September 9, 2021
Alliance credibility — or lack of it — is, therefore, the key factor in regional security. It should not be taken for granted.
This chapter is part of CEPA's report on Baltic Sea Security Close to the Wind.
The previous sections outlined the threat from Russia. This section looks at potential countermeasures.
The to-do list is long. Recommendations in our previous report included:
- Better coordination against Russian espionage, corruption, and organized crime through shared financial intelligence, counterespionage, and intensified cooperation among criminal justice systems.
- Combining capabilities in “collating, analyzing and rebutting Russian propaganda and disinformation.”
- Collating open-source and unclassified information about Russian behavior in the region.
- Stronger cybersecurity cooperation.
- A new fusion cell to focus and share analysis of classified and open-source intelligence.
- Building trust through a common approach to military procurement, interoperability, planning, training, exercises, information sharing, crisis management, and disaster preparedness.
- A common approach to missile defense.
- Wider acquisition of sub-strategic deterrent weapons such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), at the time acquired only by Finland.
- Pre-positioning of ammunition, fuel, and other supplies in the Baltic states, by NATO allies and by Sweden and Finland, and the deployment of forces there with a high degree of political pre-authorization to begin mobilization.
- Boosting bilateral security relationships with the United States.
Only the last three of these recommendations have seen clear progress. The tenth recommendation has been clearly implemented. U.S.-led efforts have improved munitions and other stockpiles in Poland and the Baltic states, including a planned full Armored Brigade Combat Team set of equipment to be stored in Poland. Also (and thanks to strong ties with the United States), Poland acquired the JASSM ER (Extended Range), an important weapon in the region’s collective arsenal. Some progress on internal security is also visible in cooperation among the Nordic five, particularly between Sweden and Finland. Intelligence sharing, particularly of open-source material and analysis based on it, has improved across the region. The Maximator structure, founded by Denmark in 1976, and now including Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, is of particular significance.1 The NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga does good work in painting a regional picture of Russia’s information footprint.2 But the other recommendations remain mostly unfulfilled, while new dangers and challenges have arisen.
In terms of equipment procurement, the biggest shift in the region is the acquisition by Denmark, Norway, and Poland (as well as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) of the F-35 Lightning II fighter. This hugely expensive U.S.-made warplane is, in the words of the British defense expert Julian Lindley-French, a “force super-multiplier”: the only allied aircraft with the long-term capability of penetrating Russia’s S-400 air defenses.
But every country in the region is making significant acquisitions and improvements as the following (non-exhaustive) list indicates.
- Denmark has established Multinational Division North (MND-N) headquarters, which are based partly in Ādaži, Latvia, and partly in Karup. It is boosting its navy, buying new tanks and fighting vehicles, and considering the acquisition of cruise missiles. The army plans to improve its readiness from 180 days to 30. If spending plans are implemented, the army’s professional brigade will be capable of deploying in full by 2024.
- Estonia’s €645 million ($760 million) defense budget for 2021, amounting to roughly 2.3% of GDP, includes the acquisition of US-made and Israeli anti-tank systems and South Korean-made K9 self-propelled guns. With Latvia and Lithuania, it has started preparatory work toward a multiple-launch rocket system, to enter service after 2025.
- Finland will spend 2.2% of GDP on defense in 2021. It is doubling its procurement budget, with an emphasis on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), long-range precision strikes, command and control, and logistics. A decision on a $12 billion plan to buy 64 fighters to replace the aging fleet of F/A-18C/D Hornets will be taken this year.
- Latvia is developing air-defense, fire support, command capabilities, and mechanized land infantry capabilities, plus training and infrastructure related to its acquisition of Black Hawk helicopters. It is buying another batch of self-propelled howitzers from Austria, recoilless anti-tank rifles in a joint acquisition with Estonia, and building armored personnel carriers in a joint program with Finland.
- Lithuania’s new divisional structure provides the capability to work with NATO headquarters and Polish counterparts. Defense modernization focuses on the mechanization of two battalions with Boxer armored fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers to strengthen maneuver and fire support capabilities.3 Other advanced military equipment purchases include — uniquely for the Baltic states — mid-range Air and Missile Defense (AMD) system, National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS) 3.4 Lithuania, the largest of the three Baltic states, has also bought U.S.-made Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, Black Hawk helicopters, communication equipment, and Javelin anti-tank missiles. Naval capabilities focus on mine countermeasures.
- Norway is rebuilding capabilities for high-intensity warfare, with personnel, logistics, maintenance, spare parts and ammunition, and procurement of new fighter jets, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, main battle tanks, artillery, armored combat vehicles, and long-range precision weapons. It will upgrade its NASAMS AMD system by 2023 and acquire a long-range air defense system to counter threats from short-range ballistic missiles. Poland has acquired, and other countries in the region are considering, Norway’s Naval Strike Missile (NSM), a mobile, low-cost coastal artillery system.
