Russian Strategic Culture in a Baltic Crisis

As part of a collaborative project on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative, I have published a policy brief on Russian strategic goals in a Baltic crisis. Here is  the executive summary and some highlights. The full brief is available through the Marshall Center website.

Executive Summary

  • This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decisionmaking in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, translate into political defeats at home.
  • Given this strategic calculus, we can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Baltic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Based on Russia’s limited stakes in the region, Russian leaders are likely to be highly reluctant to risk a major military confrontation with NATO through any overuse of Russian military forces. They will be careful to limit both the level of risk and the level of effort they would take on in this scenario.
  • Russia’s approach to managing a Baltic crisis scenario is based on the recognition that the balance of stakes and capabilities in such a situation ultimately would favor the West. If Baltic governments and their NATO allies both hesitate in their response, Russian leaders may seek to use the crisis to gain a strategic advantage. However, if Russian leaders see a forceful response in the early stages of a crisis, they would be likely to de-escalate in order to avert major losses.

Introduction

How relevant are the concepts of strategic culture and operational code in explaining Russian foreign policy behavior? This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region (that is, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The goal is to use the Baltic case study to generate conclusions about the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

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Applying Strategic Calculus to the Baltic Region

Given the strategic calculus described above, Russia would be expected to act far more cautiously in the Baltics than it did in Ukraine in 2014. Unlike that crisis, Russia is not facing a loss situation in the Baltic region. In Ukraine, Russia was facing the prospect of a potentially catastrophic loss of power and influence if Ukraine joined the Western alliance system against Russian wishes. The Baltic states, on the other hand, are already members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) and are therefore outside of Russia’s sphere of influence. Any effort on Russia’s part to attack or politically destabilize the region would thus be an effort to make gains, not avert losses. In effect, the Baltics have already been lost to Russia, and the geopolitical impact of that loss has been fully absorbed into Russian strategic thinking.

That said, Russia could benefit politically and militarily by achieving greater control over the Baltic region, which would allow Russia to strengthen its position as the dominant regional power while simultaneously enhancing its security. But these gains would be fairly small and hardly worth the enormous risk of attacking a NATO member state. Moreover, these gains can easily be overstated. The Baltics are too small to provide much of a security buffer for Russia, and they cannot host a large Western military force. Furthermore, the NATO-Russia Founding Act already limits the number of Western forces that can be permanently deployed in the region. All of these factors reduce the significance of the threat to Russia from the Baltic states, even though they are firmly allied with the United States and are part of NATO.

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Russian Strategic Objectives in a Baltic Crisis

In a Baltic crisis scenario, Russia would have two primary strategic objectives. First, it would seek to use the crisis to achieve geopolitical gains at the local, regional, and global levels. At the local level, it would first and foremost seek to defend the ethnic Russian populace to vindicate its compatriot policy and increase its influence in Baltic domestic politics. At the regional and global levels, Russia would seek to undermine the credibility and cohesion of the NATO alliance in order to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position in Eastern Europe and inflict a political defeat on NATO.


The policy brief may be read in its entirety here.

Reassuring the Baltic States

Russia’s actions in Ukraine have had a direct impact on the security perceptions of the Baltic States. Baltic leaders see Russia’s intervention in Ukraine as a potentially serious precedent for future Russian actions against the Baltic States. Russia’s statements declaring that it will protect ethnic Russians living outside the Russian Federation are of particular concern, given the large ethnic Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia. Russian naval maneuvers in the Baltic Sea that took place at the time of Russia’s military intervention in Crimea were seen by regional leaders as an attempt to put pressure on the Baltic States. Furthermore, Lithuanian officials have accused Russian naval ships of harassing Lithuanian civilian vessels in Lithuanian territorial waters in conjunction with a Russian naval exercise held in May 2014. A Lithuanian fishing vessel was seized by Russian border guard vessels in international waters near Kaliningrad in September 2014.

Public sentiment in the Baltic States is strongly anti-Russian in normal times, and has been exacerbated by Russian actions in Ukraine. The public and most commentators are convinced that Russian leaders would like to restore the territory lost in 1991 and that they still consider the Baltic States to be part of Russia’s sphere of interest. Repeated Russian efforts, both overt and covert, to become involved in Baltic domestic politics have further encouraged anti-Russian and nationalist attitudes.

