Sweden’s Foreign Policy: Nonaligned, But Not Entirely Neutral

In late 2014, Swedish authorities spotted what many suspected was a Russian submarine lurking off Stockholm. The incident set off alarm bells among Swedes. It reminded them of a similar incident in 1981, when a nuclear-armed Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground a few kilometers outside Sweden’s main naval base.[1] Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea, and intervention in eastern Ukraine, the recent submarine scare served to underline the threat that a resurgent Russia could pose to Sweden.

No wonder that, despite Sweden’s long tradition of neutrality and an “alliance-free” foreign policy, Swedish leaders of almost all political stripes began to consider closer ties with NATO. That of course irked Russia. Victor Tatarintsev, the Russian ambassador to Sweden, responded with what seemed like a backhanded reassurance that Russia had “no plans to invade Sweden.” In May 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin put it more bluntly. He warned that if Sweden joined NATO, Russia would take military measures “to eliminate [the new threat].” While Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström clearly stated that her government would not seek NATO membership, Sweden has moved closer to the Alliance. NATO naturally welcomed the shift, given Sweden’s strategic importance to NATO’s defense of its Baltic member countries.

Sweden’s National Interest in the Baltic Sea

Observers have long described Sweden’s security policy as “non-participation in military alliances during peacetime and neutrality during wartime.”[2] But that does not mean that Sweden takes its security environment lightly, especially when it comes to the Baltic Sea. For centuries, its waters have been a thoroughfare for not only trade, but also power projection. Should unfriendly forces control it, they could easily threaten Sweden and even reduce its access to the wider world. Hence, Sweden has had an enduring national interest in the security of the Baltic Sea and the coast beyond.

Armed Neutrality

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union controlled the Baltic coast. Because of that, Sweden kept up its guard. It maintained a sizable standing military and nurtured a world-class defense industry. That attention to military preparedness has had a long history in Sweden where a popular nineteenth-century slogan proclaimed: “one man, one gun, one vote.”

After the Cold War, Sweden cut its defense expenditures. But the advent of an aggressive Russia across the Baltic Sea has led Sweden to rethink its military posture. In September 2017, it raised its defense budget by five percent over its already planned increase. It also recently reinstituted conscription to bring its military back to full strength. Starting in 2018, it will conscript 4,000 18-year-olds. That number will rise to 8,000 per year by 2022. Sweden still has more to do. Apart from the 60 JAS 39E fighters and two A26 diesel-electric attack submarines already on order, Sweden will need more and newer armaments for its soon-to-be larger armed forces.

Even so, Sweden has begun to strengthen its defenses on Gotland, a strategic island in the Baltic Sea. Contrary to reports in 2016 that reestablishing a permanent military presence on Gotland was unexpected, Sweden’s Defence Policy white paper—which all of Sweden’s major political parties agreed to in 2015—outlined Gotland’s rearmament as part of a broader set of security precautions that Sweden would take through 2020.[3]

New Normal for Swedish Neutrality

While it is perfectly understandable why neutral Sweden has felt the need to be better armed, what is unusual is how enthusiastically it has embraced multilateral defense cooperation. Roughly a decade ago, Sweden joined the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy and led the effort to create the EU’s 2,400-man Nordic battlegroup. Soon after, it helped to establish the Nordic Defence Cooperation, which brought together five Nordic countries, including two NATO members.

Recently, Sweden has stepped up its collaboration with NATO. It signed a host-nation agreement that allows NATO forces to train in Sweden and boosted its participation in NATO military exercises, like Baltic Operations (Baltops) and Steadfast Jazz. Sweden has gone so far as to commit a fighter squadron to fight alongside NATO’s rapid-reaction force.

Sweden is also shedding its long-time aversion to a bilateral military relationship with the United States. The number of meetings between Swedish defense ministers and U.S. secretaries of defense has noticeably risen, from an average of once every two years over the last decade to twice a year in 2016 and 2017. During Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist’s visit to the Pentagon in May 2017, he announced not only Swedish participation in NATO’s Baltops 2017 exercise in June, but also the involvement of about 1,000 U.S. troops in Sweden’s largest military exercise in 23 years. Over 20,000 troops from nine countries (seven of them NATO members) took part in the exercise, called Aurora 2017, which spanned three weeks in September and focused on the defense of Gotland.

