The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania occupy a special place in Russian foreign-policy thinking and practice. The only post-Soviet states to secure NATO and EU membership, they are regular whipping boys of the Russian Foreign Ministry for alleged discrimination against ethnic Russians and supposed glorification of fascism. In public opinion polls, Russians regularly identify the Baltic States among the countries toward which they feel the deepest antipathy, and among the countries most hostile toward Russia.The Russian perspective begins with the Soviet narrative on the Baltic States. According to that story, the Baltic toiling masses welcomed Soviet basing in 1939 and joined the Soviet Union by acclamation in 1940. The Soviet Union then liberated the Balts from fascist occupation and selflessly paid to reconstruct and industrialize the formerly agrarian republics, thereby earning a colossal debt of gratitude from the local population. Yet after the war Russian settlers in and visitors to the Baltic States encountered instead an inexplicable hostility from the natives, and it was darkly rumored that the Balts had not exactly rushed to defend Soviet power when the Nazis invaded. However, rather than question the Soviet narrative about the incorporation of the Baltic States, most Russians assessed the Balts as surly ingrates haughtily flaunting their “Western-ness.” The prominent role played by Baltic nationalist movements in the dissolution of the Soviet Union further embittered Russians who mourned the demise of the USSR as a political-economic model, a reincarnation of the Russian Empire, or both.Glasnost and the comparative openness of post-1991 Russia have led to surprisingly little reexamination of the Soviet-era Russian narrative on the Baltic States. In this view, Russians remain the victims of unwarranted Baltic hostility whipped by “russophobes” and nurtured by “the West.” Russians generally rationalize the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as giving the Soviet Union two years to prepare for war with Nazi Germany, glossing over the significance of the Pact’s secret protocols and the severe repressions that accompanied the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. Most Russians indignantly reject the idea of compensation for the years of Soviet occupation, insisting that the acceptance (albeit coerced) of the Soviet basing ultimatums in 1939 by the Baltic governments meant that the later, compulsory Soviet incorporation of the Baltic States was “legal.”Unlike in Soviet times, now there is at least a counter-narrative. For example, analysts Boris Kozlovsky and Pavel Lukin in 2012 criticized Russian post-Soviet behavior, “which continuously tries to defend many Soviet foreign-policy moves as if they were Russia’s and which takes criticism of the USSR as attacks against today’s Russia.” Regarding the Baltic States, they wrote that “the senseless denial of the obvious annexation and subsequent repression against hundreds of thousands of innocent people only gives rise to natural apprehensions regarding the true intentions of present-day Russia.” However, such attempts to look at history through Baltic eyes are unfortunately rare. The Russian default option, now as in Soviet times, is to view the Balts as gratuitously hostile and afflicted with “complexes” (as one Russian interlocutor put it to me). A Russian official recently compared the Baltic States to dogs who have been trained by their master (the United States/NATO) to bark at the neighbor (Russia). It apparently never occurred to him that if the neighbor kicks the dogs on a regular basis, they will snarl at him without any outside prompting whatsover.Even as the Russian government rhetorically flays the Baltic States for alleged mistreatment of ethnic Russians, it pays scant attention to the more difficult situation of ethnic Russians elsewhere, particularly in much of Central Asia (lack of basic civil rights and closure of Russian-language schools, press, and broadcasting). There are several reasons why Moscow singles out the Balts for criticism.The Russian authorities manifest an intense neuralgia about “falsification of history,” particularly relating to World War II. The defeat of fascism in the Great Patriotic War stands as one of the few unambiguous sources of Russian pride from the Soviet period. It is a unifying element in Russia itself, and helps maintain a sense of common identity with other parts of the former Soviet Union. However, this narrative rings false in those parts of the post-Soviet space—the Baltic States and Western Ukraine—where the NKVD racked up a larger body count than the Gestapo. The Balts’ own account of repression and resistance strikes at the heart of Russian national pride and Eurasian collective memory. Moscow’s constant criticism of the Balts constitutes something of a Russian counterattack.The Balts have set a horrible example for the other Soviet successor states. They have eschewed Russian-oriented organizations like the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in favor of NATO and the EU. Moscow cannot credibly present post-Soviet reintegration as inevitable with the Baltic States cheerfully integrated instead into Euro-Atlantic institutions.Russia’s antagonism comes at virtually no cost. Criticizing the Central Asians for mistreatment of ethnic Russians could alienate those countries from Moscow’s Eurasian project or disrupt important bilateral relationships. The Balts, however, are small, inconsequential, and have virtually no leverage over Russia. Moreover, Russia has very little to gain from taking a conciliatory approach: A Russian admission of Soviet-era culpability would hardly cause the Balts to rethink their strategic course or to sign up for Putin’s Eurasian Union.It is clear that not all Russians are satisfied with, or reconciled to, the post-Soviet status of the Baltic States. In a March 2012 analysis that resonated widely, Mikhail Aleksandrov of Russia’s CIS Institute posed the question thus: “[S]hould one view the Baltic states as a fragment that has been severed and has passed forever into a different sphere of influence? Or should one treat the region as a portion of the post-Soviet space that has been temporarily lost, the return of which is, in the natural order of things, both desirable and necessary?” Aleksandrov was prepared to think in the long term. Remarking that no alliances last forever, he saw in the global economic crisis a harbinger of Euro-Atlantic collapse. With that cheerful prospect in mind, he proposed to focus on Latvia as, in his words, “the weak link in the chain of imperialism”:
The combination of street protests, acts of civil disobedience, demands of autonomy for Latgale [Note: a region in southeastern Latvia with a large Russia-speaking population] and diplomatic pressure from Moscow might force the Latvian authorities to undertake serious negotiations with the Russian community about reform of the political system. If that does not happen, the situation in Latvia will continue to develop along the path of escalating inter-ethnic conflict, up to and including the outbreak of violence. In this case Russia must be prepared to intervene in the situation along the lines of the conflict in South Ossetia in 2008.
