Small Wars Journal

Five Smooth Stones: How NATO Can Deter the “Goliath” Russian Challenge to the Baltics

Sat, 10/24/2015 - 5:36am

Five Smooth Stones: How NATO Can Deter the “Goliath” Russian Challenge to the Baltics

Douglas Mastriano

Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

-I Samuel 17:40

The world is in turmoil; the geostrategic security environment is rapidly changing, with new, and adaptive threats facing the NATO Alliance.  On the southern periphery is the expansive Islamic State, and a refugee / migration crisis of Biblical proportions.  Meanwhile, the unparalleled peace and stability experienced by most of Europe since 1945 is at risk with the rise of a confrontational Russia.  Each of these security challenges are a threat to the Alliance.  However, it is the peril posed by the Kremlin that should keep NATO senior leaders up at night.  Indeed, Russia’s advantage in geography in Eastern Europe and its emerging adaptive, hybrid approach to war poses an existential threat to the Alliance.

The key component of the Kremlin’s emerging adaptive approach to conflict is the application of ambiguity.  This cloak of ambiguity has been used to confound North American and European decision makers.  Thus was the case in 2014, when so called “little green men” appeared in Crimea.  Although there was no doubt that these were Russian forces, Vladimir Putin denied the obvious, with key leaders in the West dithering on how to respond.  Moscow’s gambit worked, with Putin declaring the annexation of Crimea only a month after the “little green men” appeared.  This was followed by a Moscow led and inspired separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.  Although Russia’s involvement in this conflict is indisputable, the response from Europe and the United States has been sluggish and inconsistent at best.  Even after the downing of a civilian airliner (Malaysian Air MH 17) in July 2014, the resolve of Western leaders to blunt Russian aggression in the Ukraine is still in question. 

More than a year and a half later, Ukraine remains in the midst of a bloody war, and an increasingly frustrated Putin is turning up his bellicose rhetoric.  Targeting both his domestic audience and the Russian ethnic populations residing in NATO nation, Putin blames his woes on “the West” and has put together a powerful information operations campaign to manipulate the minds of his people.  In the midst of this, Moscow announced that it will modernize both its nuclear and ground forces.  The region rea to benefit first from this modernization will be the Russian Western Military District, the only one with a land border with NATO… in the Baltics.

Although the Russians today have a large and capable conventional force, Moscow has demonstrated for the moment that it would rather avoid a direct confrontation with the West by employing a “strategy” of ambiguity.  This ambiguity undercuts decision making and provides Putin with plausible deniability of being behind any crisis.  Using Eastern Ukraine as the example, Russia employs “local” proxy forces, bolstered by Russian Special Forces in ethnic Russian zones.  These are supported by small groups of conventional assets to wage its wage.

Feeling threatened by Russia’s increased meddling in the region and its belligerent rhetoric, the NATO member states in Eastern Europe, especially Latvia, Estonia and Lithuanian justifiably feel threatened and have called for increased security measures to deter the danger to their nations.  The Baltic States suffered terrible depravations and ethnic cleansing under the Soviets and do not want a repeat of this.  Faced with this threat, the twenty eight NATO member nations continue to wrestle with an appropriate response to the belligerent Russian behavior in the region.  The United States took the first action in early 2014 by rotating small units of Army soldiers through the region.  Now dubbed “Atlantic Resolve,” this force is designed to reassure the Baltic States of NATO support.  This was followed by a NATO announcement in September 2014 to create a force capable of rapidly deploying anywhere in the region.  Should a crisis unfold in the region, can sufficient NATO forces arrive in a timely and credible manner and how prepared will they be to operate in a dynamic hybrid environment?

Yet, a year later, credible forward deterrence is still lacking in the Baltics and the question of strategic reinforcement remains in doubt.  There are specific measures that NATO should take to mitigate the rising threat that Russia poses to the Alliance.  The recommendations in this article focus on the military element of power.  However, any strategy must apply a comprehensive approach that includes diplomatic, economic and informational aspects of power.  The following five proposals are a starting place to build credible deterrence in the Baltics.

Early warning:  The nature of the Russian threat to the sovereignty of the Baltic Nations goes beyond a hybrid ethnic uprising.  There is also a formidable Russian conventional capability literally on the border of each state.  The Kremlin has demonstrated this capability through aggressive activities by its air, sea and ground forces.  However, the most provocative of its actions are so called “snap exercises.”  These unannounced training events have increased in scope, and scale over the past year and demonstrate that NATO would have virtually no early warning to prepare for the unthinkable.

