The Baltic states in Russian military strategy

Vladimir Putin
AFP / Scanpix

Today, it is generally accepted inside NATO that the events of 2014 marked Russia‘s turn towards an avowedly revisionist course, whose ambit extends well beyond Ukraine itself. Were it not for Moscow’s justification of its own policy and the military programmes accompanying it, Crimea‘s annexation and the war in Donbas might still be regarded in many NATO capitals as the product of exceptional local circumstances with few implications for the security of others. Yet, as we know, these actions were complemented by invocations of the unity of “historic Russia” and warnings that the West should “either relearn the lessons of Yalta or risk war.”[1]

Today, it is becoming clear that Russia’s political objectives and defence policy have acquired a disturbing coherence. Even by Soviet standards, there is an unusual degree of integration between the political and military objectives of the state. The scale of Russia’s defence modernisation, the scope of its mobilisation efforts and the scheme of its military deployments well surpass what, from a NATO perspective, would be considered sufficient to secure leverage over Ukraine and prosecute war inside it. Its campaign in Syria reveals a capacity to move beyond previous geographical parameters and achieve strategic surprise.

Nevertheless, whilst NATO has moved swiftly to catch up with strategic reality, the question remains open how far its understanding of Russia’s strategy is in alignment with that of Russia itself. Not only is there a tendency to overstate what is new in Russian military thinking (e.g. “hybrid war“), there is a failure to come to terms with Russia’s extravagant definition of “defence,” as well as the sense of vulnerability that underpins even its most menacing actions. The threat that Russia perceives has become inseparable from the threat that it poses.

Premises of Russian Security Policy

Russia is waging what it regards as a strategic counter-offensive against twenty-five years of Western civilisational and geopolitical encroachment. Contrary to Western conventional wisdom, the “civilizational” dimension of this counter-offensive is not a Putin-era artefact, but a world view with Tsarist antecedents. For Russians of the conservative and Christian (not to say Eurasian) persuasion, it provides a historical and identity-based alternative to the values-based discourse of liberal democracy.[2] Even selfdesignated Russian liberals of the 1990s, such as former Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev and Deputy Foreign Minister Fedor Shelov-Kovedyayev, viewed unity with Ukraine, if not the Baltic states, as a mainstay of Russia’s cultural connection to Europe.[3] On “historically-conditioned” foundations, today’s security elites are inclined to distinguish between Russkiy Mir, the “Russian world” – which, in Putin’s words, “exceeds Russia’s geographic boundaries and even the boundary of the Russian ethnos” – the “historical West” (defined with even less precision) and a “grey zone” between them.[4] The emergence of a political West beyond the frontiers of the “historical West” is seen by Moscow as unnatural, of dubious legitimacy and as a principal source of tension in Europe. Missing from all of these perspectives is respect for the self-determination and consent of other nations and peoples.

These civilisational constructs are reinforced by the geopolitical determinism of the Russian military establishment. Factors that frequently offset one another in Western threat assessments — capability, interest and intention — are invariably compounded in Russia on the basis of worst-case assumptions. Since Tsarist times, threats have been defined in terms of proximity; security has been equated with control of space (irrespective of the views of those who inhabit it), recognised spheres of influence, buffer zones, client states and uncontested defence perimeters situated well beyond the borders of Russia. Russia maintains that NATO perpetuates a “civilisational schism” in Europe. It also believes that the enlargement of the Alliance (as well as the EU), democracy promotion and support of coloured revolutions are targeted against the system of governance in Russia itself. By the time of Ukraine’s “revolution of dignity” in 2013-2014, all of these policies had been integrated into one overarching threat assessment.

The Baltic states find themselves at the conjuncture of these two vectors of policy. In September 2014, Sergey Lavrov warned Moldova and the Baltic states to “consider events in Ukraine and draw conclusions.”[5] They have also been admonished that the presence of Allied forces on their territories is dangerous and destabilising. If there is a common thread in twenty-five years of post-Soviet policy towards the Baltic states, it is the belief that irrespective of their membership of other “unions,” they form part of a grey zone of “historical interest” to Russia, and they should behave accordingly. There and elsewhere in NATO Europe, Russia’s aim is to alter political rather than physical borders. Nevertheless, one cannot assume that the EstoniaRussia border treaties of 2005 and 2014 have a greater intrinsic validity than the Russia-Ukraine State Treaty of 1997. Moreover, Russia’s political and military establishments believe that the potential for war is inherent in the conflict of interests and “systems” that now exists.