Seeking Partnerships, Not Alliances

Swedes—ever conscious of their cherished neutrality—have long opposed their country joining multilateral defense organizations, like NATO. But fewer of them do so than before. A national poll found that a slim plurality of Swedes favored membership in NATO for the first time in 2014.[4] While opinions of the public slipped back the other way two years later, those of Swedish leaders did not. Most now believe that Sweden needs to form stronger partnerships, though not alliances, with NATO and the United States. From their perspective, the real question is how Sweden can translate those partnerships into greater security without formal defense treaties.

Such partnerships bring Sweden close to breaching its traditional neutrality and “alliance-free” foreign policy. Someday, it may be forced to choose one approach over the other. In the meantime, Swedish leaders will continue to wrestle with what it means for Sweden to be a partner, but not an alliance member—to be nonaligned, but not entirely neutral either.


[1] Milton Leitenberg, “The case of the stranded sub,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Mar. 1982, pp. 10-13.

[2] “Sweden: Scene-Setter for Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s May 15 Visit to Washington,” May 4, 2007, WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks cable: 07STOCKHOLM506_a.

[3] Government Offices of Sweden, Sweden’s Defence Policy, 2016-2020, Jun. 1, 2015.

[4] Pütsep Mona and Ryen Linda, Opinioner 2016: Allmänhetens syn på samhällsskydd, beredskap, säkerhetspolitik och försvar (Karlstad, Sweden: Civil Protection and Emergency Agency, Jan. 2017), p. 75.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Sweden’s Importance to NATO’s Defense of the Baltics

Sweden is not a member of NATO. But Sweden is very important to the defense of NATO’s Baltic member countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. That importance mainly stems not from what Sweden could add to NATO’s collective military strength, but from how its strategic position could help NATO overcome the operational challenges it would face if it needed to respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltics.

Strategic Position in the Baltic Sea

Spanning the length of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Sweden’s geography dominates much of the Baltic Sea, a fact that NATO has long appreciated. Early on in the Cold War, NATO recognized that Sweden could serve as a valuable location for early warning facilities to monitor the Soviet Union in peacetime and for combat aircraft to interdict Soviet lines of communications across Germany and Poland in wartime.

Sweden took on a new relevance for NATO after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004. With tiny military forces of their own and large Russian military forces on their borders, the three Baltic countries are highly vulnerable. Russia could easily sever their air and land connections to the rest of NATO and capture all three countries—a prospect that could jeopardize the very existence of NATO. Thus, NATO holds annual exercises called Baltic Operations (Baltops), in part, to practice reinforcing the Baltics by sea. But, in a conflict, Russian strike aircraft and coastal defense missile batteries based near Kaliningrad could interdict such seaborne reinforcements before they ever reached the Baltics. (See Map.)

Sitting astride of NATO’s most likely reinforcement route, Sweden could mitigate many of Russia’s military advantages. That is what makes Sweden so important to NATO. Were Sweden to allow NATO reinforcements to sail through its territorial waters, NATO could halve the distance over which its reinforcements would be exposed to Russian air and missile attacks between Denmark and Estonia. Theoretically, Stockholm could even allow NATO to safely transport its troops and supplies over land to Sweden’s east-coast ports before they embarked for an amphibious assault across the Baltic Sea.

Got Land?

Sweden also controls Gotland, an island situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is strategic because it is an ideal location from which to defend forces moving through the Baltic Sea or to project power into the Baltics. Though primarily seen today as a holiday destination, it has been prized for its strategic location for centuries. During the Cold War, Sweden stationed a reinforced armored brigade, fast attack craft, and a fighter squadron on Gotland to defend it. While all of those forces have since been deactivated or dispersed, Russia’s recent aggressive behavior prompted Sweden to reestablish a permanent military garrison on Gotland in 2016.

