By: April Elizabeth Curtis
NATO is concerned the independence of three of its smaller member states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are at risk for a Russian invasion. Parallels have been drawn between the vulnerability of the Baltic states and the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. In addition, Russia has voiced its concern over the rights of the ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltic states, which it also did before its interference in Ukraine. Adding to NATO’s concern, a recent Rand Corp. report predicted if Russia were to invade the Baltic states, NATO would not be able to stop the Russian forces and would suffer heavy casualties.
Will it Happen?
Militarily, Russia cannot fight the entire West and thus an invasion of the Baltic states is unlikely. Russia’s declining economy and the drop in oil prices means less funds are available to spend on military improvements and campaigns. In addition, the declining living standard could threaten Putin’s popularity as economic growth has traditionally been an important source of his popular support.
To the West, Putin appears to act erratically, however he actually calculates his risks carefully. Putin was aware the illegal annexation of Crimea and sending Russian troops into East Ukraine would result in a uproar from the West. However, he also understood the likelihood the West would declare World War III over Crimea was small. In addition, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Georgia were less risky than an invasion of the Baltic states, as neither were members of NATO. Thus the Russian invasions of Ukraine and Georgia should not act as a prediction for events in the Baltic States.
Even if the Rand Corp. war games are correct, a Russian invasion of the Baltic states would be a short and hollow victory. NATO has made many statements in support of the Baltic states’ defense, and if it did not act to protect its members, NATO would lose more than just three members of the alliance. A Russian invasion of the Baltic states without NATO invoking Article 5 would be a loss of World Order as we know it. Therefore, NATO has no choice but to fight back and Putin is aware that an invasion would leave NATO no choice.
What Should Be Done?
NATO officials are meeting this week to discuss the possibility of larger troop deployments on the border with Russia, however adding more troops will only add kindling to the fire. Two actions are necessary to diffuse this volatile situation: an increase in dialogue between NATO and Russia and instructing the Baltic states to build up their individual militaries, rather than NATO increase troops in the area.
As members of NATO, the Baltic states must add to the strength of the alliance and thus, considering their geographic location, should not leave the responsibility of their security to NATO alone. If the Baltic states truly are concerned about a Russian invasion they should build up their militaries to reflect this fear. Estonia has reached the target 2% of its GDP spent on defense, however Latvia and Lithuania, although steadily increasing their spending, have yet to reach the 2% mark.
Russia has repeatedly told the West that they view NATO’s buildup of forces on the Russian western border as a threat. The West does have justification to argue building up NATO’s forces in NATO countries should not be viewed as a threat, however it is important to listen to what the other side says. Understanding how Russia interprets Western actions will allow the West to predict Russian actions. When it comes to conflict prevention, it is not so much the “truth” that matters rather, how each side interprets it.
Therefore, in order to deter an unlikely Russian invasion of the Baltic states, the West should not deploy more NATO troops in the area. However, that does not mean NATO should not prepare itself for the possibility. The element of surprise is one of the most important tools Putin has; therefore, NATO should encourage the Baltic states to build up their own military. In addition, NATO should continue to strengthen its forces, but not in the Baltic states where it can be viewed as preparation for an attack on Russian soil.
However, why prepare for a war when you can avoid it? In order to evade a spiral towards a physical confrontation, both Russia and the West need to change the way the interact with each other.
Russia needs to realize that its past actions are the reason so many of its neighbors joined NATO, and its invasion of non-NATO countries only strengthens Eastern and Central Europe’s belief in the necessity of NATO. The West on the other hand needs to understand that placing heavy machinery and NATO troops in the Baltic states can be unnerving for Russia. Invoking the feelings of the U.S. population and government during the Cuban Missile Crisis could perhaps lift the veil on the Russian mentality in this situation.
Cooperation and communication between Russian and the West are key. When communications between the two countries are limited, misunderstandings are more likely to happen. In order to facilitate communication, Western leaders need to put away their egos. Russia is not going to play by Western rules, and they should stop acting surprised when Putin breaks the rules. Therefore punishing Putin for not following the rules will not bring about a change in his international affairs. He has shown that he is willing to suffer in order to keep his pride and that standing up to the West only increases his popularity at home. Continuing dialogue with Russia will prevent any misunderstanding concerning the Baltic states from escalating into an all-out war between Russia and the West.