War in Europe

Russia’s 2014 Crimea campaign was a shocking demonstration of how war by stealth can be used to cripple a sovereign state and achieve strategic objectives before that state realises that war has begun. It not only provided a stimulant to NATO but for some a model of what to expect in a future war with Russia. The UK House of Commons Defence Committee duly warned of:

Russia’s ability to effectively paralyse an opponent… with a range of tools including psychological operations, information warfare and intimidation with massing of conventional forces.

It added significantly:

Such operations may be designed to slip below NATO’s threshold for reaction.[6]

For all the wisdom of such assessments, they have had the effect in some quarters of diverting attention from the investment Russia has made in defeating opponents by shock, striking power and combined arms, manoeuvre warfare. So have some of Russia’s own pronouncements. In March 2016, Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov stated that the current technological and “psychological-informational” environment afforded the possibility of ensuring “the destruction of military forces and key state assets in several hours”.[7] Read in context, Gerasimov is not forecasting the defeat of major opponents by stealth but by new technologies that do not rely upon nuclear weapons. He is also setting out a new generation of threats to Russia, including strategic, non-nuclear precision-guided missiles (e.g. Prompt Global Strike), ballistic missile defence with dual-purpose (offensive) capability, weapons based on new physical principles and quantum advances in ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance). Russia has limited means to respond to these threats in kind. It can only do so asymmetrically: through tactical, operational and strategic counters to the technological superiority of an advanced opponent.

At the strategic level, Russia is responding by creating what Sergey Sukhankin calls an “arc of pressure” extending from the Black Sea to the Baltic.[8] Operationally, Russia’s traditional emphasis on combinedarms has been expanded to what SACEUR”s International Affairs Advisor, Stephen Covington calls an “all domain” concept, encompassing ground, air and space components, psychological-informational resources, special purpose forces, and notionally non-state entities.[9] In peacetime, such capabilities constitute a deterrent. Coercion is ingrained in the Russian concept of deterrence, which unlike former US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara’s analogue, is not based on force balances, margins of uncertainty, and “mutual assured destruction,” but imbalance, pressure and escalation dominance. In wartime, the purpose would be to strike with shock, without warning and wage high-intensity combat with the goal of shattering the cohesion of NATO, destroying its forces in the theatre of operations, and forcing it to concede defeat at the earliest possible moment. Hybrid war and high-intensity war are therefore two sides of the same coin. In Gerasimov’s formulation:

It is the combination of traditional and hybrid methods that is now the characteristic feature of global armed conflict. If the latter can be used without the open employment of military forces, classical military activity without hybrid war no longer exists.[10]

Russia’s scheme of defence and the capabilities supporting it not only build on Russia’s strengths. They are designed to compensate for weaknesses that could prove telling in a prolonged conflict. Apart from the technological gap already cited, these include the gross discrepancy in economic power and the long-term mobilisation potentials of the two sides, which in Russia’s case is not assisted by an unfavourable military demographic, notably the rising proportion of potentially unreliable Muslim conscripts.


There are two serious ways of responding to the Russian challenge. The first is to meet Russia’s core demand and redress the grievances that give rise to it. If the West were to do so comprehensively, it would entail:

  • withdrawing its infrastructure, missile defence units and forward-based forces from Poland, Romania and the Baltic states (in effect, establishing a two-tier NATO);
  • agreeing to statutory limitations on the development of prompt global strike and other “destabilizing” systems;
  • strictly observing the non-alignment of Sweden and

Finland (irrespective of the wishes of these two states), reversing recent trends toward NATO-EU security cooperation and the integrated defence of the Nordic-Baltic region;

  • respecting the “rights” of Russia’s citizens abroad and, vide Medvedev, Russia’s “unquestioned priority … to defend the rights and dignity of our citizens wherever they live”;
  • binding, “non-bloc” status for Ukraine and the withdrawal of NATO’s “presence” (training and advisory teams, liaison, and information offices); annulling the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and formalizing Ukraine’s “federalization” (autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics and their right of veto on Ukraine’s foreign and defence policies);
  • transforming the NATO-Russia Council into an effective working organ, operating on the basis of “equality” (i.e., a de facto right of veto on issues of importance to Russia).

