Global Independent Analytics
Normunds Grostins
Normunds Grostins

Location: Latvia

Specialization: Development of European Union, Non-governmental organizations, Politics and economics in Baltic States

NATO on the Baltic beach

The expansion of NATO to the Baltic countries in the early 2000s brought the alliance closer than ever to Russia, within 130 kilometers (80 miles) of St. Petersburg.

The former imperial Russia’s capital city, its jewel, was about a thousand miles away from NATO troops in 1989. Russia’s grand strategy involves the creation of deep buffers along the northern European plain.

Russia and NATO, already in a standoff in the former Soviet Union because of events in Ukraine, are in the process of developing their military strategies in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

The commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, recently highlighted a small area in northeastern Poland, increasingly referred to as the Suwalki Gap, as one of the most vital locations in the buildup of military forces on the European continent. Suwalki Gap is the logistical spine of any land deployment from other NATO countries into the Baltics.

Besides connecting Eastern European NATO members with the Baltic states, the gap also sits between the small Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Russia's ally Belarus. According to these military leaders, the area would be a ripe target for Russian forces to capture in the event of war, in an effort to connect Kaliningrad to Belarus. Similarly, it would be a critical area for NATO forces to defend in order to maintain the physical link between Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

The thin strip of land, roughly 65 kilometers (40 miles) wide, is understandably important in any theoretical NATO defense of the Baltic States. The Baltic States alone would not be able to fend off a Russian invasion. Moreover, Russia has strong capabilities to interdict NATO movement in the Baltic Sea, making a secure land corridor for NATO forces useful.

According to Stratfor, the military situation in the region raises serious challenges for NATO troops to move into the Baltics:

Defending and reinforcing the region is difficult because of the region's broad front, limited depth and restricted lines of communication. In the event of war, the Baltic States would need to be reinforced, as Russian forces would neutralize the Baltic states in their move to protect Kaliningrad and its port facilities. NATO would need to move reinforcements overland, because Kaliningrad would make air and sea resupply difficult. The road networks, developed over years of Soviet rule, favor Moscow. Limited ability to reinforce the region would allow Russia to secure the Baltic States, leaving a large number of NATO troops waiting on the beach for rescue.

NATO countries are discussing boosting the numbers of troops stationed in member states bordering Russia, as well as placing them under a formal alliance command, unnamed diplomats and military officers said in an the Wall Street Journal on October 28, 2015.

Under one plan, NATO would have a battalion (around 800 -1,000 soldiers) in each of the three Baltic States, as well as in Poland. The United States and other allies support the idea, but German officials are reportedly concerned about treating Russia as a permanent enemy or locking it out of Europe — though Berlin may back a more modest deployment. The new plans are at an early stage, officials with the alliance said, and no deployments are likely before the July 2016 summit of NATO leaders in Warsaw. U.S. officials also are reportedly open to putting the 150 U.S. troops currently deployed in each of the four states under NATO command and rotating in additional troops. The plan would also require other alliance members with troops deployed in these states to agree to NATO command.

Reacting to this buildup, Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu announced recently, that in 2016 the Russian Ground Forces will reactivate three divisions on the Western strategic direction. (The size of a division varies from about 10,000 to 18,000 soldiers, and most divisions have three or more brigades of roughly equal size).

Earlier this month, Forbes published an article asking “Why is America in NATO?” The main idea of the article is that by taking in new members, who are often weak, NATO forces the Americans to take custody of these new pitiful allies:

Expansion to the Baltic States turns out to have been a huge mistake, bringing in helpless nations which the rest of Europe has no interest in defending, countries of no geopolitical importance to America, but involved in bitter disputes with Russia. If anything bad happens, America will be expected to confront, with minimal support from its European “allies” who likely will run for cover in Brussels. U.S. security has suffered dramatically from adding Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

It seems that Stratfor has captured the very essence of a possible NATO – Russia military conflict in Baltics, envisaging “large number of NATO troops waiting on the beach for rescue.”

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