Photo: An Italian F-35 Lightning II fighter escorts an Estonian L-39 Albatross during interception training. Credit: NATO
- Poland, the regional military heavyweight, has established a fourth infantry division and a territorial defense force structure, growing to 45,000 troops. In addition to its F-35 acquisition (see above), Poland’s existing three squadrons of F-16s can carry stealthy JASSM cruise missiles. A $50 billion modernization plan emphasizes interoperability, digitization, and cyber protection. Poland is the first U.S. ally to acquire the most modern Patriot (AMD) system. Other recent, current, and planned acquisitions include:
- High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), providing badly needed long-range precision strike capabilities.
- Black Hawk helicopters.
- NSM coastal batteries (see above).
- Short-range and mini drones.
- Surveillance and combat drones.
- Upgraded tanks.
- Hundreds of additional infantry fighting vehicles.
- Tracked armored personnel carrier replacement.
- Modern, interoperable howitzers and mortar systems.
- Javelin anti-tank missiles.
- Three modern missile frigates and additional corvettes.\
- Sweden. In 2017, the Swedish government reintroduced limited conscription and restored the garrison on the strategically important Gotland island, as well as in March 2021 a previously mothballed air-defense system there.5 Coastal batteries, also mothballed, are back in service. Troop numbers will rise to 90,000, from 60,000, with the acquisition of armored cars, Archer self-propelled howitzers, and Stridsvagn 122 tanks, which are based on the German Leopard 2. The air force will receive new fighter and reconnaissance aircraft; discussions about the acquisition of a cruise missile capability are under way. The navy — perhaps the most important armed service from a regional point of view — receives only one extra submarine and an upgrade of its existing corvettes, plus a new class of surface combatant ships in the 2030s. The first consignment of Patriot air-defense missiles, ordered in 2018, was delivered in April 2021.
A report by the Swedish Defence Research Agency and the Royal Swedish Academy of War Science in 2018 highlighted four possible conflict scenarios:
- Strategic influence operations against Swedish decision-making.
- A hybrid war against Gotland.
- Limited military attack against southern Sweden as a prelude to a Baltic invasion.
- Limited military attacks through Finland to northern Sweden.6
Furthermore, the scale and tempo of exercises has transformed in recent years, particularly those involving non-NATO Sweden and Finland.
- Aurora 17 in September 2017 was Sweden’s biggest military exercise in 23 years and involved 19,000 Swedish troops and 1,300 from the United States and other NATO allies. The first phase rehearsed reinforcement. The second focused on the defense of Gotland. The U.S. units, partly based in Europe and partly from the United States, brought advanced heavy equipment, including Abrams tanks, Patriot air defense batteries, and Apache combat helicopters. This was first time a U.S. contingent had exercised on Swedish soil.
- The pandemic led to the postponement of Sweden’s Aurora 2020 exercise until 2023. However, the public health response to covid-19 involved many elements of resilience and emergency response. In October 2020, U.S. Navy SEALs, Green Berets, special boat teams, the USS Ross, the 48th Fighter Wing, and the 100th Air Refueling Wing took part in exercises on Gotland and elsewhere. Swedish aircraft took part in a joint exercise with Norwegian counterparts and a U.S. B-1 Lancer bomber in March 2021. U.S. Special Forces took part in the Vintersol 2021 (Winter Sun 2021) training exercise with a Swedish brigade. Aurora (2017), involving U.S. and other NATO troops, was Sweden’s biggest military exercise in 23 years.
- During Cold Response 2020, 16,000 Norwegian, British, U.S., and other NATO units, as well as units from Sweden and Finland, simulated a “high-intensity combat” in northern Norway.7
Photo: Swedish Armed Forces during Trident Juncture 2018. Swedish Leopard 122 tank taken out is towed by a tank recovery vehicle in the fog. Credit: NATO
- Brilliant Jump (October-November 2020) validated the alertness, deployment, and speedy integration of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).8
- Tobruq Legacy (September 2020), at the air base in Šiauliai, Lithuania, involved 900 ground-based air defense troops from the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and the United States.9
- NATO’s Trident Juncture (2018) in Norway was the largest in that country since the 1980s.
- DEFENDER-Europe 21 involved more than 30,000 multinational forces from 27 countries, conducting simultaneous exercises at over 30 training areas in a dozen nations.10 It was also the validation exercise for the U.S. V Corps.
