The Kerch Strait skirmish: a Law of the Sea perspective

The following article was published as a Strategic Analysis piece by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. It’s an expansion of some of the themes mentioned in a piece I co-authored with Michael Kofman for the Monkey Cage in the immediate aftermath of the Kerch Strait skirmish.

The November 25 naval skirmish between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Kerch Strait was significant first and foremost as an open military confrontation between the two countries’ armed forces. But it also highlighted the fraught legal status of the strait and the Azov Sea, a status that Russia has been exploiting in recent months to exert political and economic pressure on Ukraine.

A slow march to confrontation

The confrontation began months before the recent events that brought the conflict to worldwide attention. In March 2018, Ukrainian border guard vessels detained a Russian fishing vessel in the Azov Sea for violating exit procedures from the “temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”, namely from Crimea. The crew of that vessel remained in detention for several months, until they were exchanged in October for Ukrainian sailors. The captain of the Russian ship remains in Ukraine and is facing prosecution for illegal fishing and “violation of the procedure for entry and exit from the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”. Since that incident, Russia has retaliated by detaining several Ukrainian fishing vessels.

In May, Russia also began to regularly hold Ukrainian commercial ships for inspection before allowing them to pass through the Kerch Strait. The initiation of this inspection regime largely coincided with the opening of a road and rail bridge across the strait. Russia claimed that the inspections were required to ensure the safety and security of the bridge at a time when some Ukrainians had publicly threatened to attack the bridge. The delays caused by the inspection regime, together with ship height restrictions caused by the bridge, have led to a 30 percent reduction in revenues at Ukraine’s commercial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, raising fears that Russia is trying to strangle the economy of eastern Ukraine.

In the same period, Russia also began to build up its naval presence in the Azov Sea, with at least three missile ships based there since summer 2018. Reports indicate that Russia plans to set up a full-fledged flotilla in the Azov in the near future. Ukraine has also strengthened its naval presence in the region, placing several armoured boats in Berdyansk and seeking to expand the base there.

The transfer of ships from Odesa to Berdyansk that caused the skirmish was part of this effort. Ukraine had moved naval ships through the Kerch Strait as recently as September 2018, but these ships were not armed. In that case, the ships were allowed to pass through without incident, although they were closely followed by Russian border guard vessels. The passage of two armoured boats through the strait in late November was thus the first attempt by the Ukrainian Navy to bring armed ships through the Kerch Strait since tensions began to mount and the bridge was completed in spring 2018.

The legal background

The status of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait is regulated by a bilateral treaty that was signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2003. According to the terms of the treaty, the sea is considered to be internal waters for both countries, and both Ukrainian and Russian commercial and military ships have the right of free passage through the strait. Furthermore, the treaty does not specify any particular advance notice procedures for passage through the strait. Foreign commercial ships are allowed to pass through the strait and enter the sea if they are heading to or from a Ukrainian or Russian port. Military ships belonging to other countries may be allowed passage if they are invited by one of the signatories to the treaty, but only with the agreement of the other signatory. In 2015, Russia unilaterally adopted a set of rules requiring ships passing through the strait to give advance notification to the Russian authorities, ostensibly to assure safety of navigation. These rules have not been accepted by Ukraine.


 

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The Kerch Strait naval battle — Here’s what you need to know

Michael Kofman and I published a short analysis of the naval battle in the Kerch Strait on the Monkey Cage. Here’s a sampler.


The Nov. 25 skirmish between Russian Border Guard and Ukrainian navy ships in the Kerch Strait has escalated tensions not just between the two countries, but also between Russia and NATO.

Two Ukrainian navy small-armored boats and a tugboat attempted to cross into the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait. A Russian Border Guard ship rammed the tug. Russian forces eventually captured all three boats, holding them in the Crimean port of Kerch. 

