Girnius. Is Russia that dangerous?

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

Three years ago the Lithuanian news media and some politicians seriously considered the possibility that Russia will attack Lithuania and the rest of the Baltics. Such concerns are not voiced as often nowadays, there are more talks about information warfare and cyber-attacks.

The worries flood through at times nevertheless. Particularly much attention is dedicated to the military exercise Zapad, which is named as the chief challenge to Lithuanian national security in 2017 by intelligence agencies. It is believed that the exercises could involve more than a hundred thousand troops, with worries that things may not just end with training. Perhaps this is why last week NATO troops trained to defend the Suwalki gap, the occupation of which could close off the land route to the Baltics for NATO allies, making it one of the potential primary targets for Russian attacks.

Other countries view the situation with more moderation. On June 1, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid stated that Russia does not pose a threat to Estonia. “NATO deterrence measures have been 100% effective for the whole existence of the alliance. Of course for adequate reaction, NATO must constantly develop its deterrence strategy and we can see that is what NATO Is constantly doing,” she stated. The President is calm, despite the Estonian-Russian border being 350km long and a significantly larger percentage of ethnic Russians than in Lithuania. That said, President Kaljulaid assured that the other Baltics feel no physical threat either.

Slovenian President Borut Pahor, who visited Lithuania in mid-June, expressed surprise over Vilnius being highly concerned over the Russian threat. During a meeting with President Pahor, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that during their meeting she informed the Slovenian leader that the Zapad exercises are based on attacking and are directed against the West. Pahor assured he takes Lithuanian concerns seriously. On the other hand he cannot allow himself to claim that Lithuania’s stance is paranoid.

Concerns over Zapad are overstated. Russia will not pursue confrontation because it is aware that NATO is carefully monitoring all training exercises and no doubt has prepared counterattack plans, while having enough troops and equipment gathered to effectively respond. Furthermore Russia has no basis to attack or occupy Lithuania. Looking at the Latvian demographic situation, one analyst called the country “the best protected graveyard in Europe” that Russia will not attack because in such a case it would have to support a hundred thousand strong mass of retirees. The same logic applies to Lithuania. The President states that the training will be offensive inclined, Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu claims they will be exclusively defensive. It is not always easy to outline the difference between defence and attack because when defending you may have to attack, say when you have the opportunity to surround a hostile detachment.

I am certain that Zapad will pass by calmly, that a hundred thousand troops will not participate in it and that almost all of them will return to their usual bases rather than remaining in the region. On the other hand tensions between the USA and Russia are on the rise. US elites have long had negative perceptions of Russia. The main reason being Russian interference in the US elections. Vladimir Putin miscalculated in that case and shot himself in the leg. A significant contribution is also made by the Democrat Party’s intention to teach Donald Trump a lesson, portray him as naïve and some of his team members as Russian bribed sympathisers, perhaps even unconscious agents. So far President Putin has acted calmly in the hopes that Trump will take US foreign policy in his hands, reducing or removing sanctions, focusing on combatting terrorism.

These hopes have vanished already. In mid-June the US Senate overwhelmingly voted for strict sanctions for Iran and Russia. The legislative project outlines that the president cannot unilaterally reduce the sanctions current applied on Moscow. The House of Representatives still has to agree. The legislation threatens to punish Western companies which participate or finance Russian projects such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. This segment was strongly criticised by both German and Austrian ministers of foreign affairs who view this as interference with European domestic affairs and an attempt to create better conditions for US gas and oil industry. According to the ministers “The provision of energy for Europe is Europe’s affair, not that of the United States.”

Friction and dangers are on the rise in Syria. In recent days US aviation struck Syrian military detachments several times, shot down a Syrian aircraft. Moscow declared it will cut the special communications channel with the US, which is intended to avoid incidents in Syrian airspace, sort of threatened to shoot down American aircraft flying over the Euphrates. In the Baltic region there is more aggression. The joint Russian-Chinese exercises in the Baltic Sea will feature three Chinese ships. The training will supposedly “improve both [states’] military naval coordination in performing join maritime defensive operations.” The US responded with a recent B-52 bomber flight near the Russian Baltic Sea border, potentially with a nuclear payload. NATO F-16s briefly escorted S. Shoygu’s airplane during his flight to Kaliningrad. With rising tensions, the potential for incidents is on the rise. Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis accurately noted that “one can wish both sides cool tempers” so that a terrible accident wouldn’t occur.

In recent years NATO significantly expanded its forces in the Baltic Sea region, expanded its air police mission and dispatched international battalions. Not everything is done yet, there are plans to strengthen local air defence. But excessive arming may reduce, rather than improve regional security. We must remember the so called security dilemma, namely actions that one state takes to raise its security will make its opponent increasingly insecure, leading to them increasing fighting capacities. Thus it is unlikely that greater NATO troop counts will lead to increased security. Some proposals are unwise, simply provocative, for example the urging to have NATO move its main headquarters from South and West Europe to the East. There are drones flying above Afghanistan, piloted from California and Nevada. Symbolically one cannot imagine a worse proposal. After all, Hitler’s headquarters, the Wolfschanze, was placed in East Prussia, something Russia will never forget. Moscow will react to this challenge with anger, placing more forces in the Baltic region. The outrage of common Russian to such actions will only raise Putin’s popularity.

Regardless, the Baltics are no longer a forgotten corner of NATO, something Lithuanian leaders should take to heart more. There can be no doubt that Russian military capacities have expanded in the region, but things cannot be otherwise. After all Moscow won’t move its main forces to bases beyond the Urals. In wanting to reach Kaliningrad Oblast, Russian aircraft have to fly across the Baltic and it isn’t very realist to believe that they will not take the opportunity to approach Baltic airspace. While speaking to the Slovenian leader, D. Grybauskaitė stressed cyber security. That is what should be discussed more, with less guessing about the proceedings of the upcoming exercises.

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