These terms are incompatible with the security of the Baltic states and would be dead on arrival in most NATO capitals. Like most schemes for improving relations with Russia, they can only be realised by limiting the rights of others. Even if, in defiance of all political logic, a US-Russia “grand bargain” were concluded over the heads of NATO Allies, its terms would not be implemented with their consent, but only upon the breakup of the Alliance, which is what would likely follow. Needless to say, few selfdesignated “realists” would agree on such terms without conditions. But there are those who would accept them as a basis for a negotiation that would also encompass binding force reductions and confidence-building measures on the Russian side. Yet this would be to confuse the cause of NATO’s security problem with the manifestation of it. The cause is Russia’s Yalta inspired scheme of security in Europe. So long as it exists, NATO requires a convincing defence.

Thus, the second response is to invest in the antidotes to Russia’s strengths and diminish the advantages it has. At Newport in 2014 and Warsaw in 2016, NATO committed itself to such a course, and latterly, “deterrence” has reappeared alongside “reassurance” in its official lexicon. Aspects of Operation Atlantic Resolve (launched in 2014) and the Enhanced Forward Presence programme (launched in 2016) have unsettled Russia (notably the participation of European Allies, and especially Germany). But whilst these enhancements “form part of the biggest reinforcement of NATO”s collective defence in a generation,” “enhancement” now starts from a precariously low baseline, and there is no certainty that the collapse of defence mindedness over the past twenty-five years will be overcome.[11] It bears noting that in the years after the Russia-Georgia war, the Obama administration closed fifteen US military bases and withdrew two brigade combat teams, two air squadrons and all heavy armour from Europe.

Concluding Remarks

Deterrence is only a strategy if it addresses the threat to be deterred. In Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015, Russia employed its military power to telling effect, but in highly permissive environments. The decisiveness of these campaigns and the disorientation they caused masked their judiciousness. The short-term aim of NATO strategy must be to reinforce Russian judiciousness. The long-term aim must be to persuade Moscow that even a short war will have harrowing costs and inexorably lead to the long war that Russia fears and is likely to lose. Such a course requires investment in deterrence by denial as well as deterrence by punishment. Giving depth, balance and coherence to NATO’s emerging forward presence will contribute modestly to the former. More significant will be the effective establishment of total defence concepts in the Baltic states analogous to that which Finland maintained throughout the Cold War and is reviving at present.[12] Deterrence by denial demands disproportionate investment by Allies on whose territory war is likely to be fought. Deterrence by punishment requires investment in the capabilities that, in Gerasimov’s terms threaten “the destruction of military forces and key state assets in several hours” and by non-nuclear means. Its aim will be to persuade Russia that any war with NATO involves war with all of NATO, wherever its forces are based. Deterrence by punishment demands disproportionate investment by NATO’s most powerful Allies, especially the United States.

The linkage between these forms of deterrence will be reinforced if Russia perceives that Finland and Sweden will not stand aside if the Baltic states are attacked. Although outside NATO, the immediate stakes for them are arguably higher than they are for several NATO Allies. Uncertainty about their response might constrain Russia in three ways. First, it might add to the complexities of threat assessment and complicate planning for Russia’s preferred short-war scenarios. Second, the belligerence of these Nordic countries would confront Moscow and indeed Brussels with an immediate escalation of the conflict, even before NATO agreed upon a comprehensive response. Finally, it would add to the pressures on the North Atlantic Council to respond to Russia’s aggression in a timely and resolute manner. NATO appears to be aware of this potential. Amongst the more noteworthy statements in the Warsaw Summit Communiqué was the following reference to Finland and Sweden:

We are dedicated to the continuous process of further strengthening our cooperation with these enhanced opportunities partners, including through regular political consultations, shared situational awareness, and joint exercises, in order to respond to common challenges in a timely and effective manner.[13]

Nordic participation in the Common Security and Defence Policy of the EU (which Russia perceived as an antechamber of NATO) also strengthens this potential.

