Small Wars Journal

If Russia Started a War in the Baltics, NATO Would Lose - Quickly

Wed, 02/03/2016 - 9:46am

If Russia Started a War in the Baltics, NATO Would Lose - Quickly by Dan De Luce, Foreign Policy

If Russian tanks and troops rolled into the Baltics tomorrow, outgunned and outnumbered NATO forces would be overrun in under three days. That’s the sobering conclusion of war games carried out by a think tank with American military officers and civilian officials.

“The games’ findings are unambiguous: As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,” said a report by the RAND Corp., which led the war gaming research.

In numerous tabletop war games played over several months between 2014-2015, Russian forces were knocking on the doors of the Estonian capital of Tallinn or the Latvian capital of Riga within 36 to 60 hours. U.S. and Baltic troops — and American airpower — proved unable to halt the advance of mechanized Russian units and suffered heavy casualties, the report said…

Read on.

Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics by David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson, RAND Corporation

Russia's recent aggression against Ukraine has disrupted nearly a generation of relative peace and stability between Moscow and its Western neighbors and raised concerns about its larger intentions. From the perspective of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the threat to the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — former Soviet republics, now member states that border Russian territory — may be the most problematic of these. In a series of war games conducted between summer 2014 and spring 2015, RAND Arroyo Center examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The games' findings are unambiguous: As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. Fortunately, it will not require Herculean effort to avoid such a failure. Further gaming indicates that a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades — adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities — could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states…

Read the key findings and the entire report.


Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 03/13/2016 - 1:49pm

I want to apologize for not making clear in my earlier comments that I am responding to a larger complex of factors within which think tanks are embedded. I don't mean to be disrespectful.

From Mike Lofgren's Deep State:

"The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism and the militarization of foreign policy, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure that has given us the most unequal society in almost a century, and the political dysfunction that has paralyzed day-to-day governance."

My comments in this thread are directed at the institutional structure and its group think, a structure within which I know many good people are embedded.

Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 02/28/2016 - 10:01am

Is it so that this war game did not take into account nuclear weapons? I don't know how to read parts of the report. What is meant by "escalation" and "escalatory" in this war gamed paper? Fears of that would put a stop to many of the war gamed aspects of this paper.

The deterrence package is not deterrence although I understand what the planners are doing. Their hands are tied.

At the height of the discussion about sending weapons to the Ukraine, Angela Merkel made an almost emergency visit to Washington. When the Turks shot down a Russian plane recently, what was the reaction of NATO, especially given the chances of starting a world war? Russia too?

Trump and Sanders and low voter turn out are a consequence of the failures of the Washington establishment, an establishment that has not taken any responsibility for either phenomenon. How is RAND a non-partisan think tank when it receives funding from the Army?

Why did RAND exclude the South Asian cross border insurgencies/proxy wars in its studies? Was RAND or its scholars politically pressured in any way? Or was this simply against the culture of RAND, where South Asian insurgencies have long been ignored because they are not politically popular as a subject, even with Afghanistan?

From Mike Lofgren's <em>Deep State</em>:

<blockquote>I use the term to mean a hybrid association of key elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States with only limited reference to the consent of the governed through elections</blockquote>

I began commenting on milblogs on the old Abu Muqawama site, a conduit for COINDinistas within the Deep State. I was too naive to understand and now these same people are seeded as contractors or political operatives within the Deep State.

Ryan Evans of War on the Rocks and Andrew Exum, a deputy something or other I believe, never have (or had in Abu Muqawama's) anyone disclose their financial interests in promoting a policy. Their is great talk of civility but never any financial disclosure.

RAND products are contributing to the creation of a line of control in Eastern Europe, the same sort of militarized nuclear backed line of control as that between India and Pakistan. There is not other logical way to look at any of this.

It is dangerous. A conscience is a real thing to be examined.

There are only three ways this blog can survive: to ban commenters and stay within the confines of a Strategy Page, War on the Rocks, or other purveyor of the Deep States propaganda but without allowing a greater latitude in its comments, serving as a kind of collector of experience from veterans, or to survey peer reviewed academic literature, the kind of literature never really seriously considered by any of the Deep State military "journals".