If Aleksandrov’s recommendation sounds eerily reminiscent of the way events unfolded in spring 2014 in the Donbas (short of an open Russian invasion), the resemblance is, as the Russians like to say, “not a coincidence.” Moreover, a widely discussed April 2016 RAND Corporation study concluded, on the basis of a series of war games, that “NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,” and that a plausible concentration of Russian forces could overrun Estonia and Latvia in a matter of days. The study recommended deployment of about seven NATO brigades with armor and other assets to the Baltic States to slow down any Russian invasion long enough for reinforcements to arrive. So, following a lengthy and massive military buildup, several large mobilization exercises, and military interventions in Ukraine and Syria, is Russia now capable of launching an even bolder strike where NATO is most vulnerable, perhaps creating a fait accompli that would expose the Alliance’s underlying weakness and divisions? A great power like Russia has had to endure the puny, insufferable Balts for over 25 years. Is it finally payback time?Actually, probably not.First, the invasion scenario presupposes that Russia has accomplished its military missions elsewhere and is free to focus its attention and available forces on the Baltic States. This is not likely to be the case anytime soon. Russia is still bogged down in Ukraine, where its military intervention largely failed to detach the Russian-speaking regions (the Novorossiya project), and has been completely counterproductive in reversing Ukraine’s European trajectory. Similarly, the Russian military mission in Syria has secured Assad some breathing space, but the civil war is hardly over. Assad has gained the upper hand at several points before, only to see the rebellion surge anew and threaten to topple him, or at least isolate him in the coastal Alawite heartland. If Russia remains determined to save the Syrian regime (with or without Assad), Moscow will not only have to maintain a military presence in Syria but be prepared to ramp it up at short notice if the regime should falter once again. Of course, Moscow could decide on a full-fledged invasion of the Baltic States while its forces remain tied down in inconclusive conflicts elsewhere, but such a move would seriously complicate the logistics and multiply the risks of all three operations.Second, and more important, a narrow focus on the genuine military vulnerability of the Baltic States could not only drive some ill-advised Western policy choices, but also obscure the glaring Russian vulnerabilities that strongly militate against any hasty Russian challenge to NATO. The aforementioned RAND study was thoroughly critiqued in a May 12 essay by Michael Kofman in War on the Rocks. Kofman argued, inter alia, that Russia’s geographic advantages mean that Moscow could always up the ante in any show of strength with NATO in the Baltic region. A concentration of NATO forces in the Baltic States would thus not save Estonia and Latvia in the event of a Russian invasion, but instead expose those units to potential annihilation or a Dunkirk-like evacuation. In a June 14 rebuttal, the RAND authors challenged a number of Kofman’s arguments and assumptions and reiterated the deterrent value of deploying further NATO forces to the Baltic States. The debate has been a healthy and salutary one, and it merits careful consideration.As the authors of the RAND study underscored, they had merely demonstrated that a quick Russian military victory in the Baltic States was possible; they didn’t argue that such an invasion was probable—a distinction lost in some of the more hyperventilating commentary on the April piece. However, in my view, the RAND study suffered from an unimaginative assessment of NATO’s options in the event Russia should launch a blitzkrieg against the Balts. Those options—all bad—were limited to: 1) a bloody, costly NATO counteroffensive to liberate the Baltic States; 2) the threat of a nuclear strike if Moscow refused to return to the status quo ante; and 3) medium-term acquiescence, possibly in the context of a new Cold War.I find compelling Kofman’s argument that no politically acceptable level of NATO deployments to the Baltic States could erase Russia’s military advantage in the region. However, NATO has better options than embarking on a costly, destructive liberation campaign or just biting the bullet, in the event Russia abruptly seizes all or most of the Baltic States. If Russia can strike where it enjoys an overwhelming advantage, why can’t NATO also strike back precisely where Russia itself is most vulnerable?Happily, some of the most debilitating retaliatory blows would not even be military in nature. NATO and like-minded countries could start by seizing Russian assets—bank accounts, real estate, and movable assets such as ships and aircraft. Sure, Russia would follow suit, but Russia has far greater assets in the West than vice versa; Russia has underperformed as an investment destination, and Western oligarchs have not exactly picked Russia as their safe haven of choice for ill-gotten wealth. Another step would be to precipitate a Russian financial crisis by shutting down all