NATO’s Failure and the Baltic Front Line in the Cold War Part II

Photo: Sgt Amanda Campbell

A leaked internal document from NATO looks at the alliance’s ability to protect eastern Europe from an attack by Russia and provides us with a glimpse of the weakness of the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to protect its own.  Here are some of the more interesting observations from the RAND report entitled “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank – Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics“.

According to the report, the new front along the borders of the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will prove to be the most likely target for Russian expansionism, expansionism that will require the intervention of NATO as part of its “collective defence” mandate (Article V) since Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia became members in 2004 after they gained their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The RAND report opens by looking at a bit of history.  After the end of the Second World War and during the Cold War, NATO positioned eight Allied corps along the border between West Germany and its neighbouring Warsaw Pact neighbours with 20 divisions stationed to defend that frontier as shown on this map:

In addition, many more divisions were slated to flow into the West German frontier as hostilities escalated.  As you can see on the map, that potential frontline has moved to the aforementioned three Baltic States.  Currently, these three states are defended by the indigenous forces of each nation with a total size of a light infantry brigade each meaning that they are highly unlikely to be able to defend themselves.

By way of comparison, the Russian army can muster 22 battalions for operations in its Western Military District, about the same number of divisions that it had in the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact nations in the early 1990s. 

One key part of the problem for NATO is that of geographic distance.  From the Russian border to Tallin (the capital of Estonia), the highway distance is only 200 kilometres and the distance to Riga (the capital of Latvia), the highway distance is roughly 210 kilometres (depending on the route taken). Access could also take place through Kaliningrad, the small part of Russia nestled between Poland and Lithuania.  

Geographically, the area is very complex.  The terrain is composed of large open areas divided by forested regions, lakes and wetlands, a combination that makes access by wheeled vehicles difficult.  As well, there are few large rivers that would form defensive lines and act as barriers to troop movements.   

RAND conducted a series of war-games between the summer of 2014 and the spring of 2015 looking at the shape and outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the three Baltic states.  On the Russian side, the games employed 27 battalions of Russian forces from the Western Military District and Kaliningrad, moving to occupy Estonia, Latvia or both and measured the ability of NATO to protect its Baltic member states.  The scenario assumed a one week warning period which allowed NATO to move light infantry units into the region by air as shown on this table:

The Russian forces main attack force headed for Riga and a secondary attack secured the ethnic Russian areas of Estonia and then proceeded towards Tallinn as shown on this map:

In this scenario, according to the RAND analysis, the NATO forces were clearly inadequate and were incapable of mounting a forward defensive position.  Rather than pushing Russian forces back, multiple plays of the game showed that Russian forces eliminated or bypassed all of NATO’s resistance and were able to enter Riga and Tallinn between 36 and 60 hours after the beginning of hostilities.

Three factors contributed to the failure of NATO:

1.) Despite the fact that NATO’s 12 maneuver battalions are not significantly outweighed by Russia’s 22 when looking at sheer numbers, the problem exists with the fact that seven of NATO’s battalions are those of Estonia and Latvia which are poorly equipped for fighting against an armoured Russian battalion.  In contrast, all of Russia’s forces are motorized, mechanized or tank units and their eight airborne battalions are equipped with light armoured vehicles.

2.) Russia has an advantage in tactical and operational firepower and possesses ten artillery battalions, three of which are equipped with tube artillery. In the battle scenario, Russia forces prevent NATO’s infantry from retreating and were able to destroy them in place.

3.) There were inadequate NATO ground forces in the region to slow or halt the momentum of the Russian attack.  Even with a substantial toll taken by NATO’s airpower in the region, NATO’s air forces had multiple jobs to do (i.e. suppressing modern surface-to-air defences, defending against possible air attacks on NATO forces) and had its ability to impact the outcome of the ground war limited.

According to RAND’s analysis, the only way to mitigate a Baltic disaster is to make investments in NATO that will form part of a more-robust deterrent. This would include the additional of three brand-new Armoured Brigade Combat Teams (ABCTs) to the U.S. Army at a cost of roughly $13 billion (or less, depending on the use of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles that are currently in storage) plus an annual opening cost of roughly $2.7 billion.  

Let’s close this posting with the final paragraph of the report which nicely sums up the Baltic situation:

Taking measured steps to bolster NATO’s defensive posture in the Baltic states is not committing the United States and Europe to a new Cold War and does not signal irreversible hostility toward Russia. It is instead due diligence that sends a message to Moscow of serious commitment and one of reassurance to all NATO members and to all U.S. allies and partners worldwide.

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