NATO also sees the value of Gotland. At a minimum, the island could complicate Russian anti-ship cruise missile strikes on NATO reinforcements sailing to the Baltics. But if Swedish cooperation with NATO were to increase, NATO air forces could use Gotland’s airfields to fend off Russian air and missile attacks as well as provide air support for NATO military operations in the Baltics. Gotland’s main port of Visby could even serve as a logistical hub for NATO forces fighting in the region.

On the other hand, Sweden could also help NATO by simply defending its territory from Russian incursions during a conflict between NATO and Russia. Doing so would constrain Russian freedom of action in the Baltic Sea. If nothing else, denying Russia use of Gotland would prevent it from not only making any seaborne reinforcement of the Baltics extremely difficult and thus narrowing NATO’s operational options, but also threatening the Baltic coasts of Germany and Poland behind NATO’s frontline.

Sweden in NATO?

Though not a member of NATO, Sweden is important to NATO’s defense of the Baltics.

Swedish cooperation with the Alliance would make protecting the Baltics easier and thereby strengthen NATO’s security guarantee to its member countries. That, in turn, would improve NATO’s ability to deter Russian aggression in the region.

Meanwhile, some have begun to speculate whether Sweden would shed its longtime “alliance-free” foreign policy and join NATO. But Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem has dismissed such speculation. She cautioned that NATO membership “would expose Sweden to risks, both political and otherwise” which her government was not willing to bear.[1]

Still, over the last decade, Sweden has taken a more active role in Nordic and European Union defense arrangements, many of whose members are also NATO members. Moreover, Sweden has stepped up its direct military contacts with NATO and the United States. While NATO membership may be off the table for Sweden, it would appear that Sweden has come to believe that NATO’s interest in deterring Russian aggression is very much in its own national interest, too.


[1] Damien Sharkov, “Putin Vows Military Response to ‘Eliminate NATO Threat’ If Sweden Joins U.S.-Led Alliance,” Newsweek, June 2, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-vows-eliminate-nato-threat-sweden-joins-619486.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

U.S. LNG In Central and Eastern Europe – Taking Diversification Seriously

Last week President Trump met in Warsaw with Polish officials and Central and Eastern European (CEE) leaders at the Three Seas Initiative Summit. The event brought together countries from the Adriatic, Black and Baltic seas to discuss development of regional infrastructure necessary to reduce their energy dependence on Russia and ensure energy security. This happened shortly after the first cargo of U.S. LNG, carried by the 162,000 cbm-capacity “Clean Ocean, entered the Polish port of Swinoujscie. Both the U.S. and Polish governments lauded the cargo and, following the meeting with Donald Trump in Warsaw, Polish President, Andrzej Duda declared a possibility of signing a long-term agreement (LTA) for the supply of U.S. LNG into Poland.

Much of Duda’s statement is political rhetoric given that LTAs are not signed between governments. Instead these contracts are commercial decisions made by individual companies. But the strong rhetoric coming from both governments in support for U.S. LNG exports to CEE is an indicator that beyond economic aspect, this trade has strong geopolitical dimension.

Given competitiveness of Russian gas and willingness of Gazprom to defend its market, it is highly unlikely that U.S. LNG imports would grant CEE (or Europe as a whole) full and unconditional natural gas independence from Russia. However, standing ability to deliver U.S. (or other non-Russian) gas to Europe provides “credible threat” and changes the bargaining positions of all parties involved. In such scenario Russia stands to lose not as much market share as geopolitical influence that it has derived from CEE’s dependence on its gas. And while LNG exports will not give the U.S. more geopolitical power in Europe per se (given the increasingly competitive global LNG market), Russia’s loss in this regard is a strategic gain for the U.S.

But can the U.S. and CEE governments truly affect the outcome of essentially commercial transactions? Can they effectively facilitate the ‘credible threat’ of U.S. LNG exports? And if so, how?

This ability depends on several factors. These include the usual: pricing and, given competitiveness of Russian gas, the willingness of the CEE governments to support a security premium on natural gas from a non-Russian supplier. Also, policy makers should pay close attention to current policy decisions within the EU that relate to infrastructure and antitrust law, as these decisions may not only impact profitability but also feasibility of LNG imports well into the future.