lending to Russia by Western banks and expelling Russia from SWIFT. The coup de grace would be a concerted Western effort to slash purchases of Russian natural gas. When a Soviet gas pipeline to Europe was first mooted in the 1970s, critics cautioned that it would create a dependent relationship and give Moscow worrisome leverage over the West. The critics were right about the dependence, but completely wrong about the leverage. The Europeans have been happy to buy lots of gas from Russia, but they do have other sources; it is actually Russia that relies critically on Europe for non-subsidized sales of gas and the vital revenues they generate. The existing pipeline network ensures that any reorientation of Russian gas sales (for example, to China) would be a lengthy and expensive process. In the medium term, any gas that Europe declines to buy is essentially gas that Russia cannot sell—and revenue that the Kremlin cannot recoup.To the extent that NATO military retaliation also proves to be unavoidable, the Alliance might logically seek exposed targets rather than risk a head-on assault on well-defended Russian positions in the occupied Baltic States. If I were a Russian military planner preparing to concentrate resources on an invasion of the Baltic States, I would be concerned about a number of vulnerabilities:The Russian military mission in Syria would be cut off, and resupply/rotation of forces by sea would be impossible. Even if Russian ships were allowed through the Turkish Straits, they would be easy pickings for NATO forces in the eastern Mediterranean.The RAND study’s war games envisioned an invasion of Estonia and Latvia only. However, such a campaign would leave Kaliningrad cut off, isolated, and subject to NATO attacks. Moscow would thus have to be prepared either to sacrifice Kaliningrad or devote additional forces to a push through the Suwalki Gap and the occupation of Lithuania. This wider campaign would depend on full cooperation from Belarus, which might very well balk at being dragged into a war with NATO.Russian forces (as well as the civilian population) in South Ossetia depend completely for supplies on the Roki Tunnel. A missile or air strike against the tunnel or bridges on the road that winds its way through the Caucasus Mountains from Russia would cut South Ossetia off. Similarly, the Russian contingent in Abkhazia relies on a single road and railroad that hug the Black Sea coast and would also be vulnerable to disruption by NATO air or sea bombardment.If the Russians ever complete their multi-billion-dollar Kerch-Crimea bridge, it would be a sitting duck. Disruption of ferry traffic due to hostilities in the Black Sea region would leave the Crimea as yet another Russian-controlled region cut off from both military and civilian resupply. Sure, the Russians could try to punch a land corridor to the Crimea through southern Ukraine, but doing so would entail another major military operation on top of the Baltic campaign.The above list is illustrative rather than exhaustive, and should be sufficient to demonstrate, among other things, that a Russian invasion of the Baltic States would turn Ukraine and Georgia into de facto NATO allies, demolishing the current rationale for keeping them off the NATO membership track and giving NATO a vested interest in expelling Russian forces from those two countries. This consideration would also have to factor into any Russian calculations that a Baltic war would be short, victorious, and confined to the region.Declining to match the Russians “stick for stick” (in Kofman’s memorable phrase) in the Baltic States would, of course, entail a Russian occupation of some duration. However, it is not clear to me that such a fate would be worse for the Balts than turning their little republics into the chief—or even exclusive—battleground in a NATO-Russia war, as the RAND study appears to envision. Moreover, NATO could take modest measures to make the Baltic States a tougher nut to crack—chiefly repurposing the Balts’ own militaries from expeditionary deployment to territorial defense. The goal of these forces—and any other NATO troops deployed to the Baltic States—might logically be to harass an invader using small, mobile units rather than trying to mount a futile, dug-in defense against overwhelming odds on the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga.In a perfect Russian World, Aleksandrov’s revanchist dream would be realized: The Baltic States would be re-subjugated under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians and preempting NATO aggression. Russification would resume, and the Baltic peoples’ own historical narrative would be suppressed.However, any Russian move against the Baltic States would not occur in a vacuum. The best deterrence might therefore be neither military nor confined to the Baltic region. The most cost-effective and politically acceptable way to discourage a Russian invasion might not be to deploy NATO battalions to the Baltic States but to make clear the West’s determination, in the event of war, to use its economic leverage over Russia to devastating effect and to expand its military response beyond the Baltic theater, exploiting the full range of Russian vulnerabilities.