The recent decision by NATO to send four armed battalions to the Baltic States and Poland as a preemptive move against potential Russian aggression could lead to a dangerous escalation in hostilities

Participants of the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015, which are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Photo: AP

On Apr. 29, The Wall Street Journal wrote about the strengthening of NATO forces in the Baltic States and Poland, warning that an estimated 4,000 troops could be sent to Russia’s borders. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Work later confirmed this information. With the current tensions in relations between the West and Russia, such a step looks like another warning to Moscow not to aggravate the situation along the borders of the Baltic States.

However, in spite of past worries about possible Russian aggression in the Baltic States – including a recent BBC film about the outbreak of a third world war as a result of armed conflict in eastern Latvia - the Russian threat in the Baltic States has been greatly exaggerated. Moreover, the populations of many European countries have long been opposed to the relocation of troops toward the east.

So why is NATO making this move? Especially now, when the first meeting in two years of the NATO-Russia Council did not lead to any subsequent warming of relations between Moscow and the Western Allies. In fact, if anything, this recent meeting showed the total futility of engaging in dialogue at this stage of relations.

Beyond NATO’s decision to send troops to Russia’s borders

At the present time, there is talk about sending four battalions – two American, one German and one British - to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. So far, only Berlin has announced that the troops it will send will most likely end up in Lithuania. Where the remaining troops will be sent is still unknown.

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The Baltic States, after joining NATO in 2004, obtained a reliable security guarantee against the Russian threat. Given the fact that none of the three former Soviet republics had any modern combat aircraft, NATO missions started operating in their airspaces and protecting Baltic skies in that same year.

Moreover, the initial four fighter jets, based at the Zokniai Airbase in Lithuania, in 2016 were increased to 18, and in addition to the Lithuanian base, the Alliance also began using the Ämari Airbase in Estonia.

In the period 2014-2015, ground troops were sent on several occasions to the Baltic countries, accompanied by tanks and other heavy equipment. Primarily, these troops took part in military exercises that were being held in the Baltic States. The scenario of most of this training was resisting the hypothetical Russian aggression.

Thus, more than 6,000 NATO troops participated in maneuvers named Steadfast Jazz-2013 and Steadfast Jazz-2015. However, these troops were not permanently stationed in the republics. In the meantime, at the beginning of 2016, the United States European Command (EUCOM) published an updated version of its military strategy in Europe, where the “containment of Russian aggression” was mentioned as being the top priority. At the same time, the Steadfast Jazz exercises enabled NATO to effectively develop techniques for the transfers of troops to the Baltic States, and to coordinate their actions.

Based on the analysis of these exercises, some analysts (including those at the RAND Corporation) announced that the Russian Army would need just 36 to 60 hours to overcome the resistance of NATO forces and occupy the capital cities of the Baltic States, while NATO would require at least 72 hours to deploy its Europe-based rapid reaction forces into the military operations theater. This is a disappointing forecast for the West, as the few hours that could be gained in the event of an operational redeployment of troops, would be vital to repel any aggression.

One should keep in mind that the Russian military contingents in the northwest of Russia are much greater than the forces of the North Atlantic Alliance. Moreover, in early 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that, by the end of the year, three new divisions would be created in the western section of the country (depending on the type of troops, the strength of one division alone could exceed 16,000 men).

In this context, NATO’s efforts to strengthen its contingent in the Baltic States look like merely responsive measures, and quite asymmetrical ones at that. If Washington and its NATO allies were truly afraid of a Russian invasion, they would need to base at least one entire division in the Baltic States.

At the same time, it is hardly worth speaking about any real threat posed by Russia against Latvia and Estonia, and especially not against Lithuania and Poland. The Kremlin has very specific interests in these former Soviet republics, which cannot in any way impact on the sovereignty of these countries.

First, Russia would like to ensure the rights of Russian-speakers in those countries. This concerns, first of all, the issue of regional languages and the granting of citizenship. Second, Russia wants to improve ground transportation between the Baltic States and the city of Kaliningrad, located in Russia’s Kaliningrad Region, which is surrounded by the Baltic Sea, Poland and Lithuania.