A soul seems a very easy thing to sell in Washington or London.


Mon, 02/08/2016 - 2:01pm

the political and economic conditions under which one would suppose Russia would conduct a ground war to seize the Baltic 3 is absurd. I fail to see how such an operation would be in their interest, nor generate enough benefit to outweigh the risk of triggering a global war. Added to that is their abysmal readiness levels and laundry list of other military commitments, and the ever present risk of war with China. I think it is far more likely the Russians will continue to exhaust themselves in areas of more meaning to them, rather than take on a pointless adventure in the Baltics. Certainly not a grave enough risk to justify additional forces. And yes, I think our leaders are exaggerating the threat to scare congress into a larger appropriation. Lastly, if additional forces are the answer, why not European forces? If we continue to subsidize their defense, they'll never get off the security teat. Let Germany activate a few of the panzer battalions it recently axed. America isn't the solution to Europe's problems.


Sat, 02/06/2016 - 6:55am

In reply to by Tropiccid

The RAND war-games were joint and combined, conducted with competitive red and blue players from all services, multiple commands and NATO allies for DoD, Joint Staff, HQDA, USAF and USAFE. No blue team has found a solution to prevent a rapid Russian fait accompli in 16 different runs of the current posture games, which casts doubt on your charge of confirmation bias.

The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider Russia a "very, very significant threat." The Estonian Minister of Defense echoed the findings of the war-game:

"The problem is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin thinks he can do things very quickly . . . I would say that, in order to adjust the situation, we have to have a deterrent posture,” Misker said. “But the deterrent has to be significant enough to change [Putin’s] calculus.”

Are these leaders absurd? Are they simply making parochial arguments to increase the U.S. Army's budget?

I agree the Russian military has significant readiness challenges. In the current posture game with simultaneous operations in Ukraine, we assessed it took an entire brigade to generate 1 battalion tactical group. Still, they could generate 22 battalions, which is enough to overrun the Baltics quickly.

One commander in Europe put it very well: "It's not that the Russians are 10 feet tall again. They're only 5 ft 5 in, but very fast." NATO by comparison would be much smaller and slower to respond to a short-warning attack in the Baltics.

There is no "U.S. Army" in Europe anymore. There is no division, corps or army headquarters that can plan, prepare and conduct early-entry operations. There are no armored brigades forward stationed; the rotational ABCT is present for 179 days out of the year, presumably because the Russians would never fight in winter? There is no effective SEAD or counter-fire capability in the A2AD environment. There is no full Combat Aviation Brigade or Fires Brigade. No engineers. No SHORAD. No sustainment brigade that can support ABCTs. So what force can prevent a rapid fait accompli in a short-warning attack like we saw in Crimea?

Look at it this way. . . Where else should the U.S. station 3 ABCTs and enablers to achieve a better strategic effect? In the US to deter Mexico and Canada? On the Af-Pak border to counter terror? In Japan, to defeat a Chinese amphibious invasion force? Starting another long-term, long-duration irregular conflict in Syria?

Or would you cut the remaining 8 ABCTs in the active component? The current force is already a 50% reduction from 2007, and less than the number of carriers in the Navy.

Given the relative military capabilities and the dangerous consequences of a failure of deterrence in Europe, why should the US and NATO rest their collective security and defense strategy entirely on your assumption that the probability of attack is low/zero? That's an option, but it's not deterrence.

As a thought experiment, should the US apply that same standard in Asia? The probability that China would invade Korea, Japan and the Philippines is even lower. But given Chinese capabilities and the consequences of conflict, does U.S. deterrence provides a measure of strategic stability that advances American interests better than withdrawal?

