Opinion: Will the Baltic states rise to the challenges to their own security?
Russia’s attacks on Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade have brought to the forefront sharp diversities of opinion within the EU, showing that many member countries have no appetite for confrontation with Russia.
Most western EU countries assume that military solutions never solve problems, and that dialogue is under all circumstances better than public disarray or armed confrontations. At the same time, Americans, tired of year-long armed engagements in foreign countries1, wonder why they should be borrowing money to pay for security, for example, of prosperous Europe, South Korea and Japan.
The West’s feeble response encourages Russia to step into the vacuum and make bold decisions by engaging in high tolerance war-like adventures virtually free of painful consequences. Such complacency has allowed Russia to wage war on Georgia and Ukraine, and win. Worse, the indecisiveness over Ukraine has set the stage for other, probably even more serious challenges to European security, such as sovereignty of the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.2 Putin’s assertions of reclaiming the lands lost during disintegration of the Soviet empire have left the Baltic people deeply concerned.3
And there is a good reason why the Baltics are worried: Russia’s unrelenting threats to their sovereignty and geographic vulnerability of the landscape of their countries to military invasion. All three countries are in the form of a narrow, flat strip of land, lightly populated, with no natural obstructions to help defend against an invading force. Russia knows that NATO has only a token military presence in the region to fend off either a full scale military invasion or to successfully fight off widely dispersed unconventional attacks, as were used in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Lithuania, of all the three Baltic countries, is particularly vulnerable to Russia conveniently staging confrontational incidents in the transport corridor across Lithuania’s territory to the Kaliningrad exclave.2 If a disruptive event were to occur, it would not be inconceivable for Russia to deploy its own military security measures along the transit route, thereby cutting the country in two and closing land access for the rest of the Baltics to the EU.
NATO has up to now been providing air policing forces to thwart off threatening Russia’s aerial mock attacks against targets in Poland, Baltic countries and Scandinavia.4 Also, in response to Russia’s massive military maneuvers in Kaliningrad and near the eastern Baltic borders, NATO began, as of late, to conduct moderate size joint military exercises with the Baltic armed forces.5 However, they would be no match to contain a full scale Russian military invasion or even to subdue well coordinated massive “green men" staged insurrections of the type seen in Eastern Ukraine.
In spite of threatening pronouncements by Russia’s politicians and saber rattling by its armed forces at the borders of the Baltic countries, little is expected to happen in the near future. Putin’s tactics are not those of a reckless gambler, rather those of a master chess player taking time to think through his next best move. In the past, it took him 5-8 years to consolidate territory gains and to prepare his next carefully planned limited assault.6
Analysis of Putin’s past tactics show that initially, using soft power, he sows uncertainty, discontent and fear, and loss of faith in the governments of the targeted country. This may last several years. When the situation becomes explosive, he deploys either direct military and/or unconventional means to help undo the “perilous” situation. Before the world has a chance to develop serious protests, and sometimes even impose limited levels of economic and political sanctions, he stops the attack. Subsequently, he vigorously defends Russia’s actions as having been forced to respond to serious threats to Russia’s security or to protect local Russian speaking minority7. This lull allows him to consolidate his gains, to suppress local opposition, and to reset the minds of Western politicians with a vigorous peace offensive.
