Why the scenario of Russia invading the Baltics is unlikely

While Western analysts explore the risks of Russia attempting to occupy the Baltic states, there is no evidence that such actions would fit into the Kremlin’s grand strategy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, second left, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, with a group of Russian naval officers during a Navy parade in Baltiisk, western Russia, July 26, 2015 during celebrations for Russian Navy Day. Photo: AP

A recent RAND Corporation war gaming report presented an interesting scenario. The report, titled “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Front” by RAND analysts David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson, attempts to find answers primarily to two important questions: What would be the consequences if Russia seeks to reclaim the Baltic countries and territories? And how might that be avoided in light of NATO deterrence?

The situation highlighted in the report is the following: The Russian invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea and subsequent interference in Ukraine challenged two decades of peace and a relatively stable global order in Europe. While there have been questions regarding Russian capabilities vis-à-vis intentions, it is an acknowledged fact that Russia is still capable of militarily dominating its near abroad.

The report therefore claims that, given the worst-case situation of Russia trying to invade the Baltics, it would be impossible for NATO’s current force projections to stop a Russian advance. Russia could reach Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius within three to five days. While underscoring that Russia’s army is a shadow of its Soviet self, the report concludes they appear to be adequate to penetrate and overwhelm Baltic defenses.

The report differentiates the force structures of NATO and Russia. While NATO forces have 12 maneuverable battalions, they are mostly light tactical, as compared to Russian battalions, which are mostly motorized and mechanized. Even Russian airborne battalions contain self-sustaining light armor, unlike their NATO counterparts.

Without the benefit of countering with an equally capable force, therefore, NATO would have to rely solely on offensive airpower. This would take a heavy toll on Russian forces, but eventually they would be stretched too thin to simultaneously counter advancing Russian armor, respond to Russian air support, and suppress Russian anti-air components.

The report concludes by saying that the resulting action of NATO would be to escalate and therefore risk Russian counter-escalation, which might give the Baltic states an option of seeing their capital cities essentially destroyed in drawn-out, open-ended urban combat, as in Grozny.

The second option is a Cold War type of threat of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons, which would bring Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) into play.

The third option is accepting the new fait accompli, and prepare for a new Cold War, while accepting that the Baltics are part of Russia, like Crimea post-annexation. The paper suggests as a matter of policy that if seven divisions of NATO troops are placed in the Baltics, then that might prove sufficient deterrence to stop Russia from any misadventure.

The paper is a fine academic exercise, and provides the linear narrative of military policy between NATO and Russia, although serious questions are being raised: How accurate is it militarily and methodologically? Might it just be a complete waste of army funds? But it’s not necessary to go into a lengthy methodological debate; rather, it’s more important to focus on the policy implications of the report.

In this instance, however, the report also suffers from a notable disadvantage: it’s deeply flawed. While accepting the premise that, in a worst-case scenario Russia would occupy and annex the Baltics, the paper never attempts to answer some important policy questions: Why would Russia do that, and to what purpose would that benefit Russia and at what cost would Russia inflict this unaffordable permanent damage on itself?

Where’s the evidence of Russian irrational aggression?

First of all, there is no evidence of the inclination of Russia attempting to annex or invade the Baltics. Several commentators have pointed out how rational Russia’s strategy is. In fact, Russia didn’t try that with Georgia in 2008, when it was actually much easier for Russia to have annexed a massive chunk of a defeated small post-Soviet country. Russia did annex Crimea as a matter of fact, however, showed no inclination to repeat that performance in Eastern Ukraine.

Instead, the Russian modus operandi strongly suggests that Russia was perfectly happy to keep the fuel of conflict simmering rather than occupy and annex, not unlike any other great power anywhere else, when their interests matter or align. Russia also reportedly discarded the Novorossiya project for Eastern Ukraine.

Any great power has the singular intention that is based on its interests and survival in an anarchic system, and will take great pains to safeguard what they perceive rightly or wrongly as their own interests. Russia here is no exception. The Russian military and political establishment has shown no inclination of acting irrationally. On the contrary, one might argue, in every Russian foreign policy “aggression,” for lack of better word, there is a common thematic pattern of extreme calculation.

One might argue whether, in the long run, all these “aggressions” will be beneficial or costly to Russia, as has already been argued before, but that’s a question for another discussion. Suffice it to say that one can safely argue that Russian actions have been in line of an interest-based realist grand strategy. It is hard to imagine Russia would risk destruction or total war with NATO, which would ultimately also result in not just Russian annihilation, but essentially would unleash an unspeakable global catastrophe. While it looks plausible on military tabletop simulations, it is an unlikely option for policy makers of any country including Russia and the U.S.

Which brings us to the second point: the point of deterrence, mentioned in the paper. The paper makes the same common assumption that deterrence means going toe-to-toe, matching number to number. However, deterrence works even with one single American soldier placed in the line of Russian fire. Any death of NATO troops under direct Russian attack would be considered an act of war, and would be met with direct retaliation, no matter how long it takes. One doesn’t need to put seven divisions in East Europe to bolster deterrence. Given the recent innovations in hybrid warfare, old school number-matching deterrence wouldn’t be useful anyway.

Thirdly, the report misses another key point, again a point of policy. No matter how much one tries, it would be hard for policy makers and politicians to sell war with Russia to the people of the UK or U.S. if there is a Russian hybrid war or even military aggression in the Baltics. To some extent, NATO itself is responsible for that. Realists like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have consistently blamed NATO expansion in East Europe to be a direct cause affecting the Russian “security dilemma,” thereby affecting Russian asymmetric aggression.

Even when one might argue that there is no direct correlation between the two, and that Russia and U.S. cooperation still occurred on a number of issues when their interests aligned, one can still agree that the NATO expansion in East Europe is a hard sell to average Germans or Belgians, for example, who don’t find it in their interest to be confrontational with Russia, to come to the defense of countries and cultures of a faraway land.

Recommended: "Russia's new security strategy: Why is the Kremlin so threatened by NATO?"

Is escalation and expansion the only way?

A realist would therefore discard this report, and prescribe a radically different approach based on interest. A more traditional offshore balancing role for America would have prescribed a radically different policy for Europe with regards to Russia. It wouldn’t have allowed NATO to have expanded eastwards in the first place.

Secondly, provided that’s already a fact of the ground now, a realist policy would suggest a break up of NATO in three different blocs, under different command structures. One could imagine for example, the Eastern bloc of countries more fearful of Russia, including Poland, the Baltic nations and Ukraine, forming their own military bloc and joint command structure under a U.S. umbrella and offshore support, would spend more money on their defenses, bring out conscription if needed and invest on more asymmetric means like intelligence gathering and cyber capabilities and defensive weapons systems, rather than wait for a gigantic obsolete NATO behemoth with a Cold War bureaucracy and containment mindset.

Unfortunately, reports like this RAND one attempt to provide the same failed solutions, and perpetuate the same cycle of toe-to-toe expansion, escalation and confrontation with Russia which brought NATO-Russia relations to this stage. While the RAND report is a great military simulation exercise, it’s best not to take its policy suggestions too seriously.

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

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