This crisis kicked off months ago 

In March 2018 Ukraine seized a Russian-flagged fishing vessel, claiming that it had violated exit procedures from the “temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine.” Although the Russian crew was released, the boat remains detained in a Ukrainian port. Subsequently, Russia began to seize Ukrainian vessels for inspection, starting in May when a fishing vessel was detained for illegally fishing in Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

A new Russian-built bridge linking Crimea to southern Russia is at the center of Russia’s attempt to assert sovereignty over the entire Kerch Strait. The bridge opened in May, and its low clearance height cut off many commercial ships and reduced revenue at the Mariupol port by 30 percent. Russia has imposed an informal blockade on the remaining maritime traffic, with ships often waiting more than 50 hours to cross, and Russian authorities insisting upon inspecting the cargo. This has substantially raised transit costs — and has been slowly strangling the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.


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Interview on last month’s Russian military exercises

A couple of weeks ago, I gave an interview to an Italian newspaper on the significance of the Russian military exercises that were conducting in conjunction with the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. The newspaper has kindly granted permission to publish an English-language version of the interview.

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Author: Ingrid Burke
Publication: L’Indro
Date: March 25, 2015

On 18 March, one year after Russian and Crimean leaders gathered in the Kremlin to formalize Moscow’s absorption of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, festivities erupted across Russia.

Tens of thousands of enthusiastic Muscovites mobbed Red Square to celebrate the first anniversary of the annexation. Some of Russia’s most iconic pop and rock stars took the stage that day to entertain the patriotic revelers. But it was a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin that stole the show.

“What was at stake here were the millions of Russian people, millions of compatriots who needed our help and support,” he told the cheering crowd, addressing Moscow’s rationale for taking Crimea into its federal fold. “We understood how important this is to us and that this was not simply about land, of which we have no shortage as it is.”

Festivities aside, the week of celebrations saw its fair share of brash statements and actions flaunting Russia’s military might.

On Sunday 15 March, state-run TV channel Rossiya-1 aired “Crimea: the Path to the Motherland,” a documentary on the annexation that featured a never-before-seen interview with Putin. The documentary elucidated a great deal about the annexation.

But one revelation in particular generated a wealth of nervous media buzz. When asked if the Kremlin was ready amid the Crimea crisis to place Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, Putin answered: “We were ready to do that.”

A day after the interview aired, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Putin had ordered large-scale military drills across the nation. A Defense Ministry statement cited Shoigu as saying 38,000 servicemen, 3,360 vehicles, 41 combat ships, 15 submarines, and 110 aircraft and helicopters would be involved in the drills.

Reporting on the development at the time, Reuters touted the drills as the Kremlin’s biggest show of military force since Russia’s ties with the West plunged to post-Cold War lows in the aftermath of the Crimea crisis.

The following Thursday, 19 March, the Defense Ministry announced that the military drill numbers had doubled. An official statement said the number of servicemen involved had surged to 80,000, and the number of aircraft to 220.

Agence France-Presse described the amped up drills as some of Russia’s largest since the fall of the Soviet Union, noting that the maneuvers had caused jitters across Eastern Europe.

Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, a Senior Research Scientist specializing in Russian military reform at U.S.-based think tank CNA Corporation, spoke with L’Indro on Friday about the drills, their significance, and whether leaders in Eastern Europe and beyond have reason to fear a sinister motive.

“They [the drills] are clearly intended to be sending a message, so in that sense they are significant,” Gorenburg said, adding that the intended message is not unique. “It’s not any different from the messages that Russia’s been sending for the last year really, which is that they’re back, their military is serious, it’s powerful, it’s prepared, it’s ready to counter any NATO aggression as they see it.”

The annexation of Crimea came against the backdrop of the ouster of the Kremlin-loyal administration of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. With Yanukovych out, and a new Western leaning regime beginning to take form, fears ran rife in Moscow that Kiev might soon be joining NATO.

