Russian Military Drills Leave Baltic States Unmoved

Image: Russia's zapad exercises. Выдвижение подразделений ВС РФ и Республики Беларусь в район проведения учения. Credit: Kremlin.ru.
Image: Russia's zapad exercises. Выдвижение подразделений ВС РФ и Республики Беларусь в район проведения учения. Credit: Kremlin.ru.

The last time that Russia and its allies exercised as many as 70,000 personnel on its western borders during Zapad-17, the enormous, treaty-busting military maneuvers caused widespread unease in the Baltic states and those other neighbors with recent memories of Soviet occupation.

This time it’s different (though still huge and designed to intimidate.) There are numerous reasons for the mood change over Zapad-21, but foremost is the sense among the Baltic states that their security and safety have been significantly enhanced by new defense capabilities and increased solidarity and cooperation amongst the regional and transatlantic allies.

Most importantly:

  • Since 2017, the NATO forward presence battlegroups have been deployed to the Baltic states and Poland, together with other foreign military units, including the joint training of Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian and allied troops. In August, a U.S. battalion was deployed on a rotational basis to Lithuania. Allied jets patrol the skies.
  • A new Lithuanian military training ground, named Herkus, was opened this year to enhance training capacity for the U.S. and other troops in the Baltic states and to facilitate the deployment of critical partners and allies in the region.
  • NATO’s presence was further underlined by the presence of a Counter Hybrid Support Team (CHST), which spent several weeks in Lithuania analyzing the specifics of ongoing hybrid aggression. The team developed recommendations on various countermeasures.

The exercises — which ended on September 16 — have nonetheless given Russia-watchers a great deal to digest, not least because the drills were designed as a tool to better integrate the Belarusian armed forces into the Russian armed forces. This is the final stage of a process, and it is no longer in question that Russia has irreversibly taken over Belarus economically, militarily, and politically. Clearly, this deduction will form an important part of the Baltic state and NATO thinking for the future.

Yet while the Baltic States have been monitoring Zapad-21 closely, they have not offered an extensive public commentary, noting only the possibility of potential military/hybrid provocation in the region. For instance, Latvia’s Foreign Minister said that the Belarus “border crisis” (where Belarus has been pushing developing world migrants across its neighbors’ borders — could cause a misunderstanding and risked an “incident” with NATO troops in the Baltic states or Poland. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has commented that “the threat of provocations is also at its highest in four years.”

It has also been reassuring to see regular contacts between Poland and its Baltic partners on security issues. On September 13 for example, the ministers of defense and foreign affairs described recent hybrid attacks (like the misuse of vulnerable migrants as a weapon), was not the work of Aliaksandr Lukashenka alone, and that Russia had also been involved.

In truth, the Baltic states have more than enough on their political plates. Take Lithuania, Quite apart from the border crisis fostered by the Lukashenka’s regime funneling thousands of illegal migrants into the country, it is also engaged in a diplomatic row with China as a result of the government’s decision to open a trade office with Taiwan. All this is combined with the multifaceted domestic issues of managing the covid-19 pandemic, national vaccination challenges, and protests against the government’s restrictions combined with the scripted provocations from foreign powers aiming to worsen societal instability and increase division. Some Baltic experts wryly observe that taken together, this is itself a practical case study of “hybrid threats” to national security, which the alliance might do well to reflect on.

Baltic state officials may also have judged that any threat from Zapad-21 may be limited given the context:

  • Russia’s military exercises mark the operational revision of Russia’s defense plans, which expired in 2020, and a new national defense plan is to be signed soon.
  • The drills are taking place on the very eve of the Duma elections (from September 17-19); and
  • Russia is testing new a new generation of weapons at Zapad-21 and these require new military plans and scripts.

And yet the experience of Russia’s neighbors is clear whether they are NATO members or not. Everyone is happier, and more relaxed when Russian forces return to barracks.

September 17, 2021