Why not ensure the same positive effect in Europe?

with respect,

Michael Johnson


Fri, 02/05/2016 - 3:56pm

It is hardly a coincidence that this report has been published at the same time the national commission on the future of the army has released its findings, and the chiefs and service secretaries deliver their posture statements to congress. The former two are reinforcing fires to the latter. The Rand Survey, commissioned by an Army seeking to boost its share of defense spending, is what critical reasoning would call confirmation bias, an 'unbiased' source justifying expansion of U.S. ground forces in Europe, as the national commission also recommends. Russia is hardly worthy of a reapportionment of U.S. forces. Between their commitments in Crimea, Donets Basin, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Arctic and now Syria, not to mention the plunge in oil prices, the very last thing on Russia's mind is a massive land invasion of the Baltic 3 that would trigger a world war. Let's also not forget that Russia has fought a second rate Ukrainian Army to a stalemate in an area adjoining Russian supply bases and dominated by ethnic Russians. That's about the best it can do. It's air force has expended most of its stock of precision guided missiles. Strategically, its economy and ageing population are undermining any modernization efforts. None of those efforts deal with expanding its strategic reach, but rather enhance ballistic missile capabilities and ship building (which it is now considering privatizing to raise capital). The idea that Russia has intentions of conquering the Baltics is absurd.

If President Obama has, indeed, adopted the "Nixon Doctrine" as his strategy, then will he (President Obama) not require that the EU NATO members (who recently REDUCED their defense budgets?) will have to -- re: "NATO losing," etc. -- (a) reverse course, (b) determine a way forward themselves and (c) act, themselves, primarily as the ones that must address these problems?

The role of U.S. thus, and then as now, to be seen, not so much as "leading," but more as simply providing a strong helping hand?

The regional nations -- such as the EU, however -- calling our bluff on these matters; this, by doing next to nothing (budget, military) to address these threats and problems.

Thus, the region(s) go to hell.

In this game of "chicken," each side (the U.S. and the regional powers) expecting that the other, when things get bad enough, will be forced step in, will be forced to take charge and, accordingly, will be forced to pay the price/pick up the tab?

Thus, those that cry for American leadership, and for American's to take the lead, and for America to, accordingly, pay the price and bear the burden of what might/should be seen more as regional responsibilities -- these folks to reconsider, in the light offered above, their such point-of-view?

(Q: In the case of the richer nations of the EU, the question becomes just how long are the American people required to carry these, now very rich nations, with magnificent social programs, on our back?)

President Obama's thinking?: "Your (the EU) the one's who are primarily getting screwed (think Russian aggression and ME refugee crisis) -- and these matters are far from our shores -- so you better get off your ass and get more in the game; this, before this stuff comes to cost you more than it already does.


Sat, 02/06/2016 - 7:33am

In reply to by THG

By framing the problem, I meant we identified the military problem of the fait accompli and the strategic implications if it occurs.

We identified three broad policy options after a fait accompli: counter-offensive, nuclear coercion, or (temporarily) accepting the situation while applying political-economic coercion in a longer-term strategy. There are variants within these categories to be sure, but the point remains none of them are better than preventing the war from beginning in the first place.

We assumed 7-10 days warning, which is realistic given the Russians have conducted 4 large-scale snap military exercise involving over 100,000 troops in the last 2 years. We were trying to understand the relative operational capabilities to determine the logistics requirements and capability gaps, which are even worse than the maneuver gaps. Absolutely agree there is much more work to do; we're just trying to start a more realistic conversation about the legitimate challenges you identify.

NATO was in a considerably stronger position to prevent a rapid fait accompli in Germany during the Cold War than it is today in the Baltics. The main idea in the strategy of flexible response was to begin the conflict at a local, conventional level rather than relying on massive retaliation at the outset of an attack, which may not be seen as credible. The conventional force had to buy enough time and create conditions in which the uncertain process of escalation and the credible manipulation of risk would make the costs not worth the benefits to a rational actor. The problem we have to day is relying on the delayed counter-offensive could be seen as a doubtful deterrent in Moscow because it accepts a frozen conflict for by ~6 months of deployment. We are working on this report too. . .

We never suggested there is a unilateral American solution to restoring credible conventional deterrence in the Baltics. SACEUR needs European armored brigades to relieve the early-entry forces that can prevent the rapid fait accompli. NATO should consider synchronizing an alliance force-generation process so that ~9 European ABCTs are ready fight on ~20 days warning. This is not beyond the means of an alliance with $35 T GDP that spends $1 T on defense every year.

with respect,

Michael Johnson


Fri, 02/05/2016 - 1:49pm

In reply to by mwj02

Your article on the wargame far exceeds the requirement to frame a problem.

