Russia Won’t Attack the Baltic States

When the Cold War closed many people believed that history had ended. Europe was certain to be free and undivided.

Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. But no worries. At least NATO officials are happy. Following Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine the alliance rediscovered a sense of purpose through its old enemy, Moscow.

The Obama administration just announced a multi-billion dollar program to bolster U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. Now a Rand Corporation report warns that Russia could easily overrun the three Baltic members of NATO is raising additional alarm.

Said David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson: the “unambiguous” result of a series of war games was that “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” The Rand researchers recommended a substantial allied military presence to deter Moscow.

Shalapak and Johnson dismissed the cost, estimated at around $2.7 billion annually, but more commitments require more force structure, and that burden almost certainly would fall upon America rather than the Europeans. Just like the administration’s new initiative for Eastern Europe involving a single brigade.

Their conclusion illustrates the folly years ago of treating NATO as a social club and inducting new members which were irrelevant to the continent’s security and possessed minimal military capabilities. Now the alliance realizes that it is obligated to war against nuclear-armed Russia on behalf of essentially indefensible countries.

Equally striking is how NATO membership has discouraged the Baltic nations from doing much for their own defense. Last year Latvia and Lithuania devoted 1.06 percent and 1.14 percent, respectively, of GDP to the military. Estonia was 2.04 percent—the first time Tallinn met the official NATO standard.

Yet the surging fear over Russian adventurism is misplaced. Vladimir Putin’s behavior is bad, but poses little threat to America, “old” Europe, or even most of Russia’s neighbors.

He has taken Moscow back to the Russian Empire, not the Soviet Union. His government demands respect for its status, protection of Russia’s borders, and consideration of its interests.

Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgia was actively anti-Russian, pursued close ties with America, and sought membership in NATO—all certain to antagonize Moscow. Ukraine always mattered more to Moscow than Georgia or the Baltics for historical and cultural reasons, as well as the naval base of Sebastopol. Putin acted only after Europe pushed a trade agreement to reorient Ukraine away from Russia and both Brussels and Washington backed a street revolution against the elected president who leaned toward Russia.

Even then, Putin sought to weaken, not conquer, Ukraine. His brutal response was murderous and unjustified, but militarily on par with U.S. interventions.

Putin continues to demonstrate no interest in ruling those likely to resist Russia’s tender mercies. Seizing the Baltic states likely would generate substantial popular resistance.

Moreover, as weak nations currently containing no foreign troops, the Baltics pose no potential threat to Russia. Finally, the Baltic ethnic Russian populations, though significant, demonstrate little sentiment for joining Mother Russia. They prefer cultural connection to political affiliation, creating a poor target for the sort of destabilizing tactics deployed against Ukraine.

So what would Russia gain from attacking the Baltics? A recalcitrant, majority non-ethnic Russian population. A possible temporary nationalist surge at home. A likely short-lived victory over the West. 

As I argue in National Interest: “The costs would be far greater. Grabbing the Baltics likely would spur population exodus and trigger economic collapse. Launching a war without the convincing pretext present in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine might leave the Russian public angry over the retaliation certain to come.”

Worse, Moscow certainly would rupture economic and political relations with the U.S. and Europe and probably start a losing conventional war with NATO. Even more frightening would be the prospect of a nuclear conflict.

The U.S. should stop making defense promises which serve the interests of other nations rather than America. The Europeans should prepare their own defense.