By: Igor Shchebetun

NATO exercise Defenders of Europe 20 was to be the largest U.S. troop deployment to Europe in more than 25 years. The main purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate the Alliance's ability to come to the aid of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which joined NATO in 2004. Despite the strongly pronounced pro-Western course of these countries, energy ties, trade flows and geographical realities make the three former Soviet republics the arena of an unspoken struggle for influence between Washington and Moscow.  What will happen to the Baltic states if tensions rise sharply and relations between Russia and NATO reach the phase of armed conflict? For centuries, the three small countries around the Baltic Sea have been the battleground for influence between the great powers. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries of the Baltic region strengthened their economic integration with the West, resulting in the economic prosperity of all three states, but the success of the Baltics also exposes the vulnerability of NATO in this region. 

Latvia and Estonia share a border with Russia, and the presence of large Russian-speaking communities in both countries inevitably leads to disagreements and conflicts over linguistic citizenship rights and historical memory. The focus here is on hybrid threats, where technically savvy Estonians seek to repel cyberattacks while Latvia focuses on strategic communications for information warfare. The two Baltic states are more susceptible to direct military pressure from Russia than their neighbour to the south Lithuania has the largest population among the three countries and is located in the most strategically important territory in the Baltic. It is here in the southernmost Baltic state that the tactical confrontation between Russia and NATO will take place. The Baltic states have no chance to withstand the onslaught of the Russian army. The question is whether it will be able to strengthen its allies before the Russian invasion.

Exercise Defender of Europe 20, scheduled for late March 2020, was supposed to be an attempt to answer this question. It was supposed to mobilize more than 20,000 U.S. soldiers and move more than 13,000 pieces of military equipment across the continent to demonstrate the Alliance's ability to defend the southern Baltic region, but was canceled due to movement restrictions due to COVID-19 pandemic. Although the exercises were not carried out as planned, the current military situation in the Baltic is worth exploring. The key to understanding the specifics of the region is its geography. Most importantly the presence of Russia here and the Kaliningrad region is a Russian enclave about the size of Northern Ireland located on the Baltic Sea coast southwest of Lithuania. 

Because of the stationing of the Russian-Baltic Fleet headquarters, the small subject of the Federation is well protected and considered the most militarized region in Europe. In February 2018, Kaliningrad became home to Iskander operational-tactical missile systems with nuclear capabilities and a range that covered all of the Baltic states and beyond. In addition, the province has the resources to limit and deny access and maneuvers at sea through long-range missiles, anti-ship missiles, missile defense systems, air, land and naval forces. 

Needless to say, Kaliningrad will play a decisive role in any confrontation with Russia. Today, the U.S. military leadership believes that the firepower present in Kaliningrad is enough to block U.S. naval forces from entering the Baltic Sea. This means that military action in the Baltics will take place on land, which completely changes the picture. After the events of 2014, NATO deployed a significantly deterrent force to its Eastern European countries. Expanded Forward Presence. This is a program to deploy troops consisting of combat units from the armies of various NATO members, equipped with relatively light weapons and ready to resist aggression under allied command. According to NATO statements, four multinational battlegroups deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are led by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States. Canada and Germany and the United States, respectively, would increase Russian losses in the event of Russian intervention in the Baltics. The Kremlin argues that this increased presence raises security concerns and will only increase tensions in the future. Such escalation has already begun over the past few years, Russia has strengthened its air and anti-aircraft missile capabilities with equipment such as the Kalibr ship-based missile system with a range of up to 2,000 km, the S-400 Triumf long-range air defense system and the advanced Su-30cm fighter-bombers. 

In 2017, the Kremlin tested this equipment in a large-scale exercise by the West envisioning a worsening of relations with the West and highlighting the conflict on the territory of the Baltic states. During the exercise, Coastal Defense systems in Kaliningrad hit surface targets and Russian strategic targets near the Lithuanian border. Bombers attacked ground targets for the first time since the Cold War. Tensions are clearly high and further escalation does not look favorable to NATO in terms of military prospects. The stretch of land located between northeastern Poland and southern Lithuania between Kaliningrad and Belarus at its narrowest point is only 66 kilometers wide and is called the Suwalki Corridor. This strategically important area is one of NATO's most vulnerable geostrategic points because it serves as the only land corridor between the alliance and the Baltic states. Whoever controls the Suvalki corridor will dominate the entire battlefield, so NATO should do everything possible to maintain land access to the Baltics, while Russia will do everything possible to block this passage. For Lithuania the Suvalki corridor is also crucial because this area provides access to the second largest city in the country, Kaunas, located at the confluence of two major rivers dividing the country into two parts. Historically, both Napoleon and Hitler conducted offensives through the Suvalki Corridor. During the First World War, the Russian troops conducted counterattacks here. This region became the main battlefield of the Polish-Lithuanian War. The hilly terrain in Suwalki makes it difficult to regain control of the area should it be lost, and reinforcing NATO defenses face diplomatic difficulties in view of the transport routes from Russia to Kaliningrad that pass through here. More specifically, Russia has a legal right of passage through the Suvalki corridor to connect with Kaliningrad, and this freedom of access is a red line for Moscow. The Zapad 2017 exercise involving Belarus demonstrated how easily Russia can gain an advantage on the eastern flank of the Suvalki Corridor through which it can ferry its units. Meanwhile, it is assumed that three brigades of about 15,000 soldiers can be mobilized on the western flank in Kaliningrad alone for comparison, the regular Lithuanian army has 18,000 soldiers and it is not as well equipped as the Russian army and the number of forward multinational NATO units is just over 4 and a half thousand soldiers in fact the Russian troops located in the region outnumber the NATO troops by a ratio of about eight to one.

It is believed that to achieve parity with the Russian NATO forces, 18 more brigades will have to be deployed in the Baltics. However, reinforcing the Baltic allies is a politically risky and logistically complex undertaking. Even in the air NATO will not find it easy to gain military superiority. It is worth stressing that NATO has the technical capability to destroy Russian missile systems in the region. However, such a strike would increase tensions to the point of no return, which is a dangerous gamble in a conflict with a nuclear power.

All this means that at the moment Russia can easily suppress NATO forces in the Suvali corridor and isolate the Baltic states. This could be realized quite unexpectedly given Russia's freedom of movement in this region and the close proximity of its forces in Belarus and long-range missiles in Kaliningrad. Even with the rapid deployment of NATO forces, as suggested by the Defender of Europe 22 exercise, there is great doubt that they will be able to defend this territory until reinforcements arrive. Retaking the Suvalki Corridor by military means will require significant efforts from every NATO member state. By and large, NATO's vulnerability in the Baltics is well known to its military leadership. However, the general public in NATO member states is less familiar with it. Increased awareness of military realities could prevent possible miscalculations, because in any situation on the brink of war, NATO democracies would have to enlist the support of the people. Article 5 of NATO declares that an attack on one member of the Alliance is an attack on all members. This is the Cornerstone of the entire organization. If the Kremlin's ultimate goal is the destruction of NATO, one way of doing so is to demonstrate that the Alliance cannot defend its allies and the Baltics is the best place to test this theory.