September 9, 2021
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.
This chapter is part of CEPA's report on Baltic Sea Security Close to the Wind.
Russia is not a global military threat to the West. But this can foster complacency about the regional security danger it presents. Russia enjoys military advantages when dealing with smaller countries and incoherent defense arrangements. And its weapons outside the military sphere, including information and cyber operations, dirty money, subversion, and lawfare, act as force multipliers to the Kremlin’s kinetic capabilities.
Though its defense budget is one of the largest in the world at $61.7 billion1 the money is spread thinly. Russia must sustain a blue-water navy, a military space program, a strategic nuclear triad, an advanced military-industrial complex, and defend the world’s largest country by land area. Its Baltic Sea neighbors face none of these tasks. Russia’s spending is constrained by inefficiency and corruption, and by the stagnant Russian economy. The planned official defense budget (plus other military spending, including classified items) for 2021 represents a year-on-year decline in foreign currency terms of 16%. It is easy to dismiss Russia as a failing state which cannot sustain military aggression against any serious adversary.
But this ignores other factors. One is Russia’s profound militarization: quite unlike its Western neighbors. It devotes 3.9% of GDP to military spending: it is the world’s fourth-largest military power, though it is only the 11th-largest economy. The lack of hard-currency purchasing power is misleading. Russia does not need to buy weapons from abroad; indeed, it sells them. Concealed subsidies for inputs such as land and energy counterbalance the cost of corruption and inefficiency. Reforms to the military-industrial complex are increasing the effectiveness of Russian defense spending — and there is still great room for improvement.
The best illustration of this is that Russia, with a military budget ostensibly the same size as the United Kingdom’s, has far stronger procurement of existing weapons, and research and development of new ones. These include the hypersonic Tsirkon cruise missile and the S-500 air defense system. The U.S. defense analyst Michael Kofman estimates that Russia’s defense budget is in reality between 2.5 and three times larger than the notional cash figure would suggest.2
The long-term strategy for the armed forces is to increase readiness for a full-scale confrontation with NATO. Regional superiority is a top priority, in terms of establishing military units and the modernization and deployment of missile technologies.
As a RAND Corporation report in 2018 noted:
- In the years following the end of the Cold War, NATO’s ground forces have substantially declined in size and shifted focus away from high-intensity conventional combat.
- By contrast, while Russia also saw a major decline through the 1990s and 2000s, more recent efforts have led to effective changes in Russian warfighting capabilities and a gradual spread of more modern systems to much of the Russian armed forces.
- Recent improvements to readiness and to the ability to move forces quickly within Russia, combined with the density of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities arrayed to defend the Russian heartland, provide Moscow with a much greater ability to project force against countries on its borders.3
While NATO militaries adapted for the out-of-area deployment of lighter forces against technologically backward adversaries, Russia has:
- Retained a combined-arms force that emphasizes mobility and firepower and trains to conduct larger-scale combined-arms operations.
- Changed its combat tactics to realize the Soviet-era ambition of the Reconnaissance Strike Complex, meaning the coordinated employment of high-precision, long-range weapons linked to real-time intelligence data and precise targeting provided to a fused intelligence and fire-direction center.4
- Deployed new weapons systems, including new warships in the Baltic Fleet and new air defense systems.
- Developed, deployed, and tested new command and control capabilities, including automated command systems.
- Built up its land force, with heavy investment in military “mass”: the numbers of weapons, people, and other equipment that enable large military operations over long periods of time.
Photo: KALININGRAD REGION, RUSSIA – AUGUST 11, 2021: Servicemen take 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.
These developments reflect three factors that are salient in Russian thinking:
- Ambiguity across all domains.
- Preference for a successful initial phase if going kinetic.
- Ambition to compete with the Western/NATO sensor-to-shooter capability, which is an evolution of the classic Russian preference for massive fires.