In addition, Russia is unlikely to attack the Baltic States as such an aggression could potentially provoke a nuclear exchange. This was the scenario in the BBC film World War Three: Inside the War Room. In it, the filmmakers staged a Russian attack against the Baltics, with all its consequences.

Indeed, in the case of a real conflict, the parties would be forced to use their nuclear potential during the first stage of the war. After all, neither Moscow nor Washington has ruled out the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. However, this is the very thing that acts as a deterrent, which makes it practically impossible for Russia to attack the Baltic countries, and thus enter into an open confrontation with the North Atlantic Alliance.

Thus, one can assume that the real reasons for the substantial increase of NATO’s presence in the Baltic States are political. Such actions contribute to Euro-Atlantic integration, demonstrating the willingness of the three major powers in the Alliance – the U.S., Germany and the UK – to work together.

What NATO’s military buildup means for Poland, Latvia and Lithuania

At the same time, these actions are forcing the Kremlin to assume a more assertive position in relation to the three countries that have relocated their troops closer to Russian borders – Germany, Britain and the U.S.

For example, consider the case of Germany. Just a few days ago, after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to have somewhat softened her rhetoric. She even spoke about the possibility, in principle, of removing sanctions against Russia.

In addition, the sending of British troops to the Baltic States may be positioned by the British government as a decisive measure to ensure security in Europe, which will contribute to strengthening of the position of the British Government on the eve of the Brexit vote scheduled for June of this year.

Moreover, the sending of additional troops to the Baltic States will strengthen the position of nationalists in power in the Baltic countries. These politicians will be able actively to exploit the hypothetical Russian military threat for their own purposes.

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Not that long ago, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas decided to shoot his campaign video clip on a runway of the Ämari Airfield, as NATO fighter jets roared overhead. According to political strategists, this was an attempt by the Reform Party, currently ruling Estonia, to demonstrate to voters the government’s successes in strengthening the security of the country.

However, the redeployment of troops will bring an unpleasant surprise to the Baltic countries, something that local politicians have neglected to mention to their citizens. Defense is expensive, and even though Washington, Berlin, and London will be paying the salaries of their troops, the lion’s share of the costs required for maintaining their military infrastructures will fall on Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.

The Baltic States incurred significant expenses in rebuilding the Ämari and Zokniai Airbases. In particular, just in the last three years, Tallinn was forced to spend 70 million euros on the Ämari Airbase (approximately $80 million at today’s exchange rates). The placement of 4,000 soldiers, who are accustomed to the high standards of accommodation, food, and medical care that are typical of major NATO powers, will cost the Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians quite dearly.

The Kremlin’s response

Thus, the Kremlin is likely to view this latest NATO move – the transfer of a huge number of troops to the Baltic States – as another provocation. This, unfortunately, will only lead to another round of increased tensions. At the same time, NATO’s actions require a specific response from Russia, for example, additional and costly exercises in the western part of the country, or the deployment of new tactical missile systems aimed at NATO’s new units. And this means a new round of an arms race.

During the Cold War, this strategy worked, and helped undermine the Soviet economy. Will it work this time around? Washington’s European allies have too many problems to match U.S. spending to strengthen NATO on its eastern borders. Washington, for its part, has not yet shown any desire to send substantial troops overseas. Moreover, public opinion, which for two years has been frightened by the supposed Russian threat, is beginning to change.

The Kremlin is not invading Poland or occupying the Baltic States. Furthermore, a military conflict is not something that Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking. However, even a minimal increase in the threat posed by the Alliance on Russia’s borders could significantly disrupt relations between the European Union and Moscow, which lately have been showing signs of gradual warming.

Recently, for example, the French Parliament called for the removal of sanctions against Russia. More and more European politicians are also speaking out in support of this step. However, if Moscow undertakes measures to strengthen its defense capabilities, it could undermine this trend towards the warming of relations and put off the day when sanctions against Russia will be lifted.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.