Forces that Influence Europe’s Natural Gas Market

The European market, while not expected to be as robust as Asia over the coming years, will remain an important source of demand for natural gas suppliers. As reported by Eurogas, going forward Europe will need to import much more natural gas than suggested by demand growth alone (Figure 1). In addition, the region is attractive given dependability of the market and reliability of European governments and customers.

Figure 1. EU Natural Gas Demand through 2030.
Source: Eurogas, “Natural Gas Demand and Supply: Long term Outlook to 2030.”

Much of the future makeup of European natural gas supply might be determined not only by market forces but also by geopolitical considerations and European Union legal and antitrust decisions.

The two main decisions currently on the agenda that will have broad and direct consequences for LNG trade in Europe are: 1) permitting of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to carry Russian gas under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, and 2) antitrust decisions by the European Commission related to Gazprom abusing its monopoly position in the CEE.

European Diversification and What It Means to Different Parties

Natural gas market diversification has become a hot topic in Europe following several breaks in Russian gas deliveries between 2005 and 2009. The 2014 crisis in Ukraine and complete shut off of natural gas supply flowing from Russia added urgency to the matter. In principle, all EU members agree that diversification is needed. But there is a visible rift between how diversification efforts are envisaged by the West versus the CEE countries.

Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics in particular are pushing for diversification away from Russia. Their efforts include a buildup of LNG infrastructure, with the already functioning LNG terminal in Lithuania and the aforementioned LNG terminal in Swinoujscie. Plans are drawn already to expand the existing terminals, and new LNG terminals are planned in Estonia. Small-scale LNG projects are also in the works in the Baltics. In addition, the region is considering facilities for regasification, storage, rebunkering, and reloading, as well as investment in rail transport to support future LNG imports.

It goes without saying that such imports will never be realized unless the price of LNG is competitive. But it is worth noting that although the price of LNG brought to Swinoujscie by U.S.-based Cheniere Energy has not been disclosed, it was lower than Russian and German EEX natural gas prices, according to the Polish trader, PGNIG.

In addition, many CEE countries may be willing to pay a certain security premium for LNG to sustain diversification efforts away from Russian natural gas. Regardless their willingness to pay such a premium rate, these countries also actively seek non-LNG market opportunities to diversify supply, including onshore projects like the Baltic pipe. This means that the ability to pay excessive prices by those countries may be moderated in the future, as the CEE gas market becomes more competitive.

The strong push toward diversification within CEE is related to two main factors. First, dependency rates on Russian natural gas have been historically very high, with some CEE countries previously entirely dependent on Russian imports (Figure 2 below). This led to uncertainty in terms of reliable gas supplies and higher prices. If non-Russian supplies of natural gas are readily available, Gazprom loses ability to charge monopoly prices. Second, there is a strong sentiment that Russia is ready and willing to use energy dependence to achieve political goals regarding its relations with CEE countries. Much of this feeling is informed by the Soviet past, but some of the uneasiness stems from more current events, including Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and annexation of Crimea. Particularly, Poland and the Baltics see LNG imports as a way to dilute the Putin Regime’s economic influence over their countries and to parry Russian attempts at undermining the democratic process and social unity.

Figure 2. Europe’s Dependency on Russian Gas, 2014.
Data Source: Eurogas, Statistical Report 2015.

 

On the other hand, Western European countries are generally content with diversifying natural gas supply routes away from Ukraine that they see as a high-risk transit territory. They are less interested in diversifying supplies away from Russia and are focused rather on lowering cost than on geopolitical implications of dependence on Russian natural gas. This is related to lower dependency rates in that region (Figure 2) and to long-standing collaboration between Western Europe’s utilities and Gazprom that is seen as reliable partner and supplier. There is much less concern about possible monopolization of the European gas market by Russia and its geopolitical implications.

