Marcin Zaborowski

Edward Lucas
07 July 2016

Reinforcing deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank: war-gaming the defense of the Baltics

In the context of the 2016 Warsaw Summit, CEPA Warsaw held a closed-door roundtable titled “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: War-Gaming the Defense of the Baltics.”
Marcin Zaborowski, CEPA’s executive vice president, moderated the discussion with David Shlapak, senior analyst at the RAND Corp. Shlapak described the implications of a series of war games that examined the threat Russia may pose to the three Baltic republics—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All three are former Soviet republics bordering Russian territory that now belong to NATO. 

Participants jointly discussed the possible consequences of a Russian attempt to reclaim the Baltics, and how to prevent or at least mitigate such a scenario. At present, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. Across multiple games—using a wide range of expert participants in and out of uniform and playing both sides—the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia, or Riga, Latvia, is 60 hours. Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all of them bad.

Despite these gloomy scenarios, it is possible to avoid those consequences by creating a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades. Adequately supported by air power, land-based missiles, and deployable air and missile defense capabilities. If ready to fight at the onset of hostilities, such a force could be enough to prevent Russian troops from rapidly overtaking the Baltics.

While not sufficient to mount a sustained regional defense or to achieve NATO’s ultimate end state of restoring its members’ territorial integrity, such a posture would fundamentally change the strategic picture as seen from Moscow. The expense needs to be balanced against the consequences of not rethinking the current posture. While such deterrence won’t be cheap in absolute terms, it is not unaffordable—especially compared to the potential costs of failing to defend NATO’s most exposed and vulnerable allies.