrate as part of the Russian Federation.

Sea Power

This scenario, like any irregular contingency in the Baltic, leaves the aggrieved state  with an immediate decision to make—respond kinetically, or not? This is not straightforward and we can use the common characteristics from earlier to understand why. Consider, for example, the complications wrought by the ambiguous nature of the situation. Without a clear grasp on what the costs of action may be (e.g., Russia’s commitment to conventionally supporting pro-Russian forces in Narva), Estonia the United States are left without critical information on the risks they might incur. In the short-term, options are potentially lose-lose; a response risks paying an unknown price to thwart unclear Russian objectives, and no response risks ceding immediate victory to Russia.

If Estonia, in my example, chooses to respond, U.S. naval support is still not clear cut just yet. Before forces are committed, decision makers must first consider whether a response will target the irregular forces engaged in the fight or the sponsor behind the aggression.

History offers some interesting context on what the answer might be. In an examination of 105 land grabs, Dan Altman identifies three green men types of contingencies (excluding Crimea)—Pakistan’s incursion into Kargil, India (1999); Peru’s into Leticia, Colombia (1932); and Finland’s into Karelia, Russia (1919). In each instance, the aggrieved party responded by targeting their responses against irregular forces only, not the sponsor state. In all cases, as Altman writes, the responding nation “accepted the fictitious terms of the conflict and mobilized enough strength to defeat the deniable forces on the battlefield.”