- The 13-day U.S.-led BALTOPS exercises in June 2021, part of an annual series, this year involved 18 NATO and partner nations, bringing together 40 maritime units, 60 aircraft, and 4,000 personnel, focusing on air defense, anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction, mine countermeasures, and amphibious operations. The previous BALTOPS 2019 coincided with Baltic Protector, the inaugural deployment of JEF (Maritime). This involved the U.K.’s Amphibious Task Group (ATG), with force elements from the eight JEF partner nations, NATO, and the United States.
Cold Response 2022, involving 40,000 NATO troops from 10 countries, will be the largest military exercise inside Norway’s Arctic Circle since the 1980s. It will “train reinforcement of an allied/partner under challenging climatic conditions.” Whereas the Trident Juncture exercise in 2018 concentrated chiefly on land operations, this one will have a greater emphasis on the sea and air domains.11
These exercises have yet to reach the level required. But as the next section outlines, combined with the increased national capabilities of countries in the region and the resources available from outside allies and partners, they mean that Russia can no longer disregard the risks to its own territory of any military adventures in the region.
Russia: The Size of the Problem
Russia is the largest country in the world by land mass. That should be a source of concern to Kremlin decision-makers considering war with an adversary that has a global reach. It is a mistake, therefore, to see the Baltic states as a kind of geopolitical hostage, whose freedom (along with the West’s credibility) is inevitably and inherently vulnerable to Russian pressure. Russia, too, has its vulnerabilities. Its strategic nuclear installations (see above) on the Kola Peninsula also risk being targeted in the event of a conflict in the Baltic Sea region. Still more exposed is Kaliningrad exclave. The northern half of the former German territory of East Prussia, annexed by the Soviet Union following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, is surrounded by Polish and Lithuanian territory and is the site of Baltiysk, Russia’s only consistently ice-free port in the Baltic Sea. It is a bastion of military influence, a prized geopolitical trophy — and also a potential vulnerability, not least because it is now supplied almost exclusively by sea.
Much discussion in recent years has focused on Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, with maps and graphics showing “rings of death” around Kaliningrad or other parts of Russian territory. Though such capabilities will have an impact on NATO’s mobility, the rings indicate only the maximum effective range of specific weapon systems. Defensive countermeasures are possible. Moreover, these systems are not impregnable, given the right combination of intelligence, strike, and maneuver from allies and partners. This would involve a joint, multi-domain approach including cyberattacks, precision strikes from land and air forces to neutralize air defenses, and then, most likely, airstrikes to destroy anti-ship capabilities. Special forces might play a key role as well, specifically in targeting. Some countries in the region (notably Poland) are acquiring capabilities needed to counter or neutralize this threat.
Kaliningrad is thus both a military vulnerability for Russia and a political threshold for NATO. Dealing with a Russian incursion on NATO territory would attract widespread support, even if that also involved electronic warfare (EW) or cyberattacks on Russian systems. The military necessity of strikes on Kaliningrad and other parts of Russian territory would be highly controversial in some countries, and many NATO allies would be extremely reluctant to put ground troops there.
Russian efforts to defend Kaliningrad are, therefore, central to the region’s security. Previously a military backwater, it has become a locus of Russian efforts. In particular, Russia has placed Iskander surface-to-surface ballistic missiles there (as well as in other border regions). Labelled SS-26 Stone in NATO parlance, this is a road-mobile short-range ballistic missile with a range of at least 500 km, and according to some sources 700 km,12 that can reach Berlin and beyond. Although the Kaliningrad-based Baltic Fleet is the weakest of Russia’s four naval forces, it has 19 missile-armed corvettes that have since 2016 been fitted with eight vertically launched Kalibr cruise missiles with a range of 2,800 km.13 European NATO allies and partners would rely heavily on U.S. support to counter these weapons.
Russian forces in Kaliningrad also project power closer to home. A study by Sweden’s FOI notes that Russian ground forces in Kaliningrad lack the logistical support to conduct offensive operations on their own.14 In the event of a large-scale military operation, it notes, the region would more likely be used as a staging area for other forces. Artillery and other systems would allow units based there to attack lines of communication, such as the Suwałki corridor.