Nord Stream 2, EU Antitrust Decisions & “Credible Threat” of U.S. LNG Imports

Whether CEE countries will be able to achieve their goal of natural gas market diversification and whether U.S. and other LNG producers will have access to the European market will depend as much on price as on other factors. When it comes to price Russia has significant and undisputed advantage. But EU’s policy framework, infrastructure buildup and willingness of countries to support non-Russian supplies will define boundaries within which market forces operate. As such, these factors will determine whether Russian gas dominance in Europe (particularly in CEE) will be strictly commercial or whether it will continue to yield geopolitical power. Construction of Nord Stream 2 and EU antitrust decisions are currently the two decisions that will have a bearing in this regard and where government’s, and not companies, can influence the outcomes.

Nord Stream 2 (NS2) is planned to cross directly from Russia to Germany. The new pipeline is supposed to accompany the already existing Nord Stream 1, reducing the need for the Ukrainian transit route. The plan is constituent with Western Europe’s efforts to diversify natural gas routes away from the risky transit territory. CEE countries argue against the pipeline, which in their view would damage their efforts geared toward diversity of supply and reducing dependence on Russian gas. If recent research is correct, these fears may be well substantiated. The research shows that NS2 would allow Gazprom to pre-empt diversification measures by using the entire capacity of current pipeline infrastructure. With pipelines committed to Russian gas, Gazprom could deter other potential sources of supply from entering the market and keep prices in CEE countries high.

Gazprom current commitments in the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) antitrust investigation may have similar consequences. Considered soft, regarding the time and scale of alleged anticompetitive practices that affected trade in the CEE, they would possibly result in eliminating competition from other sources of natural gas supply (though, as opposed to NS2 they do not seem to increase prices of natural gas in the CEE or elsewhere in Europe). And while these commitments may be changed in the course of further proceedings, a soft response from the EU indicates general tendency and provides a precedent for future decisions.

EU decisions on NS2 and antitrust will have a profound impact on creating favorable conditions for U.S. LNG in European markets and whether it will be able to provide the ‘credible threat’ to Russian natural gas dominance. Poland and the Baltics are pushing hard against NS2 in an effort to advance their diversification efforts. The U.S. government is also acutely aware of the problem and has engaged in anti-NS2 sanctions and anti-NS2 diplomacy in the region. But there is a noticeable lack of involvement from other CEE countries. Thanks to recent infrastructure and regional cooperation agreements these countries feel more secure when it comes to natural gas deliveries not realizing the potential negative effects NS2 may have, once completed.

This lack of engagement, together with Western Europe’s limited view of diversification may well be responsible for Russia regaining its position as Europe’s dominant natural gas supplier, a position that has been seemingly slipping away from Russia in recent years as LNG technology took off (Figure 3). This is critical especially now as the European Commission (EC) seeks member-state approval to negotiate with Russia on NS2 with an intent to extent at least main provisions of the EU natural gas legal framework (Third Party Access, unbundling) onto NS2.

Figure 3. Origin of Primary Energy Imports to the EU (% Non-EU Imports).
Source: Eurostat

 

Is There a Hope for U.S. LNG Exports to Europe?

The first U.S. LNG cargo to Poland is a result of a one-off transaction between Chenier and a newly established Polish trading office in London. Although it is probable that future LNG deals will be concluded later this year, the problem of the long-term profitability of U.S. exports of this commodity to the EU is still open. Governments have little say as to what contracts are signed but they have the power to affect market conditions within which companies operate. Currently, NS2 and to a smaller extent, EU antitrust decisions are factors, which governments should consider if they want to affect future access to Europe’s natural gas market.

When it comes to the U.S., its government has been active in supporting European energy diversity in many ways, including active opposition to the NS2 pipeline via unilateral U.S. sanctions against Russia and diplomatic assurances in the Baltics and Poland. But this may not be enough. There also may be a value in the U.S. focusing on issue diplomacy in those European (CEE and non-CEE) countries that are currently quiet or in support of NS2 but would ultimately lose if NS2 comes to be.

That being said any success of CEE and U.S. efforts does not guarantee unobstructed flow of U.S. (or any other) LNG to the European market. However, ability to access that market by any non-Russian supplier will provide an effective check on both, Russia’s pricing policy and the influence that country has historically derived from its monopoly over the CEE market.

