NATO in the Baltics: Opposing Russian Anti-Access/Area Denial Capabilities

How can limited NATO forces deter Russian aggression in a region Moscow has completely surrounded?

On April 24, I had the chance to visit the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania in the Netherlands to listen to Ambassador Darius Semaška. In an evening session organized by the Commission for International Communications (CFIC), the Ambassador explained why foreign NATO troops are so warmly welcomed in Lithuania and the Baltics in general. Mr. Semaška elaborated on several aspects of the perceived Russian threat to the Baltics, such as information warfare through propaganda and cyberattacks, enormous military buildup along the border with the Baltic states, and military exercises in Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea. Arguably, the perception of a Russian threat has become very topical in the Baltics since the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the Donbass war in Ukraine. It appears that the Baltics’ mere membership in NATO has not reassured their political elite, despite NATO’s clause that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.”

The Lithuanian Ambassador openly admitted that there had been doubts in the Baltics whether NATO would act appropriately in case of Russian aggression against Estonia, Latvia, and/or Lithuania. Therefore, the initiation of the multinational NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in the Baltics and Poland in early 2017 was much appreciated by the receiving countries. As Ambassador Semaška emphasized, it is not the numbers, but the nature of the Enhanced Forward Presence that is meant to deter Russian aggression. As of March 2017, three multinational battlegroups are stationed in the Baltics. These are made up of forces from thirteen NATO member states, with an additional four states joining next year. Besides, there are three EFP bases in northern Poland. Therefore, regardless of the number of troops, the on-the-ground presence of British, Canadian, French, and German forces has functioned to increase the Baltics’ confidence in NATO’s ‘all for one’ commitment. After all, there is no way for other member states to look away should their own people be attacked on base.

Source: NATO

So what is the actual Russian threat to the Baltics? Aside from whether or not the Kremlin is likely to attack the Baltics, the military buildup in Russia certainly gives reason for security concerns in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes in a recent report, “Russia enjoys favorable [sic] geography and a numerical advantage over NATO in manpower and in every major category of combat weapons and equipment that would be used in an initial military attack against the Baltic states.” Regarding the numerical advantage, Russia has 25 maneuver battalions stationed in its Western Military District, including the Kaliningrad exclave. Meanwhile, NATO EFP and the three Baltic states’ armed forces total 21 battalions, including the battlegroup in northern Poland. The Russian battalions are qualitatively superior because they contain considerably more tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and armoured personnel carriers (APCs).

However, Russia’s geographical advantage is what worries the Baltics the most. Three of the aforementioned maneuver battalions are naval infantry in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, which is situated between Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. Moreover, several S-400 anti-aircraft and Iskander-M ballistic missile systems have been moved into Kaliningrad recently, where Tochka-U tactical ballistic missile systems had already been stationed. The S-400 system has a surface-to-air range of up to 400 hundred kilometres, whereas the Iskander-M and Tochka-U systems have a surface-to-surface range of respectively 500 and 120 kilometres. Additionally, the Iskander-M missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Drawing on the situation as described above, one can imagine how Russia could potentially attack the Baltic states and isolate them from other NATO countries. Russian battalions could crush Baltic and NATO forces from Russia’s Western Military District with a surprise attack. At the same time, the anti-aircraft and ballistic missile systems in Kaliningrad are capable of reaching almost the entire Baltic region, as well as the Baltic Sea and a large part of Poland. Together with the exclave’s three naval battalions, as well as missile systems on the Russian mainland, the Kaliningrad systems can potentially counter any incoming NATO reinforcements, be it by land, air, or naval forces. Moreover, the distance between Kaliningrad and Belarus is only seventy kilometres. Given the latter’s geopolitical orientation and weak military, Russia could easily create a land corridor to Kaliningrad in order to cut off the only land access route to the Baltics for NATO.

All in all, Russia has managed to establish a strong Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) zone around Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In case of an actual attack against the Baltics, the prospects are grim for NATO. However, the multinational Enhanced Forward Presence might well be the appropriate deterrent.

Jelle Baartmans is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University.

For more detailed information on the composition of military deployment in the Baltics and Russia’s Western Military District, see reports by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the RAND Corporation.

For more lectures organized by the CFIC, visit their events page on Facebook.

Photo by U.S. Army Europe