These demands of deterring Russia are not beyond us. As we have noted elsewhere:

Time does not favour Russia…[Its] economy is in decline, its technological base is stagnant, and the mobilization reflex merely postpones the day when its structural problems are either addressed or wreak vengeance. Thus, the West has good grounds for strategic patience. However, time is not a strategic actor. It has to be used. For strategic patience to bear fruit, there must be a strategy as well as patience.[14]

The fundamental goal of deterrence is to persuade a potential adversary that war is not the solution to his problems. The fundamental purpose of NATO is to maintain security in its area of responsibility irrespective of what an adversary’s interests might be. NATO faced a similar challenge at the height of the Soviet military buildup of the 1980s, and it rose to it. The result was not an apocalyptic confrontation, but a change of course by the USSR and a profound de-escalation of tensions in Europe. If the West is interested in improving relations with Russia, it could do worse than to learn from this experience.

James Sherr is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House and the former head of the Russia and Eurasia programme, from 2008 until 2011. He was a member of the Social Studies Faculty of Oxford University from 1993 to 2012, a fellow at the Conflict Studies Research Centre of the UK Ministry of Defence from 1995 to 2008 and Director of Studies of the Royal United Services Institute (1983-85). He is also a senior associate fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, a visiting fellow of the Razumkov Centre (Kyiv) and a former GMF Bosch Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington.

The original publication was published in the book “Security in the Baltic Sea Region: Realities and Prospects: The Rīga Conference Papers 2017″, eds. Andris Sprūds, Māris Andžāns (Riga: Latvian Institute of International Affairs, 2017). This project is managed by the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, supported by the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NATO Public Diplomacy Division, and carried out in cooperation with the Latvian Transatlantic Organisation. The Rīga Conference is co-organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia.

[1] “Dialogue Rather than War: Sergey Naryshkin Calls upon Western Leaders to Study the ‘Lessons of Yalta,'” [“Dialog, a ne voina: Sergey Naryshkin prizval liderov Zapada uchit’ ‘uroki Yaltiy'”] Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 4, 2015.

[2] For a Russian émigré perspective, see RIAC’s interview with Nikolai Tolstoy, “The

Western Guide to Understanding the Russian Mind,” Russian International Affairs Council, August 28, 2017, http:

[3] Fedor Shelov-Kovedyayev was Deputy Foreign Minister in charge of policy with the newly established CIS. Strategy and Tactics of Russian Foreign Policy in the New Abroad [Strategiya i taktika vneshney politiki Rossii v novom zarubezh’ye], September 1992.

[4] “From a Speech at the Opening of the Congress of Compatriots,” [“Viystuplenie VV Putina na Kongress sooteestvennikov prozhivauyushchikh za rubezhom”], President of Russia, October 11, 2001, http:

[5] “Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club,” President of Russia, October 24, 2014, http:

[6] “Towards the Next Security and Defence Review: Part Two—NATO,” House of Commons Defence Committee, July 22, 2014, http: report/2014/hcdc_defense-security_nato_2014.pdf.

[7] Valery Gerasimov. “Considerations on the Experience of Syria” [“Po opytu Sirii], Military-Industrial Courier, March 9, 2016.

[8] Sergey Sukhankin. “Counter-Containment: Russia Deploys S-400 Complexes to Crimea,” Eurasian Defence Monitor 14 no. 2, January 18, 2017, https: counter-containment-russia-deploys-s-400-complexes-crimea/.

[9] Stephen R. Covington. The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare (Boston: President and Fellows of Harvard College, October 2016), http: Thought%203.pdf.

[10] Gerasimov, Op.Cit.

[11] “NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence,” NATO, May 2017, http: static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2017_05/1705-factsheet-efp.pdf.

[12] For a complementary view, see A. Wess Mitchell’s “A Bold New Baltic Strategy for NATO,” The National Interest, January 6, 2016, http: bold-new-baltic-strategy-nato-14818.

[13] “Warsaw Summit Communiqué,” NATO, July 9, 2016, http: natohq/official_texts_133169.htm.

[14] James Sherr. “The Militarization of Russian Policy,” Transatlantic Academy, August 2017, http: pdf.

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