In response, Baltic leaders have asked for and received assurances of an increased NATO presence in their region. Notably, to this end, President Obama has recently (3 September 2014) pledged in Estonia absolute non-discrimination in NATO collective defense (Article 5) guarantees. The NATO nations have pledged additional presence in the form of rapid rotation of troops from NATO states (including the United States) through Poland and the Baltic States, where they will participate in regular training and exercises but also provide “persistent” presence as part of the European Reassurance Initiative. Maritime plans include the deployment of a standing mine countermeasures group, increased Baltic state participation in regular naval exercises, and planning for new naval exercises in the Baltic Sea.

While Baltic States’ concerns about Russian interference in the region are well placed, the likeliest form of threat is increased interference in Baltic internal political affairs or covert actions, rather than direct military action. Russia has a track record of promoting domestic instability in the Baltic, including encouraging violence during incidents such as the Bronze Soldier protests in Tallinn in 2007 and the annual protests on Latvian Legion Day. Russian intelligence personnel are suspected of involvement in pro-Russian political parties and movements in all three states. Russia may seek to use its influence and agents in the Baltic States to destabilize domestic politics. These scenarios could morph into an armed conflict over time.

Baltic defense planners describe the range of potential Russian actions in their region to include issuing Russian passports to ethnic Russians living in the region, backing referendums on the status of the Russian language in the Baltic States, and attempting to influence Russians living in the region to support a scenario similar to the one taking place in eastern Ukraine. Ethnic-based conflict is a possibility, given the lagging integration of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations in the region. Although recent statements by Russian leaders about defending ethnic Russians abroad are likely to feed distrust of local Russian populations, discrimination against these populations will only serve to increase their resentment and make them more susceptible to the Russian government’s influence.

Covert actions, such as the recent kidnapping of an Estonian security officer at a border post, are also seen as likely to continue. Latvia and Estonia, with their large ethnic Russian populations, are seen as more vulnerable than Lithuania in this regard.

Baltic defense planners fear that these kinds of actions could lead to Russian sponsorship of an insurgency in Latvia or Estonia that will be judged by NATO leaders to fall short of a direct military attack, and thus leave the Baltic States to their own devices in dealing with a Russian-sponsored insurgency. While statements made by President Obama during his visit to Tallinn and by NATO leaders at the recent summit in Wales have made clear that NATO will defend the Baltic States from direct attacks, they have not indicated how the alliance would respond to domestic instability or covert actions.

Baltic planners believe that a direct Russian military intervention is highly unlikely, both because of the NATO security guarantee and because Russian military planning documents de-emphasize the importance of the region for the Russian military. This is especially the case in the maritime realm, where the Black Sea and Pacific Fleets remain the primary focus of Russian naval development. Official Russian military journals and publications argue that the primary purpose of the Baltic Fleet is to serve as a location for new ships and submarines to be tested after launch and as a training area for new sailors and officers.

Despite President Obama’s recent statements, Baltic leaders remain sensitive to the possibility of abandonment by the NATO Nations given the lack of clarity on triggering conditions for Article 5, and the extent of such a response should it occur. Statements in the regional press suggest, while the symbolic significance of the president’s visit is well received, there is interest in more tangible expressions of solidarity, e.g., the deployment of military forces to bolster local defenses.

The Baltic States’ concerns about Russian interference in the region are well placed. The European Reassurance Initiative provides an important set of signals that the United States and NATO are serious about ensuring Baltic security and will defend these countries from direct Russian aggression.

These steps need to be combined with reassurance from political leaders at the highest levels that NATO will also provide support in the event that a Russian-sponsored insurgency is organized on part of the Baltic States’ territory. Since Baltic State leaders and security officials consider Russian efforts to destabilize these countries from within far more likely than a direct military intervention, such reassurance will do much more for assuaging Baltic security fears than the augmentation of military forces in the region.

At the same time, Baltic leaders need to know that the integration of ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations in their countries must continue. Although recent statements by Russian leaders about defending ethnic Russians abroad are likely to feed distrust of local Russian populations, discrimination against these populations will only serve to increase resentment and make these populations more susceptible to Russian government influence. EU and OSCE officials need to make sure that integration programs continue and that local Russians are treated as full and equal citizens throughout the Baltic States.