By: Clay Moore
Despite the ceasefire, the guns in Eastern Ukraine have not quieted themselves and the threat of additional European border alterations remains of prime concern. Since the renewed threat to European security has shaken NATO from her middle-eastern daydream, many are predicting the Baltics as the next test for the alliance. From my perspective, the cards are stacked against Russia if she were to eye the Baltics as her next territorial acquisition.
Any Russian military endeavors with territorial intent would be much more costly for the Kremlin in the case of the Baltics rather than in the Donbass. The cultural memory of Soviet occupation remains fresh in the Balts’ cultural consciousness. While the Russian military dwarfs all three Baltic states’ forces conventionally, a guerrilla insurgency, targeted attacks, and allied reinforcements would be the primary method of Baltic opposition.
Commentators have oftentimes entertained a scenario a-la the Crimean seizure method, where “polite green men” would arrive and “protect” the ethnic Russian populations within Baltic territory. This is inherently a false assumption, and not only due to the NATO membership of the Baltics. Ethnic Russian residents in Narva, Estonia can just as easily travel across the Russian border to view the nearby city of Ivangorod to see what societal benefits are waiting for them under Kremlin control. The city resembles a typical, regional Russian settlement where unemployment is high, infrastructure is crumbling, and institutions are weak. Despite not being true Estonian citizens, grey-passport-holding ethnic Russians enjoy Shengen zone visa benefits in addition to visa-free travel to Russia and CIS nations. Polite green men would not be welcomed by their ethnic compatriots in quite the same manner as they were in Sevastopol.
To borrow a phrase from Timothy Snyder, the Baltics’ location in the historic “bloodlands” (as small, sparsely populated nations) has cultivated a historical tradition of unconventional military resistance against larger, more conventionally powerful invaders. The Lithuanian resistance to Soviet occupation is a prime historical example of this. By largely not joining the Germans in their 1941 march eastward like many Latvians and Estonians, Lithuania retained its pool of young men. Following the Soviet re-capture of the territory, these young men ventured into the forests in the thousands to begin a nearly ten year resistance to Soviet control. Despite being untrained and loosely commanded, they ensured that Lithuania remained designated a “zone of active conflict” by the Politburo until Stalin’s death, thus dissuading Russian settlers and contributing to Lithuania having the smallest percentage of ethnic Russians out of all the Baltic states today. The Lithuanian Ministry of Defense holds insurgency as a primary aspect of doctrine. The challenge for the Russians wouldn’t be in taking the region, but in holding it.
The NATO Factor
With the Russian economy failing due to a myriad of factors, such as low oil prices and economic sanctions, a direct conflict with NATO is not in the Kremlin’s interests. Per Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, any attack on the Baltic states would be considered an attack against all NATO members. With NATO scrambling to remember its founding mission as an anti-Soviet and anti-Russian alliance, now would be a poor time to test her commitment to Article 5. It’s unlikely that the world will witness an attack on a NATO member in the short term. However, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that a hypothetically weaker NATO may be attacked in the future. Trends are not in support of this view. If anything, NATO is growing stronger in light of this new threat to European security.
Is the juice worth the squeeze?
Despite the potential challenges and costs for the Kremlin, there are plenty of reasons for Russia to take the Baltics. As Russia remains primarily landlocked, with the exception of easily-denied ocean access, having the Baltic coast would open up a large swath of valuable land to be exploited for naval purposes. Additionally, more buffer space from potential adversaries is always welcomed in the Russian security realm. Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg) may finally become contiguous to the motherland.
Many of these benefits would be largely nullified by the economic costs of the military operations and international condemnation, isolation, and potential intervention. Many commentators also float the hypothesis that much of the recent Russian revanchism is due to domestic pressure on President Putin. Despite his authoritarian control of the security services in the country, it’s unlikely that he would survive as a political force following an outbreak of military confrontation with NATO and the west over the Baltics. Additionally, once the returning bodybags are in such numbers that state media cannot ignore, President Putin’s grassroots public support will likely degrade.
As we live in a chaotic world, these factors can change both in the short as well as the long term; however I don’t lose any sleep over the threat to the Baltics just yet. That isn’t to say that this opportunity to re-invigorate NATO should be squandered, quite the opposite, it should be taken advantage of.
Clay Moore is a Master’s Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. He focuses on Russian and Eastern European economics and security. Questions? Comments? Opportunities? Feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org