Photo: KALININGRAD REGION, RUSSIA – AUGUST 11, 2021: The Minsk large landing ship takes part in an amphibious landing exercise held by naval infantry units of the Russian Baltic and Northern Fleets, at the Khmelyovka training ground; over 70 items of military hardware and more than 500 naval infantry officers are taking part in the drill. Credit: Vitaly Nevar/TASS
In March 2021, the commander of Russia’s Western Military District (MD) formally reactivated the 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division, incorporating the region’s previous garrison force and doubling the number of tank and infantry battalions. Outdated tanks are being replaced with modernized ones. Combat support units include a reconnaissance battalion equipped with surveillance drones, an artillery brigade with multiple rocket launchers and long-range propelled howitzers, and an anti-tank battalion. Kaliningrad is well-defended from any attempt to neutralize these military assets. It is protected by eight battalions of long-range S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries (which extend to two-thirds of Polish airspace), as well as shorter-range systems.15
Countering Russia’s capabilities in Kaliningrad would, therefore, be a formidable challenge, not least because of the risk of escalation. Open-source satellite pictures show that Russia upgraded a nuclear weapons storage site in 2018.16 The Iskander missiles deployed in the territory are nuclear-capable. Russia is also thought to have tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons capabilities in the territory. Russia’s nuclear weapons doctrine, published in 2020, states that Russia may use nuclear weapons to neutralize risks including a “build-up … of the general purpose forces groupings that possess nuclear weapons delivery means” and “deployment … of missile defense systems and means, medium- and shorter-range cruise and ballistic missiles, non-nuclear high-precision and hypersonic weapons, strike unmanned aerial vehicles, and directed energy weapons.”17
A similar problem exists in the often-neglected air and maritime dimensions of Baltic Sea security. Since the end of the Cold War, the military emphasis has been on land-based defense and deterrence, not least because that was the only form of warfare that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania could afford. None of the three countries has combat aircraft. Only Lithuania has significant air defenses (the NASAMS 3 system deployed in 2020). The main aviation element is the Baltic Air Policing mission. This started in March 2004, when the Baltic states joined NATO, initially from the Zokniai/Šiauliai base in Lithuania and since 2014 also from the Ämari Air Base in Estonia. Deployments typically consist of four fighter aircraft with between 50 and 100 support personnel, on a four-month rotation. As an illustration of the intensity of this mission, the jets based at Ämari scrambled 48 times in 2020.18
Though this signals NATO’s solidarity with the Baltic states, and means that Russian airspace intrusions (both in the area and elsewhere) meet with a timely response, it does not constitute air defense.19 The visiting aircraft are essentially a symbolic presence. The two bases are vulnerable to Russian long-range precision strikes and other attacks. The mission lacks the munitions; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); rules of engagement; hardened infrastructure; and air defense systems to engage credibly in combat operations. As the Swedish defense expert Stefan Forss notes, the exercise provides nice photos, but in the event of a conflict could “collapse like a house of cards.”20 This does not mean that the three Baltic states cannot be defended. But any effort in the air would involve concerted efforts from outside, involving Swedish and Finnish cooperation, and the heavy involvement of the United States and others, particularly Poland’s large and capable air force. Most importantly, gaining air superiority would mean countering Russia’s formidable air defense capabilities and thus strikes within Russian territory. This marks a critical difference from Cold War days, when NATO counter-strikes against Soviet aggression would have been chiefly directed at Warsaw Pact countries such as Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland.
The Military Airspace Block Concept (MABC), implemented by Poland and the Baltic states under Lithuanian leadership, aims to develop favorable exercise conditions nationally and regionally for air and missile defense exercises and other military activities for contingencies in the Baltics. The project focuses on designing militarily interconnected airspaces for rapid activation and utilization. This provides the basis for enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) training should those forces be supplemented with the needed air and sea combat enablers.
For now, the air defense gaps in the Baltic Sea region, in particular in the Baltic states, remain serious. The current air policing effort does not provide the necessary level of security and effective deterrence. Extra elements would potentially involve surface-based air defense forces and fourth or fifth generation fighters, regularly exercised and linked to eFP training requirements.
The maritime picture is no better and, in some senses, worse, as naval capabilities are less conspicuous than their air counterparts and have attracted less political attention. The analyst Matthew Thomas describes how “sea apathy” has led to gaps in capabilities, strategy, and procurements, as well as vulnerabilities related to critical infrastructure under sea and onshore.21 Danish capabilities in this respect are strong, albeit often overlooked. Poland’s shortcomings are notable.
In current conditions, the maritime status quo favors Russia. The Baltic Sea is narrow, confined, complex, and shallow. Varying salinity creates navigational and surveillance difficulties. Specific topographical features include numerous islands and bottlenecks. These characteristics make life easier for an attacker and hard for a defender.22 Absent substantial outside involvement, even the limited capacity of Russia’s Baltic Fleet would allow it to harass sea traffic and mount surprise attacks or support subthreshold operations. Ports, territorial waters, and coastal areas in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as key infrastructure facilities such as the Klaipėda liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal and undersea cables are largely or wholly undefended. This dire maritime picture mirrors the much better-known vulnerability of the Suwałki corridor.
Countermeasures would include long-range strikes, particularly anti-ship missiles, mine-clearing capacity to protect the Baltic states’ harbors, and mine-laying capabilities directed at constraining Russian naval and merchant shipping. But NATO and its partners so far fall short of the challenge.
Photo: Absalon fires a missile at an air target during a naval exercise off Norway. Credit: Henning Jespersen-Skree / Air Force Photo Service.