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. According to the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service’s most recent annual report, Russia has “absolute supremacy” in terms of offensive equipment: tanks, fighter aircraft, and rocket artillery.5 In the past decade, Russia has set up three army commands, five new division headquarters, and 15 new mechanized regiments in the Western Military District (MD). The 76th Guards Air Assault Division is based just 28 km (17 miles) from the Estonian border. The First Guards Tank Army, reassembled in 2015 to neutralize the threat from the Baltic countries, is bigger than the combined armored forces of the United Kingdom and Germany combined.6
These land-warfare capabilities are matched in the air. The Baltic states have developed a peacetime radar and communications system capable of supporting Baltic Air Policing but inadequate for the military defense of Baltic airspace against Russian capabilities, which are substantial. In the Western MD, Russia maintains 27 combat air squadrons, six attack helicopter squadrons, and a division of airborne infantry. Though NATO overall has far superior air forces, Russia has a local advantage, which is reinforced by its extensive and advanced air-defense capabilities in the Baltic Sea region.7 It has also invested heavily in electronic warfare (EW). These capabilities are not widely matched in the Baltic Sea region. In the event of a conflict, this would be the first time since the Korean War that the United States and its allies could face problems in gaining air superiority.
Zapad exercises, part of a rotational quadrennial series across Russia’s four military districts, exemplify Russian-Belarusian military integration and Russia’s ability to rehearse large, combined operations, including live-fire and realistic, unscripted scenarios, and Russia’s dominance of the escalation ladder.8 From 2013 to 2017, Russia conducted 25 exercises on its western borders, while NATO had only 15. Zapad involves the speedy assembly and deployment of large numbers of troops and equipment; combined air, land, and naval operations; and the putative use of nuclear weapons.9 This accentuates the nuclear imbalance. Russia has deployed new ground-based, intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. These exercises typically include scenarios involving the employment of nuclear weapons (see box, “Inside Zapad”).10
The Zapad-09 military exercise scenario, for example, featured a notional uprising by the Polish minority in Belarus, jointly suppressed by Russian and Belarusian military forces, culminating in a Russian nuclear strike on Warsaw. The Zapad-13 scenario envisaged “Baltic terrorists” attacking Belarus. Zapad-17 involved Russian and Belarusian forces repelling an attack from a notional territory called Veyshnoria. Around 13,000 Russian and Belarusian military personnel, 70 aircraft, and 680 pieces of military hardware, including 250 tanks and hundreds more rocket/artillery pieces took part. The Kremlin underreported the scale of the exercise and failed to withdraw some portion of its participating troops from Belarusian territory. From his analysis of the exercise, the Lithuanian military analyst Virgilijus Pugačiauskas concludes that in the event of a conflict with NATO, Belarusian forces would:
“[C]arry out the functions of the Russian forward forces (advanced guard), intelligence and protection component. Their possible tasks would be protecting, supplying/equipping and ensuring re-deployment of the Russian forces and their preparation for combat actions.”11
Zapad-21 will be even more controversial. The bulk will be in September, but preparations have already started, including Baltic naval readiness drills in January.12 According to a recent Western MD statement, the drills “will focus on combating cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.” Reports also suggest the use of unconventional battlefield tools, including electronic countermeasures (ECM).
Photo: T-72B3 2016 variant Tank with a 6P49 Machine Gun during 2017 Zapad military exercises. Credit: Igor Rudenko, Russian Ministry of Defense
The Lithuanian analyst Daivis Petraitis has analyzed past Zapad exercises and draws the following conclusions about how Russian military planners imagine a conflict with NATO.
In phase one, Russian forces conduct a swift, combined forces assault aimed at capturing key political and military targets, supported by long-range precision-guided missiles launched from bombers and nuclear submarines, airstrikes, electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, as well as extensive special operations. Ground offensives would be launched both from the Pskov and Smolensk regions, and from Kaliningrad, first by rapid reaction forces, followed by other units from the Western MD, later from other districts.
Phase two involves a massive, joint forces offensive aimed at repelling enemy counterattacks and stabilizing assets and positions captured in phase one.
Phase three includes the use of nuclear weapons to coerce the enemy to stop fighting and begin negotiations.