It is crafted as a single-option policy demand, primarily for the United States. Do this--or else surrender or have a nuclear war. What policymaker wouldn't figure out that subterfuge in 5 seconds?

Without seeing your parameters, its hard to understand what's going on here. Maybe enough warning to move troops from Germany, but not the US. Maybe 36 hours or no time. No consideration of logistics requirements of moving all these soldiers (and maybe equipment), not much consideration of A2AD on all this. What happens if NATO "only" has two brigades in region? Recognize that you are doing further studies--but these are key considerations to being able to evaluate a recommendation that essentially puts very expensive forces in an exposed salient position.

Not sure why a counterattack to liberate the Baltics could be seen as a threat by Russia, but positioning a Division-sized JTF would

The military balance has nearly always been unfavorable to NATO in the first 3 days. No doubt Germany didn't want to be "liberated" either--and they said so. Yet there wasn't much evidence that a military posture relying on reinforcement would be needed, no matter how good 11th ACR was.

In short, you have such a slimly defined definition of deterrence that you cede the policymaking ground to Allies. Should the solution support what's best for our overall posture, or merely reflect Allied preferences?


Fri, 02/05/2016 - 1:07pm

In reply to by THG

The war-game is a way to conduct an operational analysis of relative military capabilities. The results can help frame a problem for policymakers to consider at the strategic level. Given the Russian capability to achieve a rapid fait accompli and its resultant consequences, are they still comfortable resting NATO defense strategy on the assumption of Putin's intentions that the probability of attack is very low? Do they really believe that avoiding provocation is the most effective means of preserving peace? Will the strategic dialogue that Kissinger recommends lead to some new strategic understanding and cooperation between the US and Russia? Those are all strategic options. We observed, however, that they do not rely on the logic of deterrence with the military capability to deny Russian objectives or impose unacceptable costs, which is not supported by NATO's current posture.

Is this really how "wargaming" works?

You use the form of an operational-level wargame, which is fine--but then you basically give the national leadership a single policy option to respond. No discussion of operational logistics or much else. It works, or it doesn't. Are there really no other options?

Sorry, not saying Russia gets a veto--but this COA has to account for how you're going to mitigate the Russian view and response on a number of levels. If you're wargaming at this level and you basically say, "let the State Department figure that out" we return to the outstanding efforts we saw from the Department of Defense in 2002-03.

Using a wargame to pile on to the policy proposition that the Army needs 500 more ABCTs is out of the lane of this tool.


Fri, 02/05/2016 - 1:25pm

In reply to by Warlock

I agree with you.

This was the first report from the first series of games that examined whether NATO could prevent a rapid fait accompli, and if not, what major unit types are necessary to avoid losing in the first 3 days.

The report acknowledges that subsequent counter-attack forces are necessary to relieve initial entry forces, establish a sustainable defense, and ultimately restore Baltic territorial integrity. We are in the process of conducting additional games across multiple COAs to determine the size and mix of the total force. Preliminary (not for attribution) estimates are ~18 brigades, 9 US and 9 European. There is no unilateral American sourcing solution to this problem.

We are also conducting additional studies on:

1. The operational concept, capability gaps and DOTML solutions to fight a great power with modern A2AD and precision-strike. Initial research identifies the need to improve the capabilities you mentioned and more.

2. The pros, cons, costs & risks of alternative force posture options.

3. Evaluating requirements for APS and analyzing sourcing solutions.

4. Improving strategic deployment installations and theater infrastructure to improve responsiveness.

We are basically present at the re-creation of a European security architecture, having basically dismantled most of it during the drawdown. The first 16 page paper did not aspire to answer every question, but rather just get the conversation started.



