Latvia likewise has been subjected to energy stoppages for allegedly violating the human rights of its large ethnic Russian population. Lithuania, one of the most vociferous critics of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, has been subjected to economic warfare for allegedly disrupting civilian and military traffic between Russia and Kaliningrad. What is more, the Russian military has conducted exercises in Kaliningrad and Belarus that replicate a full-bore invasion of Lithuania. In the 2013 Zapad exercise, about seventy thousand men were engaged in operations that included seaborne attacks. On other occasions, attacks from Belarus target the Suwalki Gap that connects Lithuania and Poland. Putin has gotten so bold that his aircraft now cavalierly buzz U.S. ships in the Baltic Sea and fly dangerously close to American reconnaissance planes in its skies. Naturally, this has spawned NATO to adopt military exercises to counter such aggressive threats. A recent RAND study, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” concludes: “After eastern Ukraine, the next most likely targets for an attempted Russian coercion are in the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.” Toward this end, Putin is motivated by several objectives:
• To subject the Baltic democracies to various forms of hybrid warfare and to compel them, like Finland during the Cold War, to surrender their foreign relations to Moscow. If successful, this is a powerful force multiplier for Russia, because it will further erode NATO as a viable security organization.
• To encourage the Germans, French and Brits that the Balts are provocateurs, and do not merit Article Five guarantees. In a replay of the infamous 1930s Oxford Union declaration, he has encouraged them to ask: “Should Berlin, London and Paris be traded for Vilnius?” In a recent survey of German respondents, he no doubt rejoiced at the revelation that 58 percent of them answered: “No!”
• To virtually destroy the EU and NATO. Until recently, this claim would be deemed delusional, but today it is plausible as a consequence of Brussels’s mounting difficulties—the euro crisis, Brexit, the unprecedented rush of migrants from the Middle East and Africa to its shores, and the surging power of EU rejectionists. In addition, most NATO members have not met the requirements of the Rome Treaty to spend 2 percent of their GNP on defense. (Estonia already has, and both Latvia and Lithuania will do so in 2017.) Furthermore, President Trump may shower America’s allies with rhetorical support, but Putin believes he will not do anything of substance to sustain the Euro-Atlantic security system.
Putin’s military modernization program and the rush he has experienced through his unopposed military ventures in Georgia and Ukraine explain why the Baltic democracies fear a revanchist Russia. An Atlantic Council report—“Arming for Deterrence: How Poland and NATO Should Counter a Resurgent Russia”—reveals it has sophisticated air, ground and naval units armed with modern equipment deployed in the exclave capable of defending northeast Russia and, if need be, simultaneously attacking NATO’s eastern flank. Among its inventory are S-300/S-400 air-defense systems, cruise missiles, and infantry and armored units that will deny NATO domination of the battle zone in a future military clash. It has the same ability to deny NATO naval units control of the Baltic Sea. Then, too, it has Iskander (SS-26) short-range missiles that can deliver nuclear munitions to obliterate any ground strike from the West. Employing terminology favored by the Pentagon, Putin’s modernization drive has given Russia a formidable anti-access/area denial capacity. In sum, “Russia . . . possesses the capacity to seriously impede, if not completely halt, and significantly raise the costs to reinforce eastern Poland and the Baltic states,” according to the Atlantic Council report.
That said, Putin desperately needs capital to sustain and grow his sagging economy; its downward slide has already forced him to reduce his defense expenditures. The only place he can acquire massive investments is in the West. Then, too, as a pragmatist, he realizes that by stoking fears in the Baltic countries, he places a reset with Washington—and the opportunity to break free of Western economic sanctions—at risk. It is unclear whether President Trump and his team are thinking along those same lines, but clearly Putin is delusional if he believes he is in possession of all the high cards.
President Trump, in turn, cannot ignore that his quest to develop a meaningful security partnership with Putin can be gutted by a coalition of GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio, along with their Democratic colleagues. With this caveat in mind, the leaders in Washington and Moscow might once again ask the question: How can Kaliningrad become a bridge and not a barrier to east-west cooperation?
In this connection, the Trump administration should adopt four measures:
First, President Trump must deliver a TV broadcast (and not diminish his message via Twitter) in which he pledges to provide Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania unconditional Article Five guarantees. Contrary to the predictions of some of his advisers, that initiative will facilitate security cooperation—albeit limited—between Washington and Moscow.
Second, his secretary of defense, James Mattis, should create a special task force that identifies potential military flash points of conflict between Russia and NATO associated with tensions over Kaliningrad. This includes the deployment of conventional and nuclear weapons, military exercises, etc. The task force, with the cooperation of a Russian counterpart task force, should then find ways to eliminate or ameliorate them.
Third, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, should create a similar working group to explore the diplomatic and economic factors that have a bearing on using Kaliningrad as a bridge—and not a barrier—to east-west relations in the east Baltic Sea region. Indeed, the oblast is small and compact enough to test trials that promote cooperation on commercial and environmental issues. Measures to address them with Russia should be investigated, and include the participation of Germany, Lithuania and Poland.
Fourth, President Trump should consult with President Putin and arrange a meeting between this future American “Kaliningrad Task Force” and Russian officials, along with other stakeholders. The prospects for a successful outcome are slim, but even modest achievements justify the effort. As a student of history, Secretary Mattis realizes that disputes over small countries can provoke large ones to commit colossal mistakes. At the same time, Secretary Tillerson cannot ignore the truism that Russia’s campaign to intimidate the Baltic countries may deny the White House congressional support for U.S. cooperation with Russia.
Dick Krickus is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington and has held the H. L. Oppenheimer Chair of Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University. His forthcoming book is America’s Tragic Crusade in the Middle East.
Image: 9T250-1 Transport Loader for Iskander-M system. Wikimedia Commons/@Boevaya mashina