Russia continues to conduct other activities that threaten Baltic Sea regional security, such as last year’s High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) commando parachute jumps from 33,000 feet (10,000 meters) in the Arctic.13 There are unconfirmed reports of EW against U.S. Navy vessels in the Baltic Sea and the use of unmanned surveillance equipment launched from fishing vessels. Russia uses inland waterways to move small naval vessels such as landing craft between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the White Sea, and the Baltic Sea. In August 2019, the movement of large naval forces from the Ocean Shield exercise in the Baltic Sea to waters off northern Norway unpleasantly surprised Western military officials.14 The apparent objective was to block NATO’s access not only to the Baltic Sea but also to the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea. Such exercises are more sophisticated nowadays than previous Russian military drills and involve land forces, like the new Arctic brigade, air, and naval forces in comprehensive joint operations.
In some respects, though, the aggressive character of Russian military behavior has diminished. In our previous report, for example, we highlighted, among other provocative exercises, dummy air attacks on the Danish island of Bornholm, and on two targets in Sweden. Judging by open sources, nothing as serious has happened recently. One interpretation of this change is that Russian exercises appear now to be focused on improving military capability rather than making a political point.
These abovementioned conventional capabilities in combination with exercises and rapid deployments highlight Russia’s continued and growing readiness to win short wars and break Western political will.
Why It Matters
The road to defeat and failure, not just for the Baltic states but for the Baltic Sea region and for all the countries of the Euro-Atlantic community, is short. A sufficiently determined and unforeseen military attack — kinetic, violent, and disruptive — could in theory divide the Baltic states from each other, or from the rest of Europe, in a matter of hours. Nothing else in Russia’s military toolbox offers such a prospect of speedy and decisive geopolitical victory. The aim will be not to strike Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in isolation, but to defeat NATO or render it politically irrelevant.
In other words, the Baltic states may be the place of the battle, but not of the war. A defeat — even a symbolic one — for NATO in the Baltic Sea region would be a game changer for a generation, entrenching Russia’s great-power status, marking the end of Europe’s post-war collective security arrangements, and destroying the credibility of the U.S. security guarantee across the Atlantic (and, therefore, also the Pacific). Nobody should regard that prospect with equanimity.
Firstly, the immutable factor in the military picture is the size and location of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Their terrain is flat. They have no natural frontiers (with the exception of Lake Peipus in Estonia). They lack, in military jargon, strategic depth. In layman’s terms, this means that there is nowhere to retreat to. This makes deterrence by denial hard, and increases the importance of deterrence by punishment — i.e., strikes inside Russian territory. This, in turn, prompts fears about escalation, and strains alliance cohesion.
Secondly, the Baltic states are, in geostrategic terms, a peninsula. The land link to the rest of Europe is the Suwałki-Alytus corridor, just 110 km (40 miles) wide. The infrastructure connections through this corridor are fragile: two highways and one small railway. Other parts of NATO territory, notably northern Norway, are vulnerable too. But northern Norway is a remote, lightly populated region of a much larger country. In the Baltic states, three countries are at existential risk.
Changes in the spatial and temporal nature of warfare accentuate this problem. The range and precision of weapons systems is extending. The Nordic-Baltic region is no longer eight countries, but one space. Moreover, the time available for decision-making is shrinking. Advance warning used to be measured in weeks and days, now it could be only hours and minutes in a limited “grab and hold” scenario that does not require significant Russian mobilization. That requires more standing units and greater readiness. This is a particular challenge for countries such as Finland where military defense relies heavily on the mobilization of reserve forces. It also strains cohesion: it is possible, for example, that one country perceives an Article 5 threat, but its neighbors do not.
Options to counter an attack within the Baltic states are limited. The best protection is forewarning. Russia’s forces are not deployed or configured for an immediate attack. The better the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR, see box on “ISR: Lessons from the Black Sea”) capabilities, the more warning the potential victims of an attack have, and the greater their chances of forestalling it by diplomatic and other means.
Photo: A British Army Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank (MBT) lays down a smoke screen during Spring Storm 19, Estonia's largest annual military exercise. Roughly 9,000 soldiers from Estonia, other NATO Allies and partner nations have gathered near the town of Jõhvi to engage in a collective defence exercise, strengthening their ability to work together in times of crisis. Credit: NATO
But political decision-making may be too slow. Once the fighting starts, attrition favors Russia; strategic depth is lacking. Alternate, dispersed, and layered battlefield designs offer the best chance of challenging the aggressor on more favorable terms. Political fog and the time-distance-forces gap for any allied reinforcement mean that scarce resources must be managed innovatively, with resilience and redundancy: if one plan fails, then another one must succeed.