This article was originally published on Forbes.com and can be viewed here.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Russia’s Existential Threat to NATO in the Baltics

NATO seems more united today than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War. An aggressive Russia, unbowed by Western economic sanctions after its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, has driven NATO member countries closer together. However, if given the opportunity, an aggressive Russia could also put NATO in a position that could strain its cohesion and ultimately undermine its existence. One place where that could happen is in the Baltics states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Bigger, Not Necessarily Stronger

As part of NATO’s eastward expansion after the Cold War, the Baltic countries joined the Alliance in 2004. But geographically separated from nearly all of NATO and having small militaries, the Baltics have always been vulnerable. From the start, military planners understood that NATO would have to commit substantial resources to properly defend the region from a Russian invasion.

At the time, NATO’s European governments were unconcerned. Russia, they believed, no longer posed a real threat. So, rather than make the costly outlays needed to protect the Baltic states, they cut their defense budgets. It was little surprise, then, that Europe’s conventional military forces saw their numbers and combat readiness fall. Today, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom would each be hard pressed to rapidly deploy a single combat-ready armored brigade. NATO’s reduced fighting capacity was also evident in its air campaign over Libya in 2011. After less than a month of combat, European air forces ran short of precision-guided munitions.

Moreover, given how easily Russia could sever the land and air routes into the Baltics, one might have expected NATO to have boosted its amphibious capacity in case it needed to send reinforcements across the Baltic Sea. Instead, NATO’s combined sealift capacity, excluding U.S. amphibious forces, has fallen to such a low level that it can ferry little more than two infantry brigades. Even worse, almost all of that capacity is based far from the Baltic Sea. And even if NATO could transport those brigades to the Baltics (through what might be a gauntlet of Russian air and missile strikes from Kaliningrad) it is doubtful whether they would be enough to stop a mechanized Russian invasion.

Peril of the Interregnum

Should NATO prove too unprepared to help the Baltics, Russia could achieve a quick victory. That would mean that NATO would have to mount a counteroffensive to liberate the region in order to fulfill its treaty obligations. But before it could do so, the Alliance would need time to fully mobilize its armed forces. During that interregnum, between Russia’s victory and NATO’s counteroffensive, NATO leaders would have time to contemplate what was to come.

They would have a lot to consider. Since the only land route into the Baltics runs through the 100-km wide Suwalki Gap, a narrow corridor between Lithuania and Poland, NATO ground forces would have little choice but to mount a frontal attack. Massed Russian artillery could turn the gap into a killing zone. Meanwhile, Russia’s coastal defense batteries and attack helicopter battalions could inflict heavy losses on any amphibious assault.

The conflict could also escalate beyond the Baltics. As a prelude to any counteroffensive, NATO commanders would naturally want to use their air power to attrit Russian forces and logistical capacity as well as suppress Russia’s supporting artillery, air defense, and coastal defense batteries. That would require strikes against targets on not only Baltic soil, but also possibly Russian soil. Moscow could seek reciprocity. It could launch air or missile strikes on similar targets in Western Europe and the United States. Russia could even escalate to a nuclear confrontation. In effect, it could thrust upon NATO leaders the decision: “Is Tallinn worth Berlin?”

Ultimately, the near certainty of high casualties, the uncertainty of battlefield success, and the possibility of a wider war might cause NATO leaders to think twice about liberating the Baltics. Russian information operations would likely exacerbate those concerns to sow doubt and division within NATO countries. If NATO leaders were to hesitate during the interregnum and agree to a settlement that left any part of the Baltics in Russian hands, then no NATO member could fully trust NATO’s security guarantee again. The rationale for NATO would be lost and its future existence put at risk.

The Tripwire Fix

NATO faced a similar danger during the Cold War. At that time, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had amassed such enormous conventional forces that they threatened to overwhelm those of the Alliance. Observers wondered whether the United States would risk a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union if it quickly occupied Western Europe. The question put to American leaders was: “Is Bonn worth Washington?” NATO responded by stationing large U.S. military forces close to the frontline, in part, to act as a tripwire. They would incur the first casualties of any Soviet invasion. Those losses would bind the United States and its nuclear arsenal to the defense of Western Europe, and thus deter the Soviet Union from invading it in the first place.