Fri, 02/05/2016 - 10:17am

In reply to by mwj02

There's nothing wrong with the jumping off point you selected: Russia attacks the Baltics, and NATO is forced to respond conventionally. Where it becomes intellectually suspect is that most of the places the report says "NATO should", the solution automatically becomes "U.S. should", with little assistance from the rest of NATO beyond some increased attention to dual-use infrastructure. Beyond a generic statement that European partners should stop cutting forces, there's little call to action for the major European powers...explicitly, there's no call for them to reverse cuts and rebuild force structure. There's also the implicit assumption that current U.S. garrisons in Europe shouldn't be moved, or tasks redistributed. Consider:

- Forward deploy -- rotationally or permanently (depending on the political factors) -- one or both U.S. AD brigades, and use rotational units from CONUS to pick up the slack for NATO training commitments. An excursion from that case would be to swap out the 173d Airborne Brigade for an ABCT.
- Move some or all of the prepositioned equipment in Germany to a more forward location -- Poland, for instance.
- Facilitate creation of a multinational Baltic armored force from the three countries who have the most interest, funded from across NATO, if necessary.
- Forward deploy -- permanently or rotationally -- forces from another NATO partner.
- Fortify the common borders with Russia.

These options may or may not yield different results. They don't solve the U.S. Army-wide cutbacks to SHORADS, CBRN defense, and artillery. All would require more diplomatic effort to gain allied cooperation and investment. But it's analytically disingenuous to paint this as a NATO mission, then give everyone else in NATO a bye on contributing.

Thank you very much for reading and debating our report.

A more difficult question is, would the US really use nuclear weapons as the first response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics I think JFK was right to move from massive retaliation to flexible response. The problem is, there is no credible local conventional force that can prevent the rapid fait accompli and initiate the uncertain process of escalation and the manipulation of risk.

We did not assess the probability that Russia would attack NATO. Rather we conducted an analysis of Russian military capabilities and the consequences of conflict to inform strategic choices. NATO could rest its defense strategy on an assumption of Putin's intentions. Or it could aim to avoid provocation at all costs, if it believes the most effectual means of preserving peace is to remain completely unprepared for war. But that would be like leaving West Germany defenseless during the Cold War because we didn't want to provoke the Soviets, but promising to take 6 months to deploy decisive forces to liberate our ally if attacked. Would that really have been seen as credible deterrence? Thus losing the first battle may lose the war because of the risk in applying the Desert Storm model of reversing aggression to a great power with no clear weapons.

I agree winning the first battle does not mean you will win the war, and we identified the need for additional forces to relieve the early-entry forces and restore territorial integrity. There would also be the need for simultaneous stability and special operations to counter irregular threats that would continue after conventional operations ended. We just chose to write a tight 16 page analysis on a narrow question of posture and deterrence so that it would be read. More to follow...

Returning to the provocation argument, 3 US ABCTs is not an offensive threat to 9-18 Russian brigades in the Western Military District, backed up by significant advantages in long-range SAMs and rocket artillery and a quck finger on the nuclear trigger. So there is no imperative for Russia to conduct a pre-emptive attack. They are already improving their force posture and modernizing their forces as fast as their resources permit. It may provoke political and economic coercion, but our Baltic allies much "prefer deterrence to liberation."

PS, before joining RAND I served as an Army strategist, SAMS planner and Armor/Cavalry officer.

Michael Johnson

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 02/04/2016 - 8:09am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Without, you know, destroying the Earth. That no one is talking border control (it's not the AfPak border, it's flat terrain) tells me all I need to know about the big fakes in the Army. We are now on the hook for European security forever. Thanks DC Natoists. As long as you get paid.

When deterrence is provocation and right on someone's border, it's not much deterrance. The moral cowardice of the Borg is stunning, especially the think tank PhD coat holders.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 02/04/2016 - 7:59am

And Russia would want to do this against a nuclear armed NATO? If they are that delusional, then we have bigger problems than the Baltics and corrupt money grubbing NATO contractors. So, how exactly is this NATO Russia Cold War fantasy big tank battle going to happen with nuclear weapons on both sides?


Thu, 02/04/2016 - 4:25am

By coincidence last night BBC 2 broadcast a 'war game' on a crisis in Latvia, with ten "talking heads" of various backgrounds and abilities (including one with none):

The full broadcast is on:

I could spot a fair amount of film footage from the Ukraine, notably the Maidan Square and what appeared to be drama filmed elsewhere.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 02/03/2016 - 12:49pm

Winning first battles does not guarantee one will win the resultant war any more than losing first battles (as we tend to do) is predictive that one will lose the ensuing war.

So while I believe this assessment to be accurate, I do recommend it be placed into a more strategic context.