this article first appeared on the Gorchakov Fund website
Last June, a joint navy drill called “Baltops” employed 49 vessels and 6000 soldiers staging landings in the Baltic Sea close to Kaliningrad. Just a month before, a convoy of 120 US Army vehicles had made its way from Germany to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic and back. The operation, nicknamed “Dragoon Ride”, was the longest military convoy seen in Europe since 1944. In September, 6 new NATO bases were set up in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. These are just the latest examples of the militarization underway in the European Union territory, and especially along its eastern flank, as preparation for an alleged incoming attack from Russia.
Indeed, rumors about a Russian military aggression against Europe have gone on for months since the seizure of Crimea and the war in Donbass. Reports about Moscow amassing troops and artillery along the Baltics borders filled the news, and the threat was perceived so real that Estonia went as far as distributing handbooks to the population on how to survive an invasion. While this has been the justification for a NATO buildup on that front and for marginalizing further the local Russian-speaking communities, on the other side nothing much has happened. It is true that Moscow started several military drills and declared to be “reviewing” the Baltic States separation treaties, but that happened mostly after, and not before, NATO tests, and eventually, no secret plan was leaked, no hidden army detected, and no fighter-jets flew over Riga or Tallin so far.
According to a recent paper by the European Union Institute for Security Studies, one of the reasons why NATO is so worried about Russia on the East is the potential damage that the “hybrid warfare”, empowered by Moscow first in Chechnya and now in Ukraine, could inflict on the endurance of the alliance. Indeed, this kind of low profile and limited conflict could pose questions to western common defense and deterrence capabilities. Would NATO react collectively, in case the “little green men” seized some border town in the Baltics? Would it be ready to threaten the use of its nuclear assets in order to defend a small, sidelined country? The dilemma is based on a precedent: although Ukraine is not a NATO member, London and Washington were resolved to send boots in the country according to the Chart’s 5th Article, while Germany and France decided to play as peacemakers in Minsk. Moreover, in May 2015 a survey confirmed that 73% of European citizens, especially Italians and Germans, were against a NATO intervention.
The Russian aggression theory however, holds some inherent vices. As a matter of fact, it applies logics to Western moves, but not to Russian ones. The first question to answer is indeed why Russia would invade the Baltics or other EU member states. Is it in Moscow interest to exacerbate further the relation with the West and cause a new Cuba-style crisis just a few hundred km from home, or worse, a widespread war? Furthermore, it compares situations that are actually very different. By analyzing the evidence and the reasons behind the strategies of the last years, it is possible to maintain that invading the Baltics is not in the Kremlin’s bucket list, and that what lies beneath the militarization of the EU is more a matter driven by domestic policies than by a serious foreign menace.
The main assumption of the mentioned theory is that Russia is preparing for a takeover of Eastern Europe as it did in Ukraine. This view was also presented by former NATO Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen and re-affirmed by the top US Army General Ray Odierno when he stated that Russia is America’s number one threat in the world. Even assuming that the Russian attack in Ukraine was a unilateral act of aggression, it must not be forgotten that the roots of Crimea and Donbass war lay in the Maidan revolution, a turmoil that in a few weeks ousted President Yanukovich and abruptly changed the Ukrainian government and the power assets in a way of open opposition to the Russian Federation after 25 years of partnership. This scenario does not apply to any Baltic States, which since independence have pursued a neat policy of Europeanization, and have eventually entered the EU and NATO in 2004. Consequently, the Baltic States do share today a common defense tool and act under the Union’s foreign policy umbrella, called CFSP. These are essential leverage and deterrence tools that Kiev could not apply, thus relying only of its own fading military forces.
Moreover, as underscored by an op-ed by Red Army General Mikhail Kodarenok, even if the Kremlin was willing to invade the Baltics, at this stage it would not have sufficient military capabilities. Russia is already assisting fighters in Donbass, wh ere in over one year they have not achieved any turning success, and in Syria, were the commitment is likely to increase in the next weeks. The status quo brokered in Minsk sees Russian-backed rebels holding a tiny strip of land, despite the great effort. These actions would bear heavy costs on both economic and political sides. A deliberate aggression against a EU member would involve the reaction of whole Atlantic Alliance, the most powerful army in the world, and cause a full embargo. In a nutshell, that would be an end-game, a war that the Kremlin could not win, eventually leading to political suicide.
Thus, what is taking place in the Eastern Europe has actually much to do with an internal showdown. Despite what it looks, the US and Brussels hold deeply different views on foreign policy, and inside the Union there are opposite feelings towards Russia too. The US and UK are using the Russian threat to reaffirm their role of European defenders in a moment when many wouldn’t mind to emancipate from Washington and London controversial power plays. The diplomatic relations among Western allies are riding on a downward spiral: the NSA espionage on European Heads of Governments, the leaked derogatory remarks by Victoria Nuland during the Maidan revolt and the plot for installing a new government in Kiev without consulting the EU, the spreading of ISIS and the refugee crisis following the Anglo-Saxon backed Syrian and Libyan wars. NATO broke up more than once in these occasions, and the idea of an alternative European Army, although unlikely, is making a comeback.
The Baltics offer a perfect opportunity for the American command to galvanize the continent against a mutual enemy. Former USSR and Warsaw Pact countries are notoriously Russo-phobic and insist on a tough line on Moscow, also calling for major Allied military deployment on their lands. UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon was quite explicit on the matter during the Baltops operation: “This is Russia directly trying to intimidate the eastern and northern members of NATO. NATO has no quarrel with the Russian people but we do have a quarrel with Putin, or Russia, trying to change borders by force”. The tensions inside the alliance, however, didn’t pass unnoticed.
Last march Lt-Gen Frederick Hodges, the top US Army Commander in Europe, deep-dived into the issue with an extraordinary epiphany in a Telegraph interview: “The UK is our oldest ally and still a leader in NATO (…) I am sure Putin wants to destroy our alliance, not by attacking it but by splintering it” he stated, and went on warning Europe about the use of hybrid warfare against NATO allies in the East and the fragility of the 5th Article of the Chart “Once Article 5 is gone, our alliance is over“ he said. Again, just days after the Paris Attack, when Europe and Russia suddenly seemed close to form a common axis against ISIS, the Council on Foreign Relations published an op-ed by Army Colonel Michael R. Fenzel remembering how, after all, it was “Russia aggression” the main threat to Europe security, and calling NATO to increase its commitment in order to roll back Russian advances.
These statements, as mentioned above, are at odds with the actions of several Europe founding members like Italy, France, Greece and even Germany, that from time to time battle to lighten economic sanctions and keep a productive dialogue with the Kremlin, and clearly see Russia as a far minor threat than Isis, or even an ally in resolving the Syrian conflict.
In conclusion, NATO operations in Eastern Europe seem to have as first objective the solution of a power conflict inside the Alliance rather than being the eve of a real military showdown with Russia, which at this stage looks preposterous.