By Emily Clingenpeel, CIB Europe Desk *
If passed by the United States Congress, a potential increase in US military spending has the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) planning its biggest military build-up in Eastern Europe since the Cold War, aimed at deterring Russia. This has arisen with no offensive movement in the Baltic States from Moscow and may undermine the security and peace of the region if Moscow reacts to the build-up.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine militarily, NATO has been worried that Moscow could rapidly invade the Baltics and Poland. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are the most vulnerable NATO members to Russian attack because of their proximity to Russia and relatively small size. The US Department of Defense (DoD) has planned to request $3.4 billion for fiscal year 2017 to reinforce its military presence close to Russia’s western borders. The funding will help the US rotate more troops into the region, conduct more war games and position additional military infrastructure. NATO welcomes these plans because it means the eastern flank of the alliance will have more troops.
An analysis done in early February by the RAND Corporation has shown that it would take less than three days for Russia to occupy the three Baltic States, leaving NATO unable to respond without using nuclear retaliation. The study argues that NATO has been caught off-guard by Russia’s resurgence. US President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Estonia in 2014 promising that NATO will help protect the independence of the Baltic States. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said these moves create grounds to implement military plans against Russia and take practical steps to push military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders. She noted that these initiatives are “aggressive” and NATO is using a non-existent threat from Russia as a pretext. Moscow has said that any moves by NATO to bring military infrastructure closer to its borders would be reciprocated.
The Baltics have had a long relationship with Russia culminating in their membership in the Soviet Union for most of the Cold War. After the Baltics gained their independence in 1991, they eventually became members of the European Union (EU) and NATO. Last June, the Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas openly described Russia as a threat to his country. However, this does not change the fact that Russia is the biggest energy supplier to the Baltics and to the European continent as a whole. Poland has requested permanent NATO presence in the country, but NATO has refused to comply because such a move may be too provocative toward Russia. The rotational bases will provide the necessary support Poland needs to deter the perceived Russian threat for the time being. It can be argued that moving equipment closer to the eastern border of Europe is crucial to quickly combating Russia’s surface-to-air missile batteries and anti-ship missiles from Kaliningrad. An all-out Russian invasion of the Baltics, however, would leave NATO with few options for retaliation. Possible outcomes of an invasion would involve a military defeat for NATO and the onset of a new Cold War, or even a nuclear retaliation, thought that is far less likely.
Deploying military personnel on Europe’s eastern border can be described as counter-productive in an attempt to deter Russia, as Moscow has committed to reciprocating any efforts that threaten its security. Since there is no confirmed and imminent threat from Russia, a military push by NATO is more than likely to upset the region’s peace and security. However, NATO generals have stated that they want to adhere to a 1997 agreement with Moscow to refrain from stationing substantial combat forces on the NATO-Russia border. If both of these powers continue to retaliate by placing military infrastructure and personnel closer to their respective borders, it can be stated with moderate confidence that a military confrontation will occur. However, the NATO summit is not until July of 2016. In the fiscal year of 2016, it can be stated with relatively high confidence that there will not be major unrest in the Baltics.
* Analytical Question: Will there be major pro-Russian unrest in the Baltics, similar to Ukraine, in 2016?