NATO appears to be trying a similar tactic in the Baltics states. For years, NATO has rotated tiny military contingents through the region. But over the last year, their sizes have grown. Currently, a German-led battle group of 1,000 soldiers is in Lithuania. Later this year, a Canadian-led battle group will be in Latvia and a British-led one will visit Estonia. Though still too small to stop a Russian invasion, they could serve as a tripwire to bind the rest of Europe to the defense of the Baltics. However, that only works if NATO can prevent Russia from achieving a quick victory, since the prospect of a costly counteroffensive could still render NATO’s tripwire ineffective.

Conclusion

To reliably avoid Russia’s existential threat, NATO must ensure that Russia is unable to score a quick victory in the Baltics. That requires NATO members to pledge more than words of resolve. That requires more resources for more troops, better equipment, and, above all, higher combat readiness.

Most exposed to the Russian threat, NATO’s Eastern European members are leading the way. Poland created a new Territorial Defense Force of reservists who will number 53,000 in two years. It also ordered 128 upgraded Leopard 2PL main battle tanks.[1] All three Baltic countries have acquired new light armored vehicles. Better yet, they are beginning to acquire the firepower needed to slow a Russian advance. Lithuania recently bought PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers, and Estonia is in discussions to purchase K9 long-range artillery.[2]

The rest of NATO needs to do the same. After all, one of the key reasons why NATO was so important in the most successful unfought war of the last century, the Cold War, was because its member countries were conscious to brook no ambiguity about the Alliance’s combat readiness to take on its main adversary.


[1] Remigiusz Wilk, “Polish Territorial Defence Force expanded to 53,000 personnel,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 17, 2016; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland orders 128 upgraded Leopard 2PL main battle tanks,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jan. 4, 2016.

[2] Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Estonia begins K9 artillery negotiations with South Korea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 7, 2017; Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Lithuania receives first PzH 2000 howitzers,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jun. 28, 2016.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

NATO’s Baltic Defense Challenge

As NATO expanded eastwards after the Cold War, the geography that the Alliance needed to defend changed significantly (See map). Rather than a relatively narrow front in Central Europe (dashed line), NATO now had to contend with a far wider front across Eastern Europe (solid line) stretching its defense capabilities. When the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004, they created an even greater operational challenge for NATO.

Lay of the Land

Sitting on the Alliance’s eastern edge, all three Baltic countries border Russia, NATO’s most likely adversary. But only one, Lithuania, is connected to any other NATO country. Lithuania’s border with Poland, just 100 km wide and with a single highway running through it, forms a bottleneck that NATO planners call the Suwalki Gap (named after a nearby Polish town). Worse still, on one side of the gap is Kaliningrad, a large Russian military enclave, and on the other side is Belarus, a close Russian ally.

Figuring out how to overcome that problematic geography became more pressing for NATO after 2007, when Russia suspended its participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty, which had limited the number of troops and equipment that NATO and Russia could station in continental Europe. Since then, Russia has steadily strengthened its military forces across its western regions, including Kaliningrad. One recent study estimates that if Russia were to invade the Baltics today it could mobilize 25 battalions of armor, airborne, and mechanized infantry (supported by ten battalions of artillery, six of attack helicopters, and five of short-range ballistic missiles). By contrast, the Baltic countries could field only 11 battalions of light infantry, most of which are reserve units.[1] Plus, without any fighter aircraft of their own, Baltic forces would be completely exposed to Russian air power.

Clearly, without NATO support, the Baltics could offer little serious resistance to a Russian invasion. From St. Petersburg, a Russian column could advance into Estonia to seize Tallinn. From Pskov, another column could advance into Latvia to take Riga and pivot south into Lithuania.[2] Simultaneously, Russian forces in Kaliningrad could seal off likely avenues for NATO reinforcements. A Russian thrust toward Marijampolė would close the Suwalki Gap and another toward Klaipėda would close NATO’s most accessible Baltic port. To ensure battlefield success, Russia could use its strategic reserve of airborne and Spetsnaz forces.

