Taking security for granted? NATO and the Baltic states

Tony Lawrence.
Tony Lawrence. Source: ICDS

After a long period focusing mostly on expeditionary warfare, NATO is relearning old skills related to deterrence and collective defense and learning how to apply these in new strategic circumstances. It is certainly on the right path, while this process requires continued focus and investment, head of defense policy and strategy program at the ICDS Tony Lawrence writes.

Since Russia illegally annexed Crimea and began an aggression in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Europe's security environment has been tense. NATO's response to Russia's antagonism, especially the measures it has taken to support its geographically vulnerable Baltic Allies, has been robust. At their most recent meeting in Brussels in June this year, NATO heads of state and government again condemned Russia's ongoing military build-up as a threat to security and reaffirmed their determination to continue to enhance their deterrence posture in the eastern part of the Alliance.

NATO combat aircraft have policed Baltic airspace from Ämari air base since 2014, supplementing air policing from Siauliai, Lithuania, which began in 2004. Since 2015, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have hosted NATO Force Integration Units, tasked with facilitating the deployment to the Baltic states of the Alliance's rapid response forces, which have themselves been expanded and made more ready. The multinational battlegroups that comprise enhanced Forward Presence, NATO's most visible contribution to Baltic security, first deployed to the Baltic states and Poland in 2017.

Standing NATO Maritime Group One and Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group One are present in the Baltic Sea for around 300 days each year, and the Alliance conducts exercises in and around Baltic territory, on land, at sea and in the air on a regular basis.

At this week's Opinion Festival, at a panel organized by the ICDS and the British Embassy in Tallinn, we will discuss whether these efforts are sufficient to deter an adversary from taking military action in the Baltic region. Russia is the only country in Europe that could conceivably pose such a military threat to its neighbors.

Deterrence aims to persuade an adversary not to attack either because it believes the defending side will prevent it from achieving its objectives or because it fears the defender will retaliate and impose unacceptable financial, material or human costs – known by theorists as deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. Either strategy requires the adversary to believe that the defender has enough military capability to deny or punish and the will to use it.

From this, it should be clear that we will certainly not be able to definitively answer whether NATO's deterrence posture is sufficient. NATO can do its best to demonstrate its readiness to respond forcefully to any attack, but in the end, deterrence exists only in the mind of the adversary.

Analysts can, though, look at the various components that make up NATO's deterrence posture, think about their possible impact from a range of expert perspectives (military, political, cultural and so on) and consider what more might be done to enhance their effect. From a military perspective, at least four closely related questions are worth exploring: what capability deters, how much of it is needed, who should provide it and where should it be?

NATO has far greater military power than Russia globally. But in the Baltic region, Russia has a considerable local advantage in the balance of forces. It is not realistic, for practical and political reasons, for NATO to permanently deploy to the region the several army brigades, including some heavily armored, that analysts estimate could deter an attack with a reasonable degree of confidence.

Instead, NATO relies on a "tripwire" strategy (although it does not use this term) in which only small forces are present in the Baltic region – local Baltic forces and the enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups – whose attack would trigger a much larger NATO reinforcement and defense operation.

In such a strategy, the local forces must be able to deal with smaller-scale contingencies themselves and delay any larger-scale attack for as long as possible to allow reinforcements to arrive. In these circumstances, the "what" and "how much" capability questions relate to being able to provide a balanced local response to a range of contingencies. The focus is on identifying and addressing shortfalls in capabilities that have broad utility – in the Baltic region, examples include air defense and maritime assets.

The "who" question has at least two angles. As a collective defense organization, NATO derives credibility from the fact that every ally would respond if one of their number was attacked. Allied unity is thus a vital component of deterrence. It was noticeable that at their summit in June, NATO leaders were eager to demonstrate the cohesion and common purpose that had been so badly damaged by the Trump presidency. But actions on the ground are important too – that 23 out of 30 Allies are framework, contributing or host nations to enhanced Forward Presence sends a strong message to a would-be aggressor.

At the same time, it is unavoidable that some allies will produce a higher deterrent effect than others. In NATO, the U.S. is by a considerable margin the most militarily powerful member state. The U.S. has concentrated its NATO-flagged presence in Poland and does not participate in the Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania (although there are small U.S. national units present in each of the Baltic states). It is to ensure the absolute certainty that the U.S. will be engaged in any conflict in the region that Baltic leaders are eager to host a permanent or rotational U.S. military presence.

NATO's tripwire strategy has effectively already settled the "where" question – there will only be small, light forces in the region, while the large and heavy forces that provide the bulk of the deterrent effect will be mostly located in their home states. In the Baltic defense scenario, "where" has thus been replaced by "how" – how do these reinforcements get to where they need at the right time?

NATO has taken steps to ensure the greater readiness of its forces to be certain that they can deploy quickly. And, alongside the EU, it has worked to ensure that the various legal, physical, and organizational obstacles to military movement across Europe are reduced or removed. These efforts have been brought together in recent years through reinforcement exercises on a scale not seen since the Cold War.

After a long period focusing mostly on expeditionary warfare, NATO is relearning old skills related to deterrence and collective defense and learning how to apply these in new strategic circumstances. It is certainly on the right path, while this process requires continued focus and investment. NATO's new strategic concept – the highest-level statement of its environment, purpose, nature, and tasks – to be agreed and published in 2022 will be an important marker of how the Alliance understands this challenge and what more needs to be done.


"Taking security for granted? NATO and the Baltic states" will take place in English, from 6 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. on Friday, August 13 in the Nordic Talks area of the Opinion Festival in Paide, Estonia. It will be livestreamed on ICDS and British Embassy social media channels.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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