The reality of the changing strategic environment demonstrates the need for NATO to take concerted action to reduce the element of surprise.  This can be done by stationing forward a modest early warning intelligence capability.  This should include a linguist element, equipped with electronic warfare intercept capability, UAVs, and other intelligence assets to monitor military activity in both Russia and Belarus.

Build capacity - Increase the size, survivability, mobility and lethality of the Baltic armed forces: NATO’s “frontline” nations, closest and most threatened by Russia include; Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, these opted for small and largely “light” (inexpensive) ground forces.  Such a force was fit for the security environment of the time when Russia was a supportive member of the international community.  However, the strategic environment has changed, as demonstrate by Moscow’s ongoing war in the Ukraine.  With this in mind, the ability of “light” forces to respond to Russian meddling, ambiguous or otherwise, is doubtful. 

All three of the Baltic States have increased their defense spending since Russia’s invasion of Crimea and its subsequent war in Ukraine.  Estonia is making great strides to improve the size, mobility, survivability and lethality of their forces, Latvia has made a modest increase to its defense spending, and Lithuania has taken the bold decision to reintroduce conscription.  However, all three of these nations must have a robust force capable of responding to both conventional and unconventional threats to create strategic depth.  The greatest disadvantage of the Baltics is geography.  The place to begin is here to create time, space and depth is a larger, survivable, and mobile force.  Such a force must be capable of contending with an “ethnic uprising,” while also being able to secure vital infrastructure (air/sea ports, major roads, etc.) from conventional threats.

Defense spending is a place to start to measure a nation’s commitment to building capacity.  However, of the Baltic nations, only Estonia is doing its share and spending the agreed upon 2% of its GDP on defense.  Latvia and Lithuania have a long way still to achieve that modest level.  The concern is that military forces are deploying forward into the region to assure our allies of the commitment to them and to deter Russian aggression.  However, I think of the service men and women on long deployments away from family, missing birthdays, anniversaries, to bolster the defense of the Baltic States; yet two of the three nations are not doing enough to provide for their own defense.  If they feel threatened by a reemerging Russia, then their respective defense budgets should reflect this. 

Special Forces capability: The nature of the emerging Russian use of hybrid warfare makes a purely conventional capability ill-suited.  In addition to building a robust conventional capability, the Baltic States must also have a complimentary Special Forces capacity.  This force should be an adaptive element that works effectively with local security forces, other NATO Special Forces, and is interoperable with NATO conventional units.  Additionally, this force should build relationships in the ethnic Russian zones of their respective countries and thus be positioned to detect an exported Moscow inspired ethnic Russian separatist movement. 

NATO should also establish a permanent forward Special Forces presence in the region.  These can support the training and development of a local SF capability, while also building relationships that can be leveraged in a crisis.  Additionally, these forward assets should be tied into local security units, and can provide an early warning should Putin set his gaze upon the region in the form of some sort of “ethnic” uprising.

Forward NATO presence:  Although the United States and several other nations are rotating small military units through the region, there should be a decision by NATO to create a permanent forward presence of ground forces.  There is no greater deterrence than for NATO nations to commit a modest force forward in the Baltics.  This would dramatically alter the strategic calculus for Vladimir Putin, so that if he should ever seek to assert influence over the Baltics, the price would perhaps be too high.  Any Russian adventurism would have to contend with the reality of having NATO troops already forward, and an attack on them would guarantee a response.  This permanent forward force would have far reaching ramifications beyond deterrence and would also serve as the nucleus for follow-on NATO forces to build and expand.

This forward force should be at least a brigade, with one battalion operating in each of the Baltic nations.  The brigade headquarters should rotate every four months to a different Baltic nation, so that every year it is physically located in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.  This will enhance familiarity with the local situation in addition to building relationships across the region. 

REFORGER like exercises and capability:  During the Cold War, the most important annual training event was “Return Forces to Germany,” or REFORGER in military language.  REFORGER exercised the ability of forces from outside of continental Europe (mostly the United States) to arrive in Western Europe, receive their equipment at the ports, or man their forward equipment sets, and then rapidly deploy to the region of Germany where the large exercise culminated with a force on force training scenario.  The REFORGER units would join forward deployed units (those forces already stationed in Germany) in a complex series of training events that replicated a NATO response to a Soviet attack into West Germany.

