After Russia seized Crimea and supported separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine, U.S. and Western military analysts raised concerns about the potential for Russian aggression in the Baltic states. A 2016 RAND report, for example, demonstrated that in the event of a short-notice Russian invasion, Russian forces could be on the outskirts of the capitals of Estonia and Latvia in sixty hours.
Because it would take three-to-six months to deploy U.S. forces sufficient to retake the Baltic states, and the risk of a nuclear response, the United States would be left with few good options to respond. Given Russian military capabilities in the Baltic region, there was significant concern that Russia’s September 2017 Zapad military exercise could be the precursor to an attack on the Baltic states. Nevertheless, the exercise went ahead, and Russian troops appear to have returned to their bases without incident.
As it currently stands, Russia’s foreign-policy interests do not give it any reason to attack the Baltics, and Russia’s foreign-policy priorities in other regions should be of greater concern to the West. Indeed, the main way that Russia would develop an interest in attacking the Baltics is if it perceives NATO building up sufficient forces to pose a threat. The United States and NATO could pay less attention to the Baltics and instead work to understand what Russia’s real interests are and where these interests threaten Western democracy and security.
Analysts who warned of a potential Russian attack in the Baltics recognized that an invasion was unlikely. Still, they argued that NATO should increase its posture in the region because Russia’s intentions were uncertain, given its interests in the region. Russian actions in Ukraine could be a sign of a broader aggressive or revisionist intent.
Even if Russia did not seek to occupy the Baltic states, Russia could take military actionagainst them with the objective of undermining the NATO alliance.
This reasoning, however, does not accurately describe Russian interests and foreign-policy discourse.
According to Russian analysts, the near abroad includes all of the republics of former Soviet Union except the Baltic states. They see the Baltic states as foreign, and fully incorporated into NATO. With the exception of a few hardline “Eurasianists” such as Aleksandr Dugin, with little direct influence on policymaking, there is little interest in occupying these territories.
Indeed, in reviewing the Russian strategic literature, another recent RAND report found “no serious discussion of the strategic value of retaking part or all of the Baltic States, either for their intrinsic value or as a way of weakening NATO.”
The absence of a Russian interest in attacking the Baltics does not mean that NATO should withdraw its forces from region. Rather, deterrence should be proportionate to Russia’s interests. NATO has currently deployed four Enhanced Forward Presence battalions in Poland and the Baltic states. These forces commit NATO to respond and are thus sufficient to dissuade Russia from taking aggressive action it has no interest in taking, even if they cannot meaningfully slow a large-scale Russian offensive.
An increase in NATO forces in the Baltic region, however, could change Russian interests, especially if Russia perceives the forces in the region to pose a threat to its ruling regime. Following on their study of Western military action in Iraq, Libya and the Balkans, Russian analysts have raised concerns that a nearby Western military presence could be the precursor to a decapitating strike or could facilitate a color revolution in Russia. Based on such concerns, an increased NATO presence in the Baltics could lead Russia to feel a motivation for an invasion, even if, from a Western perspective, forces deployed in the Baltics could not realistically challenge Russia’s military. U.S. and NATO deployments in the region should avoid this risk by taking seriously Russian beliefs about NATO capabilities in planning future deployments, and by pursuing transparency and negotiation in future deployments in the Baltic region.