The signal Moscow was aiming to send with the drills was one of defense capability, rather than the threat of an offensive, Gorenburg said. “From the Russian point of view — or at least the point of view that Russia is trying to convey — this is all defensive, including Ukraine,” he said. “So they see — and they’ve said this repeatedly — that they are countering an effort to encircle Russia by NATO and the US and hostile forces, and that they have no intention of aggression beyond what they consider their sphere of influence.”

Gorenburg noted, however, that one man’s defense can to another man have all the bearings of an offensive maneuver. “This is the tricky thing. From the point of view [of the West], this [Russia’s actions in Ukraine, such as the Crimea annexation] is seen as aggressive because it’s outside of [Russia’s] borders. But as far as Russia’s concerned, a lot of the military types never fully reconciled to Ukraine being independent… A lot of the people [in Russia] honestly believe that the country is threatened by Ukraine potentially joining NATO. And they have to stop that from happening.”

Putin gave voice to the sentiment of Russia and Ukraine being inextricably bound during his speech at the Crimea jubilee on Red Square on Wednesday. “The issue at stake [with the Crimea annexation] was the sources of our history, our spirituality and our statehood, the things that make us a single people and single united nation,” he said, the domes and spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral gleaming overhead. “Friends, we in Russia always saw the Russians and Ukrainians as a single people. I still think this way now. Radical nationalism is always harmful and dangerous of course. I am sure that the Ukrainian people will yet come to an objective and worthy appraisal of those who brought their country to the state in which it is in today.”

When asked whether he thought the timing of the drills was intended to coincide with the anniversary of the annexation, Gorenburg responded, “I very much doubt it’s a coincidence. It was a symbolic act, I think.”

But he was less sure about the timing of the release of Putin’s comments about nuclear preparedness in the Crimea context. “I’m not sure why it was said now, because the overall message that I think Russia’s trying to send is to try to deter,” he said. Relevant to this point is that the Rossiya-1 interview was pre-recorded. It is unclear when the interview itself took place.

And in fact, deterrence seems to be at the top of everyone’s agenda. “[The West is] trying to deter [Russia] from expanding the conflict in Ukraine. [Russia’s] trying to deter [the West] from interfering. And I think that every time Russia mentions nuclear weapons… that’s sort of the final trump card in preventing any serious attack on Russian forces,” Gorenburg said. “And they want to highlight that in order to make Western publics and therefore decision makers more reluctant to take on Russian forces.”

As Gorenburg saw it, signaling a willingness to ready Russia’s nuclear arsenal could serve to rally members of the Western public against action that could be interpreted by Moscow as threatening.

For months now, leaders in the Baltic states have expressed unease with the implications of the Crimea annexation, concerned about the prospect of a Russian military threat to their own post-Soviet territories.

On this point, Gorenburg felt confident that these countries face no immediate threat. “As far as what happens in the Baltics, I really think the chance of any kind of military offensive in the Baltics is very, very low.”

But he also emphasized the imperative of thinking in both the short and long term with respect to Russian strategy in the region. “That doesn’t mean that the Baltics are safe, because I think there is a possibility in the future — not in the short term, but say five years down the line, or at some point when the situation warrants — of some sort of internal destabilization, not using military forces, but either training some local Russians, or using political means. There are certainly parties in each of the countries, particularly in Estonia and Latvia, that are more sympathetic to Russian positions. And you get those politicians that have more influence, more power, to change the foreign policy of those countries.”

In his view, a scenario such as this — involving long-term strategy and covert actions as opposed to overt military force — would be far more likely than a flagrant offensive due largely to Russia’s interest in not triggering Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Article 5 is the provision dictating that an armed attack against one or more NATO parties in Europe or North America shall be viewed as an attack against all of NATO’s members. Such an event would compel the member nations to assist in “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area,” according to the treaty’s text.

“[Russia’s] conventional forces are no match for NATO,” Gorenburg said.