With the exception of Poland’s coastal batteries, the Baltic states and Poland’s naval efforts are largely limited to mine-hunting. Germany’s navy is too far away. Denmark’s is overstretched. Finland and Sweden have navies configured for their own defense, not that of other countries. Exercises are also insufficient. The three Baltic states, for example, have not jointly rehearsed protection of convoys and landing areas, or countermeasures against a possible Russian sea blockade.
The main regional effort since 2009 has been the Sea Surveillance Cooperation Baltic Sea (SUCBAS), which is aimed at improving the exchange of ship positions, tracks, identification data, chat, and images.23 It is based on the earlier success of the Swedish-Finnish SUCFIS model. Its members are Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the U.K. This is not a system, but rather a mutual support structure. While each member maintains its own capability, they are able to share appropriate information with each other to the extent that their national conditions allow. Today, all nine SUCBAS countries are networked together to maintain a Common Operational Picture (COP) for multinational maritime situational awareness.
The three Baltic states exchange real-time unclassified Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) information, with the ambition to advance soon to classified-level sharing. The Baltic states are also developing their Naval Vision 2030+ strategy. With the needed military and political support, this will create synergies in naval capabilities development, exploiting potential economies of scale and leading to more efficient operation, training, and maintenance.
ISR: Lessons from the Black Sea
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) provides a clear, comprehensive, and shared picture of potential threats, both military and subthreshold. It contributes to speed of recognition, decision, and assembly. This strengthens security and makes conflict less likely.
In the maritime theater, aerial, surface, and underwater drones are affordable and dependable, which reduces the need to use costly manned vessels. In the Black Sea, a CEPA report (“One Flank, One Threat, One Presence: A Strategy for NATO’s Eastern Flank”) recommended that countries should consider rotating U.S. Air Force Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper and U.S. Army tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from U.S. squadrons in Poland. Romania has fewer restrictions for UAV operations, massive airspace, and good weather for UAV training, exercises, and operations. More UAVs in the Black Sea region would help provide a better Common Operational Picture (COP) to allied headquarters, while U.S. personnel could complete UAV certification requirements in Romania. With U.S. support, NATO could establish a NATO UAV Center of Excellence (COE) in Romania — the first in the Alliance.
Romanian military intelligence leaders have already formally discussed plans to develop a Black Sea Situational Awareness Center. It would fuse single-source intelligence and produce a timely, relevant, accurate, and predictive COP of Black Sea threat activity. The existing COP is focused primarily on maritime threats and must be expanded to include more ground and air order of battle analysis, open source intelligence (OSINT) analysis, and cyber threat intelligence. The CEPA report recommended that the United States and NATO should invest in this concept, building upon existing U.S. EUCOM and Romanian Ministry of National Defense intelligence-sharing relationships and combined infrastructure.
For its part, NATO does have intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to gain a fuller military picture of the air, surface, and sub-surface domains. These capabilities are more evident in the Black Sea region (see box on “ISR: Lessons from the Black Sea”). They were demonstrated briefly during Exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2017. But they are fragile, fragmented, and spasmodic in all domains. The Baltic states which most need ISR capabilities are the least able to afford them. The strategic incoherence of the region is particularly apparent in the lack of a maritime strategy to deal with these vital aspects of its defense.
The possible outcomes here, again, are binary. Either Russia’s Baltic Fleet dominates the Baltic Sea, with the result that the security of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is compromised, and reinforcement by sea impossible; or NATO navies do, meaning that Kaliningrad is isolated and within a short space of time indefensible. If NATO and partner countries do start taking the maritime dimension seriously, managing the result will be the most complex arms control challenge in Europe since the end of the Cold War, ranking alongside the South China Sea in terms of complexity and potential danger. It will require a mixture of carefully calibrated military responses coupled with mil-mil (military-to-military) communication and high-level diplomatic engagement.
Though the outlook is troubling, we do not in current conditions regard a Russian military attack on any country of the Baltic Sea region as likely or imminent. The combination of national defenses, allied eFP forces in the Baltic states and Poland, the credibility of NATO’s deterrence and defense, and the vulnerability of Kaliningrad make such aggression risky and difficult from the Kremlin’s point of view.
In a nutshell, the key questions of Baltic Sea security are these:
- How does Russia weigh the gain of attacking the Baltic states against the danger of retaliation against territories in “mainland Russia” but particularly against Kaliningrad?
- How far up the escalation ladder would each side go in the event of such a conflict?
- How far can diplomacy and other forms of messaging manage the inherent instability of the region?
Game, Set, and Match: Wargaming a Regional Crisis
A war game conducted by the Swedish FOI think tank last year was based on a Russian attack on the Baltic states via Belarus, planned and executed as a limited war, and intended to defeat NATO’s forces quickly.24
The aim was not to predict a likely outcome, but to highlight the factors that would influence it.
