The Russian Federation’s aggressive stance in Eastern Europe is forcing America and NATO allies to reevaluate their defensive postures. The Russian military may not be comparable to its former Soviet glory, but recent strides made in modernization and clever economy of force stratagems have resulted in a leaner, more cunning Red Bear. Russian ambition has grown in the past decade, showcased by the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the “Little Green Men” in Belarus, and the condemnedinvasion of parts of Ukraine. These examples have caused Russia’s Baltic neighbors to wonder aloud whether they will be the next domino to fall. The Baltic states, aware of how feeble their defenses are when compared to the colossus to their east, have even started routine insurgency training for their citizens. Despite being party members of NATO, these countries recognize that a swift Russian invasion would quickly force them back under Moscow’s reign before the West could mobilize. However, a detailed report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) suggests the Russians have something a little more elaborate in mind than the stereotypical use of Russian brute force.
A conventional Russian invasion of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia would be over within two days—well before anything could stop them. Yet, the Kremlin has positioned its military units in a manner that would be conducive to projecting asymmetric force into the Baltic nations while the order of battle surrounding Ukraine suggests a conventional attack. This is contrary to mainstream concerns of a surprise Russian invasion of the Baltics to unify Moscow’s former states and their exclave in Kaliningrad, which has a significant nuclear stockpile. ISW’s asymmetric warfare arguments are not convenient. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia may be all but indefensible against a rapid Russian mechanized attack, but little attention is given to the glaring fact that NATO forces are even more ill-suited to prevent an asymmetrical attack on the Baltics. A Russian invasion of any NATO state will mobilize the alliance, and Moscow knows it. While Russia will secure their Baltic prize, they cannot compete with the industrial and military might of America and Europe for long. However, a limited gains campaign of subversion and deceit might allow the Kremlin to accomplish its goal of reunifying some Soviet territory under Moscow’s rule. The West’s parochial focus on the Baltics also overlooks the evidence of a potential conventional invasion of Ukraine.
The most significant indicator of Russian intent is the arrangement of combat divisions in Western Europe. Russian military doctrine is heavily influenced by the Soviet concepts of preparation and organization prior to initiating combat. Although this is true of even a semi-professional military, the Russians put noticeably more effort into their preparations. The commanding officer of the Western Military District (WMD), an academy-trained armored officer, is methodical in his preparations. The most telling indicator of Russian intent is the pairing of combat regiments under a division headquarters with significant combat support battalions and regiments in tow.
The Southern (SMD) and Western (WMD) Military Districts’ division headquarters have been restructured in heavily guarded rear areas, close to the Ukrainian border, and are mutually supported, directly threatening the main cities in Ukraine. The WMD even stationed two mechanized combat battalions to Ukraine’s west, in Moldova, on an ostensible peacekeeping mission, ready at a moment’s notice to strike Odessa on the Black Sea. Ukraine is being threatened along its entire eastern border and to its rear by the Russian 1st and 20th Armies from the WMD and the 8th, 58th, and 49th Armies from the SMD. Russia’s venerated Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol threatens the entire southern seaboard with blockade, bombardment, and amphibious assault.
One interesting observation is the absence of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, unlike what is seen in the Eastern Military District near Vladivostok. The People’s Liberation Army of China significantly outweighs the Russian deployment in the region, and the difference is offset via tactical nuclear weapons. The eastern Russian order of battle is observably different and indicative of a defensive posture. Tactical nuclear weapons are not seen in Eastern Europe (the nuclear arsenal in Kaliningrad is believed to be strategic), which gives weight to the theory of limited asymmetric combat to achieve piecemeal tactical gains and prepare for conventional operations. The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons against NATO, which does not recognize the legitimacy of such casual employment of weapons of mass destruction, would likely result in strategic retaliation.
A similar array to the order of battle in the Baltic region was seen prior to the annexation of portions of Ukraine. Posted on the borders of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were “Little Green Men”—Spetsnaz (Russian special operations forces)—and an airborne division without significant support from conventional units, save the exclave fortress of Kaliningrad. The Russians dubbed their successful strategy in Ukraine “hybrid warfare,” which is a strategy of disinformation and subversion to create a pretext for invasion. The ISW report details the composition of these hybrid units in Ukraine: “The initial operations were undertaken by Spetsnaz and air assault forces, supplemented only later by regular motorized rifle units and tank units, and those sparingly.” Most conventional units fought as “volunteers.” Although the Kremlin denied any involvement, a VICE documentary that tracked selfies posted online of a Russian infantryman followed the soldier from battlefield to battlefield and corroborated the use of conventional combat units. The Baltic states are home to a not insignificant number of uneasy ethnic Russian citizens who are aware of Putin’s commitment to the support and defense of Russian-speaking people everywhere. A series of recent PEW research polls suggest that more than 50 percent of Russians yearn for the old Soviet Union.
The threat of a Russian mechanized and armored blitz into the Baltic states is not one to be ignored, but the conventional NATO forces that are preparing for a desperate defense are even more ill-suited to combat the asymmetric warfare, disinformation campaigns, and potential civil unrest designed to precipitate a Russian invasion or annexation. With enough time spent conducting a hybrid war, a shallow justification for invasion will be constructed to allow Putin to replicate his actions in Crimea against the Baltic states. This is a challenge to the means, not the ends, that NATO strategists understand about Russia’s ambitions to unite Kaliningrad, the Baltics, and the remainder of the prodigal nations from the former Soviet bloc.
The NATO alliance must respond proportionately. A build-up of conventional forces is easily justified by Russia’s outlandish violations of the Vienna Document with their Zapad drills, repeated and dangerous NATO air incursions, outright invasion of their neighbors, complete disregard for the post-Cold War nuclear treaties, military reorganization, war crimes in Syria, and Putin’s dictatorial reign, just to name a few. However, the game of not-plunging-the-globe-into-WWIII is more complex than a reciprocating arms race. Putin’s ambitions must be checked with a balanced response against both conventional and hybrid warfare. The employment of U.S. Army Special Forces units (ODAs) into contested areas is likely the best way to ensure that a Baltic hybrid brush fire does not get lit. Army SF are the best in the world at unconventional warfare, and they will help build resilience and competence amongst the Baltic military and citizenry that will enable them to check Russian subversion.
Despite what any one person might think about Trump, he is not Putin’s friend. The current administration may play nice rhetorically but it has taken a much more aggressive stance against Russian ambitions than in the past decade of American foreign policy. Trump sent Javelins, man-portable anti-armor missiles, to Ukraine to kill the exceptionally dangerous Russian armor and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) that are running roughshod over the Ukrainian defenders. That is no trivial thing. Unrelated to Ukraine, Trump green-lit the overwhelming destruction of a Russian “mercenary” battalion in Syria that attacked American and allied positions. A strong response to Russian aggression might just avert Moscow’s territorial annexation creep that is eerily reminiscent of 1930s Germany.
The conclusion that the threat in Europe is one of hybrid warfare to destabilize former Soviet republics to generate the pretext for invasion was proven in Georgia and Ukraine. Russia’s demonstrated military deployments are consistent with what is known about Russian military doctrine and their orders of battle suggest a conventional invasion, or threat of invasion, to coerce Kiev while replicating the same hybrid tactics that NATO is unsuited for in the Baltic nations. Russia will likely not deploy conventional units to the Baltics, and a focus on that detracts from the undercurrent of asymmetrical warfare in Europe and kinetic conflict in Ukraine. Russia holds the strategic initiative and is maintaining a flexible military position to exploit a NATO overreaction one way or the other.