On July 7-9 2016, heads of NATO member states met in Warsaw for their first summit since Wales in September 2014. The Wales summit saw NATO take steps to strengthen the alliance, particularly against the danger posed by Russia. The Warsaw summit continued this approach, as NATO’s constituent members agreed to provide and deploy four multinational battalions, one each to the three Baltic states and to Poland. The United States is taking the lead in the battalion to be deployed in Poland, Germany in Lithuania, Canada in Latvia, and the United Kingdom in Estonia.
Despite the avowedly defensive character of the deployments, Russia has reacted (and, from a Western perspective, overreacted) in a predictably negative manner. Yet no matter how much Russia denigrates the deployments, the battalions to be deployed are too insignificant in and of themselves to change the balance in the Baltic in case of war. The battalions are not intended to be militarily effective in war, and this is reflected in NATO’s rhetoric. NATO and member state spokespeople reiterate one key theme: deterrence of Russia, through the battalions’ role as a tripwire force whose purpose is immediately to engage the rest of NATO in the case of a Russian invasion of the Baltic states.
How effective can the deployments be in terms of deterrence? Due to the nature of deterrence, this question is fundamentally unanswerable. Deterrence is not mechanical or calculable but relates to the adversary’s perceptions and state of mind as linked to his behavior and decision-making. These are all variables which we cannot know with confidence, however informed our empathy and analysis may be. The idea of deterrence is that the opponent must decide not to act. Barring extraordinarily explicit archives, speeches, or other official sources, we cannot truly know when deterrence works and we do not even necessarily know when it fails.
To understand the meaning of NATO’s planned deployments in the Baltic states through the lens of deterrence, we must empathize, but not sympathize, with Russia as much as possible. Russians constantly and persistently evince the notion that NATO and the West are a threat to their security. This is not just the Russian government telling this to the West (although it does this), or the Russian government pushing this narrative to its own public (although it does this too). Even within Russian government and military circles, officials share this narrative, even when no outside audience is listening. Russian political and military leadership has identified so-called hybrid warfare as the greatest threat, which emerged in Russian strategic thought not as a blueprint for covert warfare against neighbors such as Ukraine but as an analysis of what it considered Western—especially American—covert action against Russia and its sphere of influence, achieved primarily through coup and color revolution.
At the core of contemporary Russian strategic culture is the overriding concept of a threat from the West, a facet which has persisted for decades. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, exemplified this in an article for the Russia in Global Affairs magazine, in which he interpreted the past several hundred years of European history as a succession of attempts to exclude Russia from European affairs and even to return it to the inchoate existence it led before the rise of Peter the Great. This concern of Western aggression in Russian strategic culture is also illustrated by an historical footnote; during the interwar period the Soviets feared an invasion by Germany which would come by sea through the Baltic states, leaving Poland as a neutral buffer between Germany and the Soviet Union. Soviet military and naval planners were seriously concerned about this possibility even though at the time Germany could not have sustained much more than ten or so divisions by sea. Contemporary Russian strategic concerns about NATO deployments seem almost an echo of that older Soviet fear.
From the Russian perspective, NATO’s deployments may be (and certainly are depicted as) a groundless and purposeless provocation rather than a move intended to achieve deterrence. Russia has publicly stated that it will respond in kind by strengthening its Western Military District. However, it is important to examine causality carefully, for not all Russian moves to strengthen the Western Military District are responses to NATO. Russia has done an excellent job at rebranding decisions which predate NATO plans as responses to those same plans, because many in the West will never hear about Russia’s decisions until they invoke the excuse of NATO. Russia’s move to form three new divisions (of which two are in the Western Military District, the third in the Southern) is a case in point. The decision was made not in spring 2016 when Russia Today and Sputnik News broke the story and when Western media picked it up, but rather in late 2015, long before NATO planned to deploy battalions to the Baltic states (although NATO was at that point already considering—with skepticism—such deployments). Similarly, Russia’s reformation of the old Soviet elite 1st Guards Tank Army, begun in November 2014 and completed by early February 2016, has passed all but unnoticed in Western media, even though it is the recreation of a powerful offensive force in the Baltic region which is presumably unnecessary at the moment, and was certainly unnecessary in late 2014. Some Western observers have sought to decipher a way by which the Baltic states could be reinforced without triggering a security dilemma with Russia, wherein both sides endlessly bolster their forces in the region even as their own respective feelings of security diminish. It is too late for that and has long been too late for that. Russia has been consistently escalating its presence in the region, even while NATO has not.
As long as Russia only reinforces its military but does not actually act across international borders, the situation will remain reasonably stable, albeit still causing ceaseless worries among NATO’s eastern members (including the Baltic states). Capabilities change only slowly—as the United States is now discovering as it strengthens its forces in Europe and as NATO reinforces the Baltic states—but intentions may turn upon a dime. In extremis Russia may decide in principle that it could conduct what it would consider a preemptive attack against the Baltic states as the only sound policy option left to forestall NATO aggression, and thereby trigger a war which no policy-maker, to our knowledge, actually wants.
Assuming that Russia truly has any interest in attacking, it is ultimately impossible to know whether the deployments will deter Russia. The deployments may instead cause Russia to respond with further reinforcement in an attempt, from its perspective, to deter NATO provocations and aggression, or even to preempt, again from a Russian perspective, a potential NATO attack. In open source media and discussion, the West lacks the means to reliably identify Russia’s true intentions. This is an unsatisfying answer concerning deterrence, but it is the only honest one as we cannot peer into the future. Uncertainty about the future and about Russia reigns and cannot be dethroned. The only prudent course is to anticipate possibilities and plan for a broader range of contingencies rather than to grasp at deterrence with false certainty and focus only upon a single vision of the future.
The preferred result is deterrence of Russia or non-invasion of the Baltic states. However, as the American strategist Bernard Brodie once wrote, “[s]o long as there is a finite chance of war, we have to be interested in outcomes; and although practically all outcomes would be bad, some would be much worse than others.” Hoping we can get away with mechanical, minimalistic interpretations of deterrence in practice, is insufficient; a robust debate is needed not only about deterrence, but also about what to do if it fails.