Current Russian propaganda offensive against the West and NATO, while it is vigorous now, is expected to diminish for a while in order to create an atmosphere peaceful coexistence. By offering the EU countries broad economic cooperation, cheap energy access, extensive business and investment opportunities in Russia, as well as suggesting better and more beneficial alternative models of governance, Russia aims to drive deep splintering wedges within the EU, marginalization of NATO, and demonization of the U.S. By this technique, Putin has already caused serious loss of confidence in Hungary, Slovakia, uncertainties in the Czech republic, and significant gains in France by left and right wing extremes denouncing the EU.8
Security crisis in the Baltic region is the single most dangerous threat facing the EU and NATO. Upon achieving its “business as usual” status-quo and acceptance of the gains made in Ukraine and Georgia, Russia might resume its many times promised disintegration of the Baltic States. While it would most likely not employ its military to force changes in the Baltic countries, it is now vigorously encouraging erosion of public confidence in their governments, promoting economic instability by curtailing trade, and generating false discrimination claims against the local Russian minority.9 Furthermore, intentions to induce public fear are already being evidenced by a nearly continuous show of force by squadrons of Russia’s most modern military aircraft at the borders of Baltics airspace, warships harrowing near their shores, massive maneuvers of ground forces, interference with sea traffic in the economic zones of the Baltic countries, abduction of an Estonian government official within Estonia’s territory, and arresting Lithuania’s fishing trawler in international waters.10
Threats of Baltics airspace penetration for now are contained by relatively sizeable NATO air police detachments and a rotating presence of company sized NATO land forces on the ground.11 Yet, these are temporary measures, since NATO does not intend to locate permanent bases in the Baltics. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, forced the Baltics to realize that they will need to contain the intruders on their own at least for a few days, until full complements of NATO forces could come to assistance.12 For this reason, the Baltics would greatly help themselves by establishing close cooperation in terms of planning and constructing coordinated defense measures, common training and weaponry, centralized cyberspace and communications capabilities, joint procurement of military equipment, and coordinated measures in countering Russia’s propaganda. This could be achieved by each country maintaining, comparable to its size, efficient and readily prepared professionally led ground combat units, backed by trained and well organized extensive reserves, and nationwide civilian volunteer forces composed of numerous highly knit, well trained and armed with simple-to-use weaponry to defend vital functions of their societies.13 In addition, to neutralize Russia’s tactics of surprise, similar to those employed in Ukraine, each country would benefit by creating special rapid reaction forces that could be dispatched at any moment to any areas either to destroy or at least to slow down an invading army or to neutralize local take-over attempts of government functions and public infrastructures.
Lithuania's decision to organize a rapid reaction force is a welcome effort to build the capacity for preemptive counter strikes that would slow down the invasion forces and/or neutralize threatening disruptions by semi-military operatives.14 Yet, successful defense of one country is not likely to be of much value if anyone of the other Baltic countries is overrun. Accordingly, it would appear that all three Baltic countries should create joint first line defense capabilities. To assure maximum effectiveness, a common command for such units would be most desirable. The defense units should be ready for instant deployment with capabilities of moving for assistance to any of the countries, as needed.
To mitigate effects of surprise attacks, the Baltic countries would benefit by constructing and employing their own early warning system in the form of unmanned aerial surveillance drones.15 In as much as unmanned aerial drones are relatively inexpensive both to own and operate and their small size difficult to detect, it suggests that the Baltic states would greatly improve their chances of successful defense with the capability of spotting imminent ground attacks and directing deployment of defense forces to appropriate locations. This implies continuous 24/7 surveillance by high altitude flights of several drones, along the entire periphery of Belarus and Russia, the Gulf of Finland, and the eastern shores of the Baltic sea. High altitude flights just inside the Baltics’ airspace would allow deep electronic and visual information acquisition of military activities outside the territorial borders of the Baltic countries, such as troop movements, naval deployments, and/ or evidence of imminent attacks.
In conjunction with surveillance drones, it might be of value to consider several squadrons of larger size missile carrying drones for destroying from a remote distance invading tanks, armored vehicles and ships. Upon evidence of attack, armed drones could be instantly dispatched to anywhere within the zone of surveillance to either eliminate and/or at least slow down the invading force. Fortunately, the Baltic countries have the needed technologies and knowledge to construct such drones and electronic technologies for surveillance purposes.
Equally important for common Baltic defense is standardization16 and uniformity of equipment, starting with common rifles and bullets, transport vehicles, antiaircraft and antitank armaments, and communications systems and their supporting technologies. Commonality of equipment would permits troops of any nation to use them interchangeably without new instructions and/or encountering problems of finding use procedures as well as using retrievable parts from other similar equipment. Above all, commonly planned procurement of unified equipment would yield significant cost savings over each country doing its own acquisition. As an example of need for unified defense equipment is the most recent procurement by Lithuania of Polish anti-aircraft missiles and Estonia purchasing U.S. based weaponry. Also, just several weeks ago, Lithuania’s former defense minister, Rasa Jukneviciene stated that it was a mistake by Lithuania to procure three mine sweepers.17 She noted that they were undoubtedly fine ships, but expensive, and serve little if any purpose for Lithuania’s defense needs, particularly since Lithuania’s shoreline facing the Baltic sea is extremely short and the home port for any of its ships is almost within walking distance of the Kaliningrad border. Need for coordination is highlighted by the fact that besides the three mine sweepers owned by Lithuania, neighboring Latvia has two mine sweeping and two mine hunting vessels and Estonia three more.18 Accordingly, the Baltics have one of the largest fleet of ships in Europe dealing with mines, yet virtually no vessels to defend against seaborne assaults.
