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How Could the Baltic States Deter a Russian Invasion?

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė participating in a military ceremony. Image: Kapeksas/Wikimedia

Commentators have used Moscow’s tacit support for separatists in eastern Ukraine as an opportunity to speculate whether the Baltic states possess the capability to deter a similar Russian intervention. While this ‘scenario’ is unlikely to happen any time soon, it nevertheless warrants serious consideration given that NATO’s north-eastern flank is home to a sizeable ethnic Russian community. As a starting point, strategic planners in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania might want to factor Russia’s 2008 military campaign against Georgia into their calculations. Doing so might help them to determine the most effective response for the ultimate ‘worst case scenario’ – an all-out invasion by Russian forces.

Lessons (to be) Learned

In August 2008, Georgia attacked forces belonging to the breakaway republic of South Ossetia and Russian troops based there as peacekeepers. When Moscow responded with force, the Georgian army found itself engaged in a conventional and symmetric conflict. Unsurprisingly, Russia’s conventional superiority quickly prevailed and Georgia’s armed forces were soundly beaten in a matter of days. Indeed, Russian troops could have quite easily taken the Georgian capital Tbilisi and the rest of the country, if they had chosen to do so.

Back then, Tbilisi was able to call upon approximately 17,000 professional soldiers, the bulk of which had been trained by American counterparts. In addition, the Georgian army was equipped with 80 T-72 tanks, 150 artillery pieces and about the same number of armored personnel carriers and vehicles. Georgia’s airpower was based around seven Su-25 ground attack aircraft and a few attack helicopters.

Coming in at approximately 15,000 professional soldiers, the Baltic States’ combined armed forces are, therefore, comparable in strength to Georgia’s pre-war army. The big difference is that none of these states has what could be called a credible air force or, until very recently, tanks and other armored vehicles. However, the lesson to be learned from the 2008 war is obvious enough – a handful of modern fighter aircraft and the odd tank battalion or two are of little use against a much larger conventional enemy. Small conventional armed forces pitted against recognized military powers tend to go down to defeat quickly.

There is also the small matter of cost. Overinvestment in the aforementioned weapons systems would leave the Baltics with very little money for more tangible forms of self-defense. Additionally, there is very little deterrent value in the United States’ decision to deliver some 120 M1A2 Abrams tanks and M2A3 Bradley armoured vehicles to Latvia. Given the numerical superiority of Russia’s tanks and heavy weapons, this seems like nothing more than a gesture to reassure a nervous NATO partner.

A Better Option?

Consequently, a better option for deterring a Russian attack might lie in the Baltic States’ ability to wage an insurgency against invading forces. The effort required to develop these capabilities should not be underestimated. To start with, each state would need to create a universal militia, in which every male citizen would be expected to serve. Upon joining up, conscripts would be trained by professional soldiers in survival techniques and sabotage acts. Special units composed entirely of professional troops would form the core of the armed services and would conduct the most difficult operations against the occupiers. Weapons, explosives and other materials would be stored throughout the region and the population would support the guerrilla fighters with food, clothes and information. It would be a rural rather than an urban guerrilla campaign in which the Russian army would take the cities but struggle to control the countryside. Such a strategy would, in theory, make it extremely painful and expensive for Russia to occupy its erstwhile Soviet republics.

However, there’s no guarantee that launching an insurgency against Russian forces will be a success. To start with, Russia has far more resources and manpower at its disposal and appears far more willing to take casualties than its NATO counterparts in order to win a conflict. There are various estimates of Russian causalities in the two Chechen wars which Russia has waged since 1994. The Russian-Chechen Friendship Society estimates Russian losses at 20,000 to 40,000 for the period 1994-2003. By comparison, the United States has only lost 2,357 soldiers in Afghanistan and 4,490 soldiers in Iraq. This willingness to accept more casualties can be partly explained by the fact that most Russians think that Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation, and should remain so. About a quarter of the population in Estonia and Latvia are ethnic Russians, whose loyalty might be questionable in case of a war with Russia. Their potential support for the Russian army would obstruct a guerrilla campaign.

It also needs to be remembered that successful guerrilla wars have mostly been waged by martial peoples like the Afghans or the Chechens: poor societies that can stomach a degree of suffering and deprivation beyond the comprehension of most Westerners. These communities tend to be based in societies that wage war on a near-perpetual basis – if not against foreign invaders then amongst themselves. Guerrillas tend to hide among the general population, which often leads to the destruction of critical infrastructure and the imprisonment, torture and killing of indigenous individuals by the occupying power. As the Baltics are relatively stable middle class societies, it is doubtful whether they are willing to pay the price for a successful guerrilla campaign.

And let’s not forget that the Baltic peoples have launched an insurgency against Russian forces before – and failed. Following the Second World War, resistance movements in each of these states fought against the Soviet occupation. While these guerrilla movements were in control of parts of the countryside for several years, Soviet forces managed to eradicate most of them by the early 1950s. With this in mind, it seems safe to assume that Baltic guerrilla units will most likely fall short again – particularly in the absence of meaningful support from the West.

The (Only) Way Forward

In theory, the Baltic states do not even need to ‘win’ a conflict with Russia. Instead, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could invoke the provisions of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and hold out until their NATO partners come to their aid. It’s highly unlikely, however, that the wider Alliance will put the theory behind Article 5 into practice. Recent military engagements in the Middle East and South Asia have left many Western populations with a distinct lack of appetite for further interventions. Concerns also remain over how falling defense expenditure might impact upon NATO’s ability to engage with a relatively well-equipped adversary like Russia. With these factors firmly in mind, an increased NATO presence over Baltic airspace might be as good as it gets for planners in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius.

Which leaves the Baltic States’ policymakers with an equally unappetizing option: approaching an increasingly bellicose Russia at the political level in the name of long-term security and stability. Like all small countries bordering hegemons, the need to accommodate the larger party’s interests must not be lost on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In this respect, the Baltic States might want to look no further than Finland, a neighbor that maintained sovereignty over its domestic affairs by accommodating the Soviet Union’s geopolitical interests. For the duration of the Cold War, Helsinki agreed not to join any organization that was deemed to be in opposition to the Soviet bloc and pursued a foreign policy of neutrality.

Accordingly, it might be in the Baltic States’ best interests to take a leaf out of Helsinki’s book and be a good neighbor to Russia. This might entail demonstrating to Moscow that these former Soviet states are so serious about maintaining their independency and territorial integrity that they are prepared to take the same course of action as Finland. Of course, some people will label this strategy as appeasement. However, preventing a full-scale Russian invasion by accommodating Moscow’s interests is certainly a better strategy than trying to resist one. Indeed, it might be the Baltic States’ only option.


Philipp Müller was an Assistant Director at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, where he focussed upon energy security. He holds a Master of Arts Degree in Global Affairs and a Bachelor of Arts Degree BA in International Studies with French from the University of Buckingham.

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One reply on “How Could the Baltic States Deter a Russian Invasion?”

Mr. Müller apparently does not know that Finland during the appeasement years also had a sizable and well organized military force, as well as a history of successfully defending the state against two large scale attacks by the Soviet Union during World War II. They might not have been able to do that again if the fight had been alone against the Soviet Union, or in in a hypothetical future situation against a possible Russian attack, but they would have made/would make a war rather costly for the attacker. A cost is a cost, even if it is a small one, and must be taken note of in strategic calculations. Advising the Baltic states to scrap their military forces, implying also that they should get out of NATO which the current Russian leadership does not like very much, would lead to a situation rather dangerous for them. Unlike Finland, they once have been parts of the Soviet Union, and the pressure against them would probably be much stronger.

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