Baltic states would fall to a Russian invasion in 60 hours, report warns

A Finnish soldier participates in NATO exercises in Poland in June of 2015. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI

NATO should permanently station heavily equipped forces in the Baltic states to slow, and increase the cost, of a Russian invasion, research sponsored by the U.S. Army argues.

In a series of tabletop exercises run by the RAND Corporation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian forces and lightly equipped NATO troops rushed to help, but were crushed by the overwhelming force of a Russian invasion.

In the simulation, Russian forces were in a position to conquer the capitals of the three Baltic states within 60 hours.

The analysis comes as NATO defence ministers prepare to meet this week in Brussels. On the agenda are plans to increase NATO’s military commitment to its nervous Eastern European members. Russia’s envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko, warned Tuesday that the buildup “can’t be left without a military-technical answer,” the Associated Press reported. He added that “Russia won’t compromise its security interests.”

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Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO in 2004. Under the North Atlantic Treaty, member countries, including Canada, are committed to go to war to defend them, if necessary.

However, the Baltic states’ position, on the eastern edge of the Baltic Sea, and on Russia’s western frontier, makes that challenging. Russia controls Kaliningrad, a province disconnected from the rest of Russia lying between Poland and Lithuania. The area is home to a vast Russian military base.

“The outcome was, bluntly, a disaster for NATO,” RAND analysts David Shlapak and Michael Johnson wrote of its simulations.

NATO defenders were grossly outnumbered, and lacked time to bring heavy equipment, such as tanks, from bases in Western Europe. In one simulation, an attempt at a counterattack was quickly crushed due to Russian air superiority.

“There’s not enough force and not enough time,” Shlapak explained to Global News. “The Russians are able to rapidly overrun the available forces, and the story is told pretty quickly.”

“What you have is a lot of armour coming across the border from east to west, and mainly a lot of infantry on the NATO side defending. That turns into a very one-sided contest.”

When push comes to shove, NATO’s nuclear powers aren’t likely to seriously threaten the use of nuclear weapons, the analysts argue. On the other hand, failure to defend its Baltic allies would likely mean a collapse of credibility that would mean the end of NATO itself:

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“Russia has the potential to achieve a rapid overrun of one or more of the Baltic states, creating a situation that would present NATO and the United States with nothing but bad options,” the report explains.

READ MORE: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the West: The next Cold War?

On the other hand, a larger and more heavily equipped NATO garrison of six or seven brigades, mixing infantry with armoured forces, could put up enough of a fight to deny Russia a quick and easy victory, the analysts argue. While infantry could be quickly deployed from the U.S. or Western Europe in a crisis, cumbersome armoured forces would need to be stationed permanently in the Baltics:

“What cannot get there in time are the kinds of armored forces required to engage their Russian counterparts on equal terms, delay their advance, expose them to more-frequent and more-effective attacks … and subject them to spoiling counterattacks. Coming from the United States, such units would take, at best, several weeks to arrive.”

That larger force, with its tanks and heavy weapons, could not hold out indefinitely, the report points out:

“It is intended to keep NATO from losing the war early, enabling but not itself achieving the Alliance’s ultimate objectives of restoring the territorial integrity and political independence of its members. But it should eliminate the possibility of a quick Russian coup de main against the Baltic states, enhancing deterrence of overt, opportunistic aggression.”

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“We were asking: from Moscow’s point of view, what would turn this from a potentially quick win, an easy victory, a strategic triumph over NATO at low cost with high confidence of success, into something that looked much more like a potentially protracted costly war with an uncertain outcome, that the Russians would have serious doubts that they would eventually win?,” Shlapak said.

“We played this game many times … In the process, we sort of converged on an answer which suggests that if you take the forces that we believe NATO could get to the region in a week to ten days of warning, which amounted to about four light brigades, on top of the forces that the three Baltic republics themselves deploy, and then add to that three heavy brigades to be there on the ground at H-Hour, when the fight began, you change the nature of the war.”

Until the end of the Cold War, several Western countries, including Canada, kept large military garrisons in what was then West Germany. Little remains of that once-mighty force: Britain plans a complete withdrawal from Germany in 2020, Canadian troops left in the early 1990s, and American forces are far smaller than they once were – in 2013, the last U.S. tanks positioned in Germany were shipped home.

“We have seen now in the last couple of years Russia taking steps that suggest that the circumstances that prevailed when those decisions were made may be changing, or at least there’s sufficient uncertainty about them that at least waiting to see what happens next might be prudent,” Shlapak argues.

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“While some ongoing actions may be too far advanced to stop,” the report warns, “the United Kingdom and the United States should evaluate whether additional withdrawals of forces from Germany are wise, given the changed circumstances.”

Russian incursions in Ukraine and the Crimea, and ‘snap exercises’ involving large-scale Russian forces that neighbouring countries have no warning of, have caused alarm in western Europe and Scandinavia.

  • The foreign minister of Sweden’s centre-left government recently expressed support for bringing back conscription, which was abolished in 2010 under a centre-right government. A majority of Swedes favour the return of conscription, Reuters reports.
  • Finland, which never got rid of conscription, has been dusting off plans for a wartime mobilization. Last summer Finland’s government gave 900,000 reservists instructions for their wartime roles, a move widely seen as a response to a newly assertive Russia. The project was announced with national TV commercials.
  • Earlier this month, Finland’s defence minister announced plans to organize a national mobilization in a crisis far faster than the three months currently allowed for. “In light of today’s threats this time seems very long,” Jane’s Defence Weekly quoted Jussi Niinistö as saying. “Current regulations were laid down when threats developed slowly and defence forces had months to prepare.”