At the operational and tactical levels, maneuver of fires dominated. Given Russian superiority on the ground, this made the early delivery of Western air power imperative, contingent on quick reinforcements, forward-basing, and suppression of Russian air defense. After a few days of fighting, the situation was clearly in favor of Russia, with its armed forces having reached many of their objectives.
The authors note that force dominance at the strategic or operational level does not always translate into a tactical superiority on the battlefield. The outcomes could have turned out differently, due to other operational choices by the adversaries, the geography and the terrain or, simply, the frictions of war. Furthermore, intangible factors, such as operational and tactical skills, as well as morale, may decide battles.
It is noteworthy that the outcome depended chiefly on Swedish cooperation in Western airstrikes against Russia.
But circumstances can change. Until 2014, few, if any, would have foreseen the Russian seizure of Crimea or the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Aggressive military action abroad can pay domestic dividends for the Kremlin’s leadership, for example, by distracting or defusing opposition criticism of low living standards, corruption, and other features of Russian life. The political crisis in Belarus is an extra element of instability, creating opportunities for Russia to tighten integration, perhaps by establishing permanent military bases in Belarus, and staging more aggressive military exercises there. Russia could also use the geographic isolation of the Kaliningrad exclave as a lever to demand transit rights across the Suwałki corridor. Russia is also cooperating more closely with China. As mentioned earlier, Chinese forces will take part in the Zapad-21 exercise this year, highlighting Russia’s strategic and diplomatic depth in any confrontation with the West.
A further source of instability is the closing of a window of opportunity. For now, Russia has a military advantage in the Baltic Sea region. As spending rises and defense cooperation improves, as high technology becomes more important, and as Russia’s economic and other constraints bite, that advantage will erode. From a Kremlin decision-maker’s point of view, it may at some point be better to use an advantage, albeit riskily, than to lose it for certain.
Russia will not risk a confrontation with a united West. Divided alliances, and divided countries, are another story. In a conflict with a single Western country, or even with a number of small ones, Russia’s greater size is a formidable advantage.
Alliance credibility — or lack of it — is, therefore, the key factor in regional security. It should not be taken for granted.
During the Cold War, NATO conducted large realistic exercises at division and corps levels in West Germany. The costs were high, in terms of destroyed crops and agricultural infrastructure, in environmental damage, in the psychological stress on the civilian population, and the wear and tear on the military forces and equipment involved. Failure was expected: long periods spent waiting; embarrassing breakdowns of equipment, logistics, and communications; unexpected setbacks; and disappointing outcomes. But failure is a good teacher. Identifying shortcomings is the best way to fix them. As a result, the benefits in military readiness outweighed these costs. The adversary — the Warsaw Pact forces just across the border — knew that they would not be able to count on the advantages of a surprise attack.
NATO does not carry out these kinds of exercises now. They are too costly, too disruptive, and (cynics might say) too embarrassing. But choosing not to “exercise to failure” is a formula for defeat. “Free-play” exercises are mostly confined to battalion level or at the brigade combat team level at the U.S. Army’s combined multinational training center at Hohenfels in Germany. Instead, large NATO exercises are carefully scripted, with orders, terrain, and participants worked out months, even years, in advance: in effect, more like a theatrical production than a training session. The DV (distinguished visitor) day is too often the main effort.
During the Trident Juncture exercise in 2015, for example, the Spanish armed forces said they had proven their logistical capability to move a battalion or more within two weeks. Yet in fact the transport ship had been contracted six months in advance and much of the equipment was already prepositioned on the dock. This certainly helped the exercise run smoothly. But it eroded its value as a test of readiness.
Another example comes from the naval BALTOPS exercise, which features perennial difficulties in establishing secure communications among allied ships (reflecting a similar problem among allied ground units during exercises). Ad hoc fixes are found every year but these do not transfer into long-term solutions.
These exercises are not useless. The work that goes into them ahead of the actual execution helps sort out relationships, authorities, communication links, and logistical requirements. The DV days are important too: civilian leaders need to be able to see capabilities and understand effects.
An amphibious assault vehicle, assigned to 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, disembark the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21) October 30, 2018. USS New York (LPD 21) is participating in Trident Juncture 2018. Trident Juncture 18 is a NATO-led exercise designed to certify NATO response forces and develop interoperability among participating NATO and partner nations.
U.S. Navy photo by Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Lyndon Schwartz
But the problem, especially with the larger, multinational exercises, is a reluctance to do (or allow) something that might embarrass an ally. The result is a script for exercises with little room for “free play” or dealing with a “thinking, free-willed opposing force.” Real war involves elements such as surprise and getting to grips with unfamiliar terrain and unforeseen obstacles. These need to be exercised too.