From the Sea

Should Russia sever the land and air routes into the Baltics, NATO may be forced to send its reinforcements across the Baltic Sea. However, doing so would face serious hurdles. First, NATO lacks enough military sealift to transport the volume of troops and equipment necessary to stop a Russian assault. As a work-around for its sealift shortage, NATO could commandeer car ferries and other civilian shipping. But NATO could not as easily work around the threat of Russian long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. Launched from K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense batteries in Kaliningrad, such missiles could inflict heavy casualties on any NATO reinforcements.

Since the U.S. Navy would not likely want to expose an aircraft carrier battle group to such a threat in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea, the job of escorting NATO’s troop transports would then fall on smaller warships with less sophisticated anti-ship cruise missile defenses. That could put already scarce troop transports at higher risk.

Even worse, if Russian forces were to capture all the ports in the Baltics, NATO might have to mount an amphibious assault to reestablish itself on land. That would be difficult to pull off, despite the spectacle of NATO’s Baltic Operations (Baltops) exercises. Amphibious assaults have never been easy; but they are even more difficult today, given that modern precision-guided munitions could make short work of landing craft, helicopters, and even MV-22 aircraft.

Conflict Escalation

Given the potential for Russia to interdict their seaborne forces, NATO commanders would naturally want to suppress Russian coastal defense batteries. After all, a successful missile strike on a single transport could result in the loss of hundreds of troops and their equipment. Multiple missile strikes could swiftly sap the combat strength of any NATO relief force.

At first glance, the suppression of Russian coastal defense batteries (and the air defense systems protecting them) would appear to be a straightforward affair. NATO air forces based in Germany and Poland could easily reach and strike Russian positions in Kaliningrad. However, were NATO air forces to do so, they would be hitting targets on Russian soil. That, in turn, could prompt Russia to expand the conflict beyond the Baltics. NATO could expect retaliatory Russian strikes on its German and Polish air bases.

In addition, one could reasonably expect NATO commanders to want to stem the flow of Russian forces and supplies into the Baltics, either to slow a Russian invasion or as a prelude to a NATO counteroffensive. To be most effective, that would require NATO strikes on Russian logistical facilities near St. Petersburg and Pskov. Such strikes would hit targets deep into Russian territory. That could also prompt Russia to escalate. It could launch retaliatory strikes against NATO logistical facilities in Antwerp, Hamburg, and Rotterdam. Russia could even use submarine-launched land-attack cruise missiles to hit targets in the United States, like Naval Station Norfolk or Pope Air Force Base, which normally support U.S. operations abroad.

Ultimately, Russia could threaten to use nuclear weapons. Indeed, in 2016, Russia moved Iskander 9K720 intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad.[3] It may have done so, in part, to ensure that NATO leaders think twice before attacking targets there, since a strike on Russian nuclear forces could quickly escalate into a nuclear confrontation. In any case, even if armed with conventional warheads, those missiles could hit and devastate targets as far away as Germany.

Conclusion

The best way for NATO to overcome its operational challenge in the Baltics is to make sure it never manifests itself. To do that, NATO must convince Russia that it could not achieve a quick victory in the region. Already NATO has rotated small air and ground detachments through the Baltic countries to stiffen their defenses as well as to create a tripwire to guarantee a forceful NATO response in case of a Russian attack.

But more needs to be done before Russia is really convinced. Forward-deployed NATO battle groups need to be stronger—strong enough to hold open avenues for NATO reinforcements. Moreover, NATO countries need to revive their conventional war-fighting capabilities and maintain them at a higher state of combat readiness than they do now. Finally, NATO forces need to be able to react more quickly to Russian actions. That means Western governments need to give NATO’s commander the authority to not only put their national military forces on alert, but also order them into the field for limited periods. In short, NATO should, once again, adhere to the old aphorism that “if you want peace, prepare for war.”


[1] David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2016), pp. 4-5.

[2] Should Belarus allow them to do so, Russian forces could also pass through Belarusian territory to advance on Vilnius from Minsk.

[3] Brooks Tigner, “Kaliningrad becoming a more dangerous military threat for NATO, say officials,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 10, 2016.

Tags: , , , , , , ,