Though European allies pay lip service to the idea of peer competition, many are still rooted in thinking shaped by low-intensity conflicts of the past 30 years, or the newly visible (to some) threat from so-called hybrid warfare. As the next section explains, the necessary political and military planning for dealing with all aspects of the Russian threat is largely lacking.
What Russia Wants
The Kremlin aims to be the dominant power in Eurasia, using Russia’s size to exert strong influence over its neighbors and to bargain with big countries on an equal basis.
- “World military spending rises to almost $2 trillion in 2020,” SIPRI, April 26, 2020, https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2021/world-military-spending-rises-almost-2-trillion-2020.
- Michael Kofman and Richard Connolly, “Why Russian military expenditure is much higher than commonly understood (as is China’s),” War on the Rocks, December 16, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/12/why-russian-military-expenditure-is-much-higher-than-commonly-understood-as-is-chinas/.
- Scott Boston, Michael Johnson, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, and Yvonne K. Crane, “Assessing the Conventional Force Imbalance in Europe: Implications for Countering Russian Local Superiority,” RAND Corporation, 2018, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2402.html.
- Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles, “The Russian Reconnaissance Fire Complex Comes of Age,” University of Oxford: Changing Character of War Centre, May 30, 2018, http://www.ccw.ox.ac.uk/blog/2018/5/30/the-russian-reconnaissance-fire-complex-comes-of-age.
- “International Security and Estonia,” Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, 2020, https://www.valisluureamet.ee/pdf/raport-2020-en.pdf.
- Daniel Brown, “This is the famed Russian tank corps that Putin is sending to NATO’s borders,” Business Insider, August 3, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/this-is-the-russian-tank-corps-putin-is-sending-natos-borders-2017-8. The 6th Army (St. Petersburg) is responsible for operations in Karelia and the Baltic countries (Finland, Estonia and Latvia); the 20th Guards Army (Voronezh) is responsible for the northern front in Ukraine. See “The Main Developments in Russian Military Capability,” ICDS, February 2021, https://icds.ee/en/the-main-developments-in-russian-military-capability/.
- Olevs Nikers and Otto Tabuns, eds., “Baltic Security Strategy Report: What the Baltics Can Offer For a Stronger Alliance,” Jamestown Foundation, 2019, https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Baltic-Security-Strategy-Report-2019.pdf?x94108#page=56.
- Vostok (East) took place in 2018, Tsentr (Center) in 2019 and Kavkaz (Caucasus) in 2020.
- See also Johan Norberg, “Training for war: Russia’s strategic-level military exercises 2009–2017,” Swedish Defence Research Agency, 2018, https://www.foi.se/en/foi/news-and-pressroom/news/2019-02-04-russia-trains-for-war.html and Heiner Brauß and Dr. András Rácz, “Russia’s Strategic Interests and Actions in the Baltic Region,” DGAP, January 2021, https://dgap.org/sites/default/files/article_pdfs/210107_Report-2021-1-EN.pdf.
- Daivis Petraitis, “The Anatomy of Zapad-2017: Certain Features of Russian Military Planning,” Lithuanian Annual Strategic Review 16 no. 1 (2018): 229-267, https://doi.org/10.2478/lasr-2018-0009.
- Virgilijus Pugačiauskas, “Military Cooperation between Russia and Belarus: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives,” Lithuanian Annual Strategic Review, December 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341919662_Military_Cooperation_between_Russia_and_Belarus_Theoretical_and_Practical_Perspectives.
- “Russia’s Baltic Fleet begins large-scale combat readiness drills,” TASS, January 25, 2021, https://tass.com/defense/1248519.
- Joseph Trevithick, “Russian Commandos Jump From 33,000 Feet Over The Arctic In Unprecedented Exercise,” The Drive, April 27, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/33190/russian-commandos-jump-from-over-30000-feet-over-the-arctic-in-unprecedented-exercise.
- Thomas Nilsen, “Northern Fleet warships will conduct tactical exercises around Scandinavia,” The Barents Observer, July 30, 2021, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2021/07/northern-fleet-warships-will-conduct-tactical-exercises-around-scandinavia.