- While probably there is minimum imminent threat to the Baltic countries now, Russia’s official attitude and continuous saber rattling against their sovereignty cannot be ignored.
- As Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine experiences have demonstrated, eastern flank NATO members need to be prepared to deal with surprises and disruptive shocks by employing appropriate armed containment forces. To mitigate such events, particularly the Baltics and Poland should have highest awareness and continuously monitor Russian developments and activities in their neighborhood, such as military exercises, territorial violations, troop concentrations, naval and air power threatening deployments, etc.
- NATO contingency plans for collective defense of the Eastern EU flank need to be periodically reassessed and regularly retested to assure the coherence and effectiveness of potential crisis response and collective defense operations.
- Baltic countries should design and execute comprehensive and integrated security and defense plans requiring all countries’ military authorities to work together and integrate separate efforts into a joint defensive posture.
- The Baltic countries themselves should adopt extraordinary defensive measures such as early aerial and cyberspace based warning systems, capability of electronic neutralization of enemy command, drones with defensive response capabilities, hard punching rapid reaction units, and large numbers of closely knit well trained and armed small local defense organizations to protect vital functions of governments and society structures.
1 Daniel S, Hamilton, Don’t retrench on me; Why and How the United States Must Engage, Proceedings, Center for Transatlantic Relations, John Hopkins University, 2014.
2 Testimony given by Edward Lucas to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.K. on Sept. 3, 2014.
3.John Aaravosis, Putin wants Finland, Baltic states, says former top adviser, americablog.com, Mar 31, 2014.
4 NATO, Tenth anniversary of NATO's Air Policing mission in the Baltic States, www.nato.int/cps/en, 08 Jan. 2014.
5 VOA, NATO Stages Military Drill in Lithuania, uaposition.com, November 7, 2014.
6 Michael McFaul; Stephen Sestanovich,… , Faulty Powers,Started the Ukraine Crisis? Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2014 issue.
7 Nate Rawlings Putin Calls Ukraine Uprising ‘Unconstitutional, TIME, March 4, 2014.
8 Jackson Diehl, Eastern Europeans are bowing to Putin’s power, Wash Post, Oct 12, 2014.
9 Transcript: Putin says Russia will protect the rights of Russians abroad, Washington Post., Mar 18, 2014.
10 Andrew Nagorski, Putin tries to Undo the Tragedy of the Berlin Wall’s Fall, WSJ,Nov 8, 2014.
11 STEPHEN FIDLER, NATO Tracks Air Activity in Europe WSJ, Oct. 29, 2014.
12 Anoniminis kariuomenės ekspertas, Kaip sustiprinti Lietuvos gynybą?, Tiesos.lt , 2014 m. balandžio 3 d.
13 Jonas A. KRONKAITIS Lietuvai reikia susigrąžinti šauktinių kariuomenę, Tiesos.lt, 2014-10-14.
14 ELTA, Lithuania starts forming rapid response force, Delfi.lt, November 3, 2014.
15 U.S. Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, http://usmilitary.about.com/od/uavs/?utm_term=military%20surveillance%20drones&utm_ 16 Dennis M. Drummond, Getting Traffic Moving on NATO’s Two-Way Street, Air University Review, Sept/Oct 1979.
17 Rasa Jukneviciene, Lietuvos jūrų pajėgas vystėme ne ta kryptimi, Lrytas TV, Lietuva Tiesiogiai, Oct 20, 2014.
18 Aarne Ermus, Estonia’s Closest Military Allies, Diplomaatia nr 80, Estonian foreign and security policy, April 201.
Dr. Stasys Backaitis is board member of U.S. Central and Eastern European Coalition, Washington representative of the Lithuanian American Council.