Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Two Less Obvious Lessons for Baltic Defense from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
Two Less Obvious Lessons for Baltic Defense from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Two Less Obvious Lessons for Baltic Defense from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reaffirmed NATO’s purpose and the importance of collective defense. It has also pushed defense of the Baltic states back into the alliance’s limelight. The key lesson so far has been that more military power on the eastern front is necessary. The Baltic states have been rightly, if perhaps without full desired effect, agitating for more substantial combat forces to be deployed in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Poland is also planning a substantial expansion of its armed forces. Yet generation and addition of more military power is not the only lesson which can be drawn from Russia’s war against Ukraine; this article discusses two other, less obvious lessons.

The first pertains to the mobile network dimension of the battlefield, a dimension which proved to be a substantial surprise in Ukraine’s favor during the present war. Unbeknownst to Western analysts prior to the war, Ukraine had after 2014 prepared its mobile networks in the years leading up to the war. Key preparations included (but were not limited to): 1) being ready and able to allocate addition 3G and 4G frequency bands for mobile communications nationwide; 2) allowing mobile phones to use networks even after running out of credit; and, perhaps most strategically relevant, 3) suspending all inbound roamers from Russia and Belarus.

The effects of these and related preparations can be classified as either humanitarian or strategic. The basic humanitarian effects allowed Ukraine’s citizens to remain in communication even without credit or by relying on Ukrainian national mobile networks other than that to which they were actually subscribed. This contributed to the resilience of the aggregate Ukrainian mobile network infrastructure and has allowed communication to continue in places where it would otherwise have been challenging.

Strategically, decisions such as suspending inbound roamers from Russia and Belarus forced the invaders, in the absence of functioning and well encrypted tactical communications systems, to rely on Ukrainian mobile phones for military communication. With Ukraine able to intercept, eavesdrop on, and trace calls made on its networks, it was able to develop a significant early intelligence advantage which has led to numerous alleged (as not all have been verified) strikes on Russian command posts, resulting in numerous Russian commanders and headquarters staffs being killed or otherwise rendered inoperable. It is clearly in the interests of the Baltic states to prepare its mobile networks to take similar measures in case of a hypothetical Russian invasion as this is likely to similarly degrade Russian military performance.

The second less obvious lesson for Baltic defense relates to the Baltic railway network. Russian military logistics are strongest when supplies can be delivered by rail, and Russia is unique in fielding ten brigades of railway troops for logistical purposes. Some 66,000 flatbed railcars are available to Russia to move its military forces by rail, enough to move the entirety of Russia’s ground forces simultaneously. Russian military performance in Ukraine notably improves when it can logistically sustain its forces by rail as opposed to only by truck, as demonstrated by the comparison between Russian performance in the south and, more recently, the east, as opposed to the early northern operations around Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy.

The Russian rail gauge is 1520mm. So too is Ukraine’s railway gauge, part of the infrastructural legacy of Russian imperialism. Moreover, for the same reason the railway gauge in the Baltic states is also 1520mm. This means that as long as Russia can secure, defend, and maintain Baltic railways in any hypothetical invasion of the Baltic states, it will have a substantially easier time conducting and sustaining offensive operations into the geographical depths of the Baltic states. Given that Russia remains an existential danger to the Baltic states regardless of the condition of its still much greater army, the rail gauge of the Baltic rail network is a national security concern.

NATO’s Baltic defense concept remains focused on reinforcement of, or a combative return to, the theater of operations after an initial Russian invasion. As Baltic leadership is clearly aware of the consequences of any successful Russian invasion, it is in the interest of the Baltic states to slow down any hypothetical Russian invasion as much as possible. An effective, if costly, way to contribute to this mission would be by taking advantage of the current geopolitical moment — the present combination of Russian military focus on Ukraine with Western sanctions on Russia minimizing rail trans-border transit — to invest in changing the Baltic rail network from the 1520mm Russian gauge to the 1435mm standard gauge used in Europe.

This would have at least two benefits. First, it would drastically slow down any Russian invasion as they would have to rely on trucks once across the border — which becomes increasingly difficult as distances increase — and it would have to employ railway troops to adapt the narrower standard gauge back to the old Russian gauge for their use. This alone could plausibly contribute to slowing a Russian invasion timetable by weeks. Second, it would ease NATO logistics into the Baltic states by erasing the gauge conversion problem for European trains moving military forces or sustainment across the border from standard gauge Poland into Lithuania and further. Principal drawbacks would be the undoubted expense of such a conversion, the disruption to rail travel throughout the Baltic states for the duration of the conversion, and the need to install bogie or wheelset exchanges for trains crossing Baltic-Russian borders to maintain the desired amount of cross-border rail travel even after such a regional rail gauge conversion.

Although the West’s initial response to Russia’s newest invasion of Ukraine regarding its own preparedness for European defense has so far mostly focused on the improved generation and altered deployment of military power, other crucial lessons remain. If the Baltic states can prepare their mobile networks and convert their railways to the standard gauge, achieving these measures would already put the Balts in a stronger defensive position even with new but minimal additional Western military power deployed permanently or temporarily to the territories of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.