But in the end, Gorenburg asserted that while both sides are concerned about the aims and strategies of the other, neither wants the situation to escalate. “Both sides think that the other side is more aggressive than that side thinks of itself. So the US thinks — we just want peace, and the Russians are being aggressive. The Russians think — the US is trying to surround us, and overthrow our government, and we just want to defend ourselves. So in that kind of environment, you can see both sides being fairly cautious, hopefully, because neither side actually wants to fight a big war.”

Half-hearted military assistance to Ukraine will only make things worse

recent report by the Atlantic Council think tank advocating the provision of lethal military assistance to Ukraine highlights the threat posed by Russia to neighboring states.

But the key question missing from the Atlantic Council report is what the West’s overall goal in the conflict should be. The possible goals could range from helping Ukraine restore control over the Donbass, to implementing a cease-fire along the current line of control, to simply deterring Russia from similar adventures elsewhere.

The Atlantic Council report assumes but does not prove that Russian efforts to dominate its neighbors pose a grave threat to international security in general because success in Ukraine will embolden President Vladimir Putin to take similar actions elsewhere.

Click here to read the rest of the op-ed.

Ukrainian military capabilities

After a bit of a break, I’m resuming posting my briefs for Oxford Analytica, as always with a three month lag. This was written in early September, just after the conclusion of the ceasefire. (Note that this version is not identical to that published by Oxford Analytica, as I have removed some material that was added by the editorial staff.)

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SIGNIFICANCE: At the start of the conflict in Donbas, the Ukrainian military appeared to be almost completely incapable of defending its territory. Kiev’s forces were unprepared for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and seemed powerless to prevent it. In recent months, it has become a somewhat more effective war-fighting force, though not one that is powerful enough to withstand a full-scale future Russian military invasion. If the current ceasefire fails and Russia intervenes fully in Donbas, the Ukrainian military will not have the capability to defend the country.

Impact

  • Ukraine has made significant improvements to its military capabilities, compared to their state at the start of the conflict.
  • However, the Ukrainian military is not capable of defeating the insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
  • Russia will increase military assistance to the extent necessary to prevent the elimination of separatist Donbas enclaves.

ANALYSIS: 

At the start of the conflict, Ukraine’s military appeared on paper to be a fairly sizeable force, with almost 130,000 active military personnel, over 1,000 tanks, 370 combat aircraft and helicopters, and almost 2,000 artillery pieces. At the same time, it was notoriously underfunded and in disarray as a result of a recent political decision to end conscription and shift to a fully professional manning model. The total number of usable troops and equipment in the ground forces amounted to 80,000 personnel, 775 tanks, 51 helicopters, fewer than 1,000 artillery pieces and 2,280 armoured personnel carriers.

Military dispositions

These troops were positioned in a manner that showed the Ukrainian military’s history as a legacy Soviet force, with the vast majority of units stationed in western Ukraine and along the southern coast. No units were located in the Luhansk or Donetsk regions. Only a single mechanised brigade was located in neighbouring Kharkiv region, while the largest concentration of Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine was based in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Yanukovich’s neglect of military

Some reports indicated that the size of the combat-ready force was even smaller, with only 6,000 troops fully prepared to fight when the conflict broke out. Other units were not considered combat-ready because of a combination of lack of training and inadequate and poorly maintained equipment.

The Ukrainian military received limited funding throughout the post-Soviet period. This tendency became even more pronounced during Viktor Yanukovich’s presidency. He was more concerned about internal unrest than external threats and therefore increasingly shifted the country’s limited security budget towards internal security forces at the expense of the regular armed forces. As a result, the military budget remained very low, at just over 1% of GDP, throughout Yanukovich’s presidency.

Political chaos hampered military response

In addition to underfunding, Ukrainian forces were initially unprepared to deal with the crisis because of a combination of political chaos and internal subversion. The initial Russian intervention in Crimea took place immediately after the chaotic final stage of the ‘Maidan’ revolution. The newly formed acting Ukrainian government had not yet established its authority in Kiev, much less in the eastern and southern regions that had largely opposed Maidan. It was not prepared to act in response to Russia’s immediate and fast-paced operation in Crimea.

