Russia’s Strategic Advantage in the Baltics: A Challenge to NATO?

By January 19, 2018

Executive Summary:

At a time when news reports often have as much Shakespearean drama as fiction, General Sir Richard Shirreff, a former NATO deputy supreme commander of Europe, has created fiction he believes could become news. In his novel, 2017 War with Russia, he anticipates a 2017 Russian invasion of the Baltics through Latvia. Much like Georgian provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia, invaded by Russia in 2008, Latvia is a state with a high minority of Russian speakers – 34%. The Crimea Russia also invaded in 2014, also have large Russian minorities. Shirreff posits the Russian president then tries to blackmail NATO by threatening a nuclear response to any defense. A Russo-NATO war follows which assumes a nuclear face.

However, in another scenario, retired U.S. general, Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army posits the Russians would invade not Latvia, but Lithuania, a state with only a 9% Russian population from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Yet a third case for war in the Baltics, was provided in 2013 by a Russian analyst, Mikhail Aleksandrov, of the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS] Institute in Moscow. He linked it to the conflict in Syria. On August 27, 2013, President Barack Obama was seriously contemplating a missile strike on Syria to punish its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, for using sarin gas on civilians during the country’s civil war. His “red line” against chemical WMD having been crossed, Obama sent four destroyers to the Syrian shores ready to carry out an attack.

With Russian help, the strike was ultimately forestalled by diplomatic measures. But on August 26, 2013, as Russia and Iran were preparing to defend Assad, Aleksandrov offered some advice to Putin. “In the case of a NATO attack on Syria, Russia should deploy its forces where we have clear strategic advantage, that [is] in the Baltics.”

Recognizing that Russia does have a military and strategic advantage in the Baltics comparative to NATO, the present inquiry focuses primarily on divining aspects of strategic importance to NATO. We also look at Putin’s possible intentions in the Baltics. Because nations have complex histories that mold or mar them, what geopolitical lessons and historical lessons can we draw from Russia’s previous military interventions? Has the historical relationship of Russia with the Baltic states been conditioned by a clash of civilizations as claimed by some Baltic thinkers? If so, how does this factor into the present tensions? What role does the sizable minority of Russians in the Baltic states play in the Kremlin’s policy-making? How can strategic military savvy and diplomacy aid in preventing the escalation of present tensions in the Baltics into full-scale war?

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