Even at a national level, political considerations may dent the effectiveness of exercises, an issue exemplified by controversy over Poland’s Zima (winter) exercise in early 2021. The scenario was a Russian surprise attack. The aim was to hold it off for 22 days. The result was that Russian troops were besieging Warsaw within four days.25 The exercise planners assumed that Poland was able to deploy all the modern weaponry it has ordered, some of which will not be available until 2030. Leaked news of the result of the exercise provoked a storm in the Polish media, and abundant blame-shifting among the uniformed, civilian, and political sides.
To change this culture, political leaders, from defense ministers downwards, need to protect their military commanders when things do go wrong due to “friction” or “enemy action.” It is better to train to failure and identify those vulnerabilities and weaknesses that are exposed in realistic training than experience them in real life.
Our assessment is that the lack of realistic exercises is a serious shortcoming for the security of the Baltic Sea region.
None of the countries in the Baltic Sea region can, on its own, defend itself. Nor are they capable of defending each other. National defense priorities do not necessarily reflect the broader needs of the region. The countries also differ sharply in size and wealth, with dramatic effects on their ability to buy advanced weaponry. The Baltic states, which most urgently need modern air defense systems, for example, are the least able to afford them. Many of the components of Baltic Sea regional security, therefore, are more fragile than they should be, too fragmented, and where they combined, it is in an incoherent, ineffective, and wasteful way.
The most vital factor in alliance credibility is, therefore, the permanent or persistent presence of outside forces, coupled with continued focus by U.S. decision-makers on the region’s security. Political changes in the United States, or distracting security crises elsewhere, would immediately highlight the underlying fragility of the region’s defenses. Nor can the role of the other outside military powers, the United Kingdom and France, be regarded as fixtures. These countries, too, may be sidetracked by developments elsewhere or realize only too late what is happening in the region.
Russia realizes this. It, therefore, seeks to distract and weaken Western alliances. It is also aware that a conflict may in itself be divisive. By creating and instrumentalizing a minor crisis, it can exploit differing threat perceptions and decision-making delays, and gain a major victory.
For these reasons, we worry that the pendulum has swung from the alarm that resulted from the Ukraine crisis in 2014-2015 to what could be characterized as complacency now. Our worries are accentuated by shortcomings in multilateral defense cooperation — the subject of the next section.
The Military Threat
Russia’s military capabilities and plans, coupled with the changing nature of warfare and the disadvantageous topography of the Baltic states, shape the strategic outlook for the Baltic Sea region.
- “A beery European spy club is revealed: How the Danes, Swedes, Germans and Dutch shared secrets,” The Economist, May 30, 2020, https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/05/28/a-beery-european-spy-club-is-revealed.
- Ivo Juurvee, Belén Carrasco Rodríguez, Māris Cepurītis, Austris Keišs, Diana Marnot, and Scott Ruston, “Russia’s Footprint in the Nordic-Baltic Information Environment 2019/2020,” NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, 2020, https://stratcomcoe.org/publications/russias-footprint-in-the-nordic-baltic-information-environment-20192020/24.
- Dylan Malysaov, “Lithuania receives its first upgraded PzH 2000 self-propelled howitzers,” Defence Blog, December 16, 2018, https://defence-blog.com/lithuania-receives-its-first-upgraded-pzh-2000-self-propelled-howitzers/.
- Colton Jones, “Lithuania accepts delivery of NASAMS medium-range air defense systems,” Defence Blog, June 22, 2020, https://defence-blog.com/lithuania-accept-delivery-of-nasams-medium-range-air-defense-systems/.
- Gotland’s garrison was withdrawn in 2005, and Russian special forces’ clandestine reconnaissance missions there, among other episodes, have prompted increasing concern: “Sweden reactivates air defence missile system 23 in Gotland,” Airforce Technology, March 18, 2021, https://www.airforce-technology.com/news/sweden-reactivates-air-defence-missile-system-23-in-gotland/.
- Björn Andersson and Tommy Jeppsson, eds., Ett trovär- digt totalförsvar―Slutrapport från projektet KV21 (A Credible Total Defense―Final Report of Project KV21), Stockholm, Sweden: Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, 2018, pp. 111-132.
- Sebastian Sprenger, “U.S. Air Force Bomber Unit Sets Up Shop in Norway,” Defense News, February 2, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2021/02/02/us-air-force-bomber-unit-sets-up-shop-in-norway/, Paul McCleary, “U.S., NATO Warships Exercise Off Russia’s Arctic Coast,” Breaking Defense, September 8, 2020, https://breakingdefense.com/2020/09/us-nato-warships-exercise-off-russias-arctic-coast/ and Atle Staalesen, “Freezing Cold as 16,000 NATO Soldiers Kickstart Arctic War Game,” Barents Observer, March 22, 2020, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2020/03/freezing-cold-16000-nato-soldiers-kickstart-arctic-war-game.