Russian infiltration

Widespread infiltration of the Ukrainian government, military and security services by Russian agents also contributed to disorganisation and poor performance. It appears that these agents were able to provide Moscow with detailed information on Ukrainian government and military planning for responding to the conflict. Highly placed military officers whose sympathies were with Russia and the east Ukrainian separatists may also have played a role in disrupting military planning. At the local level, unit commanders who sympathized with the separatist cause withdrew their personnel and turned their equipment over to the insurgents on several occasions. These surrenders provided the means for separatist forces to receive their first parties of heavy weapons and armored vehicles.

Lack of counter-insurgency training

The Ukrainian military was trained to respond to an invasion and to participate in peacekeeping operations abroad. It had neither plans nor training to fight an insurgency.

For all of these reasons, Ukraine’s military and security forces were unprepared to counter either the Russian military occupation of Crimea or the subsequent emergence of armed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

Partial resurgence

The Ukrainian military used a unilateral ceasefire in late June to rebuild its command structure, develop new tactics and recruit personnel. Most of the senior military leadership was replaced, with incompetent and compromised generals being forced out in favour of those who had shown the most initiative and/or were seen as loyal to Kiev.

Around this time, the government decided to use military tactics against the separatists. This led to an escalation of the conflict and an increase in civilian casualties, but also allowed it to use regular military units against separatists.

Irregular battalions

Kiev determined that it did not have enough regular military personnel to counter the insurgency in Donbas while simultaneously maintaining a standing force to face potential Russian aggression from Crimea. Kiev began to organise irregular militia battalions. A number of territorial defence battalions, special purpose police battalions, national guard battalions and other independent units have been formed through the recruitment of volunteers. These include several units that have gained some notoriety in the fighting, such as the Azov and Donbas battalions, as well as independent units associated with the Right Sector and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists.

Oligarch armies

Some of these battalions are sponsored by wealthy Ukrainians such as Igor Kolomoisky, the governor of Dnipropetrovsk region, who allegedly spent millions of dollars organising and arming fighters from Dnipropetrovsk.

Ideological and political battalions

Some of the new battalions are organised around nationalist ideology such as the Azov battalion, while others comprise people who participated in the Maidan protests (the Maidan and Aidar battalions). Additionally, there are some tied to political parties (the Batkivshchyna and Right Sector battalions).

However, the vast majority of the battalions were initially organised as territorial defence units and were only later sent to fight in eastern Ukraine. As of late June, the total approximate strength of these battalions was estimated at 5,600, with the Donbas Battalion the single largest with almost 1,000 fighters. Several of the units suffered major losses in battles in July and August, although in some cases they have also been able to recruit reinforcements.

Popular support for war effort

The parlous state of Ukrainian government finances and the reluctance of Western governments to provide financial and military assistance have necessitated efforts to raise money and provide basic supplies for government forces and especially for irregular pro-government fighters through donations from the Ukrainian population and from the diaspora abroad. To this end, a number of websites and social media resources have been organised to raise money for fighting the conflict.

These efforts have been primarily useful in providing basic supplies for military units, especially the irregular battalions. Such supplies, detailed in frequent reports on assistance websites, consist primarily of medicines, spare parts and maintenance, rather than the purchase of weapons or major equipment. They are not a replacement for regular procurement and recruitment, but have played a role in spurring the government to speed up resupply and increase the financing of regular military units.

Ukrainian internet crowdsourcing efforts have expanded beyond financial assistance. The website Stop Terror in Ukraine has used crowdsourcing to report separatist attacks, troop movements, roadblocks and the seizure of buildings throughout the country. The effectiveness of such efforts remains unclear but they do show that the war effort has widespread popular support.