In the spirit of REFORGER, an annual exercise of a deployment of “over the horizon” forces from across NATO should be implemented in the Baltics.  Perhaps naming it DEFORTIC (Deploy Forces to the Baltic), this annual training event would encompass a robust force (albeit much smaller than REFORGER), that would arrive from Western Europe and North America to exercise and demonstrate the ability to quickly respond to a threat to the sovereignty of the East European allies. 

There are three concerns related to any DEFORTIC like force; (1) Rapidity, (2) Interoperability, (3) NATO Strategic Depth.  The lack of geographic depth in the Baltics means that NATO must respond to any crisis with unrealistic rapidity.  The second concern is the actual composition of the force.  After a force arrives, which forces bolster/support them in the region?  The concern is that it will be in the midst of a crisis that a NATO forward joint and multinational force will have difficulty operating as a joint and multinational team.  Additionally, the ever shrinking defense budgets in most of Europe, means smaller armies, which equals a lack of strategic depth from the Alliance at large. 

DEFORTIC addresses two of the three of these concerns.  An annual DEFORTIC would allow NATO’s Very High Readiness Task Force and follow on NATO Response Forces to exercise their ability to deploy forward into the Baltics.  As to interoperability, an annual DEFORTIC exercise would help deployable NATO forces to refine this important skill set and build a team able to operate in a joint/multinational environment.   


The nature of the threat that Moscow poses to the sovereignty of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania is genuine.  However, as delineated above, there are concerted measures that the Baltic Nations and NATO should take now to deter Russian aggression.  The question is whether NATO will take advantage of its window of opportunity to prevent the unthinkable from happening.  With ever decreasing budgets, and shrinking military forces, the preponderance of NATO nations are facing the changing security environment from a position of weakness.  It is such weakness that historically results in war; with a cost far higher than what prudent defensive measure in peace could have otherwise averted. 

The saying that freedom requires eternal vigilance seems particularly pertinent to the Baltic States.  While Russia is preoccupied in Ukraine, and now, Syria, the NATO Alliance should take decisive action to deter the Kremlin from meddling in the Baltics.  Such deterrence should come in the form of forward deployed forces, an early warning capability, larger and more lethal Baltic forces, a Special Forces presence and an annual DEFORTIC exercise that demonstrates a NATO capability to defend its eastern allies.  

These modest steps are not provocative and the posture of these is purely defensive in nature.  In this case, a little action now can go a long way to assure the eastern allies, and deter Russian aggression.  The danger is that NATO truly must confront is inaction.  Indeed, history has borne out the certain path to war is passivity and appeasement.  This is the time for NATO to demonstrate resolve, and it must act.  The simple measures offered in this paper lay out a clear path for the alliance to follow to maintain the security and stability of region and the continent.


About the Author(s)

Colonel Douglas Mastriano was commissioned in the United States Army in 1986. He began his career on the Iron Curtain with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, where he served along the East German and Czechoslovakian borders. Here, he witnessed the end of the Cold War and deployed to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm where his regiment led the main attack against Saddam's Republican Guards. Having survived several close calls by God's grace, he went on to serve in the Pentagon, the 3rd Infantry Division "Rock of the Marne," and US Army Europe (USAREUR). He also served four years in NATO Land Headquarters, from where he deployed three times to Afghanistan, commanding soldiers from eighteen nations. Colonel Douglas Mastriano has a PhD in history from University of New Brunswick and is a faculty member at the US Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.


Western Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, seem unwilling to violate the CFE Treaty, despite full and public Russian repudiation. Perhaps they see it as a provocative act?

Yet Russia is in no position to launch another conventional arms race with NATO. A combination of increased spending by the more recalcitrant NATO members as well as strong forward deployments (at least division-strength) would send a stark message.

Yes, Russia would rattle its nuclear sabre, but it would be unable to seize territory (un)conventionally and then threaten nuclear strikes on a NATO response. Given Russia's economic woes, stalemate in the East Ukraine, internal power struggles, and dubious new adventure in Syria, it cannot be ruled out the Russia might lash out militarily.

By now, Putin must be aware that the Western Europeans are focused on separating compost from garbage and transforming themselves into West Asian/North African colonies, and that Obama is playing the long game, hoping that the Kremlin will crack under the pressure in a year or two.

Putin has always longed to humiliate and dismantle NATO whilst avoiding Armageddon, and the Baltics are the weakest point. Would Germany or Spain or Italy mobilize for them if there weren't a few hundred of their soldiers already in harms way?

Having said all of this, I think Putin will want to keep the West on the back foot, even if we have some idea of his designs. So, if he lashes out, I predict moves in Central Asia against Kazakhstan, and possibly menacing Japan from the Kuriles in concert with China...