- The VJTF comprises a Mechanized Battalion from the Czech Republic, a Mechanized Company from Lithuania; a Brigade Headquarters, Spearhead Battalion, Special Forces and CBRN Task Force Headquarters from Poland, and an Infantry Battalion from Spain. These land forces were led by Multinational Corps North-East (MNC-NE) throughout the exercise. The NATO Force Integration Unit-Lithuania assisted with liaison, coordination and assistance. Equipment travelled by rail, road, air and sea to complete journeys from Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic: “Exercise Brilliant Jump II 2020 Closes With Success,” SHAPE NATO, November 10, 2020, https://shape.nato.int/news-archive/2020/exercise-brilliant-jump-ii-2020-closes-with-success.
- “Tobruq Legacy 20 – Ground-Based Air Defence Exercise,” Joint Forces, September 26, 2020, https://www.joint-forces.com/exercise-news/36051-tobruq-legacy-20-ground-based-air-defence-exercise.
- Brian W. Everstine, “EUCOM Moving Ahead with Massive ‘Defender Europe,’” Air Force Magazine, February 3, 2021, https://www.airforcemag.com/eucom-moving-ahead-with-massive-defender-europe-exercise-despite-covid-19/.
- Thomas Nilsen, “Norway to host biggest exercise inside Arctic Circle since Cold War,” Barents Observer, April 14, 2021, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2021/04/norway-host-biggest-exercise-inside-arctic-circle-cold-war.
- Jakub Palowski, “Iskander Missiles Kill The INF Treaty: Berlin and Prague in Danger,” Defense24, October 12, 2016, https://www.defence24.com/iskander-missiles-kill-the-inf-treaty-berlin-and-prague-in-danger.
- Jonas Kjellén, “The Russian Baltic Fleet – Organisation and role within the Armed Forces in 2020,” Swedish Defense Research Agency, February 10, 2021, https://www.foi.se/report-summary?reportNo=FOI-R--5119--SE.
- Sebastien Roblin, “Fortress Kaliningrad: Russia’s Baltic Fleet Now Has a Mechanized Division,” The National Interest, March 30, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/fortress-kaliningrad-russia’s-baltic-fleet-now-has-mechanized-division-181499 and Sebastien Roblin, “Why Russia’s Kaliningrad Naval Base Poses a Deadly Dilemma for NATO,” The National Interest, March 30, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/why-russia’s-kaliningrad-naval-base-poses-deadly-dilemma-nato-181501.
- Hans Krisensen, “Russia Upgrades Nuclear Weapons Storage Site In Kaliningrad,” Federation of American Scientists, June 18, 2018, https://fas.org/blogs/security/2018/06/kaliningrad/.
- “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, June 8, 2020, https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/international_safety/disarmament/-/asset_publisher/rp0fiUBmANaH/content/id/4152094.
- “Ministry: Over 200 Russian international aviation violators in 2020,” ERR, December 29, 2020, https://news.err.ee/1222309/ministry-over-200-russian-international-aviation-violations-in-2020.
- In 2013 Danish aircraft deployed in Lithuania responded to a simulated attack by Russian bombers against two targets in Sweden. The Swedish Air Force was off duty at the time, because of the Easter weekend.
- Maria Gestrin-Hagner, “Defense expert: Flight exercise is peacetime games for the galleries,” January 20, 2015, http://gamla.hbl.fi/nyheter/2015-01-20/709416/forsvarsexpert-flygovning-fredstida-spel-gallerierna.
- Matthew Thomas, “Maritime Security Issues in the Baltic Sea Region,” FPRI, July 22, 2020, https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/07/maritime-security-issues-in-the-baltic-sea-region/.
- “Baltic Maritime Security,” Maritime Journal, May 17, 2016, https://www.maritimejournal.com/news101/security-and-alarm-systems/baltic-maritime-security.
- “Sucbas Overview,” SUCBAS, https://sucbas.vercel.app.
- Eva Hagström Frisell, Krister Pallin, Johan Engvall, Albin Aronsson, Jakob Gustafsson, Robert Dalsjö, Michael Jonsson, Björn Ottosson, Bengt-Göran Bergstrand, Viktor Lundquist, Diana Lepp, and Anna Sundberg, "Western Military Capability in Northern Europe 2020: Part I Collective Defence," FOI, March 2021, https://www.foi.se/report-summary?reportNo=FOI-R--5012--SE.
- John Rossomando, “How Poland Just Lost to Russia in a Massive Wargame (And What It Means),” National Interest, February 20, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-poland-just-lost-russia-massive-wargame-and-what-it-means-178578.