Russia has taken a beating in Ukraine. That tempts some in the West to dismiss the conventional Russian threat. This is dangerously wrong. Russia’s long history of military reforms and its defense industrial capacity give ample reason for caution. NATO needs to look to its most vulnerable point — the Baltic states — and plan for large-scale conventional aggression. 

The Baltics are not Ukraine. Last year, Ukrainian forces traded space for time. If the Lithuanian military tried the same thing, Russia would drive them into the sea. From the first hour of the conflict, Russian tube artillery could target the twin roads supplying Lithuania by land through the Suwalki Corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad. Defending this territory requires a very different strategy. 

NATO will also face a very different adversary. Russia’s opening gambit in Ukraine failed because Russian leadership assumed Ukrainian resistance would collapse. They won’t make this mistake twice. They respect Western capabilities. Russian doctrine, for instance, assumes NATO air superiority. Unlike their attack on Ukraine, the Russians practice war with NATO obsessively. At Zapad 2021, they did so with over 200,000 soldiers.  

But after the pounding they’ve taken in Ukraine, can the Russians rebuild a force that can execute what they exercise? It looks like they can. 

Early Western analysis following Russia’s all-out attack on Ukraine claimed tech sanctions would cripple the Russian defense industry. These sanctions are important and have impeded Russia’s wartime production. But they have not single-handedly prevented Russian rearmament during the war. Through Iran’s illicit network and Chinese dual-use imports, Russia held missile production steady. Estonian intelligence estimated the Russians turned out 1.7 million 152mm artillery shells a year, dwarfing Western production. The West has in some ways woken up to the threat. The US reportedly aims to raise its production of all calibers of unguided shells to around 1 million annually by next year. It may not be enough. 

The Russians don’t just out-build the West; they can learn. After Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Georgia, Russian officers produced comprehensive analyses of Russia’s military failures. These in turn spurred wide-ranging reforms. Some of these efforts ended in a dud. The Russians characteristically fixated on platforms over personnel and lost millions to graft. But on the whole, the reform transformed the organization of the Russian military in the face of staunch opposition, shuttering prestigious military academies, cutting down the officer corps, and building a whole new tactical unit. The problem: Russia built this force to fight a war like Chechnya, not to conquer the second-largest country in Europe. 

Following their initial blooding by Ukraine, the Russians scrambled to rectify their mistakes. They developed new tactics for assaulting fortified positions and new methods to pierce Kyiv’s fast-improving air defenses. They defend their trenches in the Zaporizhzhia region methodically, according to their doctrine, and after repeated disasters in the initial months of the war, learned to employ their elite forces with skill.  

NATO needs to take note, and quickly. But what is to be done? Before the war, some analysts thought Russian military modernization made defending “every inch” of NATO territory a futile task. This is just as wrong as believing Russia is a busted flush.  

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The Russians have a few key weaknesses they cannot reform away. They have never been able to transition from a rigid command structure. This system compulsively silos information. Russian units take 48 hours to report and strike a target with precision munitions. If Ukrainian formations move swiftly, they survive. Russian logistics remain centralized and tied to railroads. To disperse, they’d have to delegate.  

Russian commanders do not value the lives of their soldiers and compete ruthlessly for Putin’s favor. Battlefield lessons, therefore, percolate unevenly. In defense, small NATO forces with the right equipment can stymie an offensive from such a lumbering adversary, at least long enough for reinforcements to arrive. 

But when Russia defends, it plays to its strengths. Any mobik with a gun can hold a trench; Russian defenses in Ukraine have proved that fact.  

Can it do more? Could it form units to build hard-hitting, fast-moving task forces? If NATO was unable to blunt an initial attack, Russia could cut the Suwalki Corridor and dig in, making a counteroffensive a bloody prospect.  

The alliance has a clear mandate to defend the Baltics from the first shots of a war. This means implementing three initiatives already incorporated in the allied policy.  

  • First, the lead battlegroup nations for the three Baltic States (the UK, Germany, and Canada) should follow through on their pledge at Madrid and commit to a brigade per state. This requires investments in host-nation infrastructure to house new units. Lithuania will develop that infrastructure on its own by 2025. Latvia and Estonia, though well above NATO’s 2% of GDP defense spending threshold, could sorely use outside aid to match Lithuania’s infrastructure contribution.    
  • Second, the alliance should begin building a command structure in the Baltics that can fight tonight. In the current multinational command structure, there is an understaffed peacetime formation. Baltic plans to stand up divisions give the alliance an opportunity to rectify this.  
  • Third, larger allies should deploy systems the Baltics cannot afford in quantity, like NASAMS-3 air defense and HIMARS. 

Russia has suffered grievous losses in Ukraine. A July 10 report by the independent Russian outlets Mediazona and Meduza calculated 125,000 Russian casualties; 47,000 of which were killed in action, and the remainder too seriously wounded to return to battle. Early losses involved disproportionate numbers from elite units. In addition, more than 11,000 items of heavy equipment have been lost, including more than 2,100 tanks. 

The Russian military may take years to rebuild its striking power. In the meantime, European policymakers are right to focus on sub-conventional aggression. But after Europe’s brief reprieve behind its Ukrainian shield, the West must prepare for a large-scale conventional assault, even against NATO members. We know too well the consequences of complacency.  

Zachary Hill recently graduated with a Masters degree in Security Policy Studies from The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. This article is derived from his final capstone research with Vicente Rodriguez and another graduate student and was presented to the Lithuanian Embassy in June.  

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