Is NATO’s Eastern flank exposed?
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the threat of Russian aggression has increased. In addition to the annexation and Russia's aggression in Eastern Ukraine, Russia has also ended its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty which requires transparency on conventional military movements that is a core part of regional security. The Center for Strategic and International Studies also reports that Russia increasingly subverts the Vienna Documents which require countries in Europe to notify other countries when conventional military exercises take place by full combat readiness exercise with no notice. On top of this, it is also believed that Russia is in violation of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty which is a thirty-year- old treaty that was supposed to ensure nuclear security in Europe.
All of this contributes to the doctrine of rapid movement that the Russians have developed regarding their military operations. US and NATO military officials believe that it could only take 60 hours for Russian forces to reach the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all of whom are NATO countries. The Russian military has also reorganized its command structure and improved its capabilities for rapid decision making and reinforcements. These factors build upon Russia’s short distance to the Baltic states, where many ports and NATO defenses are only thirty miles away from the Russian border.
A series of wargames by the RAND corporation dealt with the scenario of a Russian invasion of the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. These war games were done by expert participants that were in the military or academic fields. The results of the wargames show that current NATO forces in the Baltic cannot withstand any Russian invasion. Furthermore, the rapid speed of the Russian invasion will mean some amount of NATO member state territory will be occupied by the Russians that NATO would have to dislodge in a counter attack.
In addition to the Russian military advantages in speed and logistics, the qualitative advantage that NATO traditionally enjoyed over Russia has significantly narrowed over the years. Russia is currently in a middle of a massive military modernization program. Russian forces can deploy far more artillery and fire systems than are currently present in Eastern Europe, weapons systems that have far greater range and effectiveness than any NATO state artillery. Furthermore, the modernized air defense systems the Russian military can deploy undermines the advantage of NATO’s air forces. These improvements in military capabilities are complemented by the traditional Russian military advantage in manpower that Russia always had over any NATO or Eastern European military force.
If Russia wins in the initial military confrontation with NATO and occupies any territory of NATO eastern members, the alliance has only three options; to push for a risky counterattack, threaten the use of nuclear weapons, or accept a Russian occupation.These options will hurt the NATO alliance and put the alliance member states in an unenviable strategic position for the future.
It is crucially important that the United States and NATO rectify this situation. The best outcome in defending NATO’s eastern members would be successfully deterring Russia or defending against a Russian invasion. The current forces in the Baltics will not be sufficient in deterrence or defense. NATO, Eastern Europe, and the United States should take steps to improve the alliance’s military position in the region.