Military unable to withstand increased Russian assistance

As a result of the improvements in capabilities described above, Ukrainian forces scored substantial victories against the separatists throughout July and in early August. By August 15, separatist forces had lost more than half of the territory they controlled prior to the ceasefire, were divided into several enclaves and had come close to losing the ability to transfer forces among strongholds. Ukrainian military and political leaders believed that they could defeat the separatists and retake all of the territory in eastern Ukraine not under government control within a few weeks.

However, their continued success depended on static levels of Russian assistance to the separatists. The Ukrainian leadership gambled that Russia would not seek to escalate its involvement in the conflict. However, Russia proved them wrong, first by providing greater levels of heavy weapons and volunteer fighters to separatist forces, then by shelling Ukrainian forces from Russian territory in order to prevent the latter from blocking separatists’ access to Russian assistance via the common border and finally by opening a new front in territory previously under the firm control of government forces — around Novoazovsk and Mariupol.

“Ceasefire in name only”

This escalation in Russian military assistance has in recent weeks caused a major shift in the path of the conflict, with Ukrainian forces taking heavy casualties throughout Donbas and losing control of approximately half of the territory they had gained over the summer. The current ceasefire is holding — although Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove of the US Air Force commented in Vilnius recently that the ceasefire was a “cease-fire in name only” — and a return to serious fighting is a distinct possibility. Russian support for the Donbas separatists will remain.

Prospects for Ukrainian forces

As shown by recent events, despite modest improvements in capabilities since the spring, Ukrainian forces are not currently capable to withstand attacks by even small numbers of well-trained regular Russian forces for any length of time. In part, this is the result of the disparity in training received by Ukrainian forces compared to elite Russian forces.

Yet the greater role in Ukrainian forces’ weakness comes from the disparity in equipment. The use of powerful air defence weapons provided by Russia largely negated Ukraine’s air superiority throughout the summer.

CONCLUSION: The Russian government has made clear that it will take steps to ensure that the Ukrainian military does not defeat separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. It will use as much force as it deems necessary to ensure that the separatist enclaves in Donbas remain functional. There is no way for the Ukrainian government to end the conflict through a military victory. Should the ceasefire fail and Ukrainian forces overcome their setbacks and renew their advance into separatist territory, Moscow is likely further to escalate the extent of its direct military assistance.

Russia and Ukraine: Not the Military Balance You Think

Moscow’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies has just published a new book on the military aspects of the Ukraine crisis. Here’s a preview of my book review, published today at War on the Rocks.

Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov, eds. Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, 2014).

Over the last few months, the crisis in Ukraine has led to a fundamental reassessment of the state of U.S.-Russia relations. The crisis began with Russia’s almost completely non-violent military takeover of Crimea in February-March 2014. A new English-language volume edited by Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov highlights the causes and nature of the conflict in Crimea, as well as provides some lessons for both Ukraine and other states that might be subject to Russian aggression in the future.

This volume provides balanced and comprehensive coverage of virtually all military aspects of the conflict in Crimea, including both Russian and Ukrainian points of view. The experts from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) are some of the top Russian military analysts and the quality of their research and understanding of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries is clear in the writing.

The book begins with a short chapter by Vasily Kashin describing the backstory of the territorial dispute over Crimea. Although it starts with the conquest of the region by Catherine the Great back in the 18th century and mentions more familiar arguments related to the legitimacy of the region’s transfer from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, the main focus is on events after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Kashin highlights tensions over Crimea’s status within Ukraine throughout the 1990s, the role played by former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in promoting pro-Russian separatism in Crimea in the 1990s and 2000s, and the contentious negotiations over the division and subsequent status of the Black Sea Fleet and its base in Sevastopol. His key insight is that “the Russian government took no serious measures to support separatist movements in Crimea” prior to its invasion of the peninsula last February. This illustrates that Russian actions during the crisis were not the culmination of a plan to dismember Ukraine, but a reaction to the perceived security threat coming from the Maidan protests that culminated in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government.

To read the rest, please click 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.