NATO Forces in the Baltic States: Credible Deterrent or Paper Tiger?
Date Originally Written: November 9, 2018.
Date Originally Published: December 10, 2018.
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces deployed to the Baltic States are severely unprepared to fight a conventional war with Russia. Their presence in the Baltic States is merely a token gesture of support. The gesture is not only a paper tiger, but exposes the deployed forces to the possible risk of annihilation by Russia. Despite this, there are valid arguments to suggest that a paper tiger is enough to deter hybrid warfare.
In late 2016 NATO coalition members decided that they would send troops to support the Baltic States. This decision was in light of the recent invasion of Crimea by Russian Federation troops in 2014 and the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. At this time the Baltic States were left in a vulnerable position, being both former members of the Soviet Union and current members of NATO and the European Union. The NATO troops sent to the Baltic States came largely from the United Kingdom, Canada, America, Germany, Denmark and France. The United Kingdom sent a force to Estonia, consisting of 800 British troops with handheld drones, which were accompanied by four Challenger tanks and Warrior armoured fighting vehicles. Both the German and Canadian expeditions consisted of similar numbers and equipment.
The vulnerability of the Baltic States position in 2015 is highlighted by David Blair, a writer for the Telegraph. Mr Blair indicates that Latvian troop numbers consisted of 1,250 troops and three training tanks, Lithuanian forces consisted of 3200 troops and Estonian forces consisted of 5300 troops. Opposing these Baltic forces were 1,201 Russian aircraft, 2,600 tanks and 230,000 troops. It is clear militarily that the combined forces of the Russian Federation far outweigh that of the Baltic States, both in numbers and equipment. Altogether the coalition forces reinforced the Baltic States with 3,200 troops, with an additional 4,000 U.S. troops deployed just south in Poland. These troops pose little threat to the Russian forces. This lack of threat to Russia is especially true in light of Russian operations in Ukraine, were they almost entirely wiped out the Ukrainian 79th airmobile brigade in the space of a three-minute artillery strike. This situation begs the question to why these NATO countries have chosen to expose some of their most capable troops and equipment, leaving them in a vulnerable position far from their familiar training grounds in Western Europe?
The most evident argument for exposing vulnerable NATO troops to a Russian threat is that these troops are used as a deterrent; it’s a message to the Russian Federation that Western Europe will support its neighbours to the east. If this token force in the Baltic States were to be attacked, the western powers would be compelled to retaliate and that they would likely nationally mobilise to fight. After the invasion of Crimea, it could be suggested that NATO was slow and unsure on how to react to a threat on its border. By sending these troops, it rids any notion that the Western Powers will sit back and allow their borders to be chipped away in order to avoid full-scale conflict. This view can be compared to that of Argentina during the Falklands war; they believed that the British would not sail across the sea in order to fight an expensive war for a small group of islands. Certainly, this argument can be justified with conventional warfare rearing its ugly head in recent years. Despite conventional warfare becoming apparent, it has been accompanied by destabilisation tactics.
Acknowledging the conventional threats posed by NATO, the Russian Federation over the past few years has been successful in fighting a new type of hybrid warfare This warfare employs conventional, political, irregular and cyber warfare and all under a single banner. Hybrid warfare seeks to first destabilise a country or regime before engaging through irregular or conventional fighting. Destabilisation takes many forms from cyber attacks to inciting civil unrest; this is what the world initially saw in Ukraine. During the initial Russian attacks, there was so much initial confusion within the Ukrainian government and the military that an effective response couldn’t be coordinated. The deployment of foreign forces into to the Baltic States helps to mitigate confusion in a crisis. NATO troops would help deter and then stamp out early signs of the hybrid warfare and could be easily trusted by the Baltic States to help organise a response. The main advantage of having foreign NATO forces is that they are organised from outside of the Baltic States. So, during a period of confusion or instability within the Baltic States, NATO’s own organisation and loyalty will remain intact. This then allows the Baltic State countries to employ the help of these troops however they wish. Whether it is policing their streets, or moving to secure their borders to stop foreign forces and support causing further internal instability. This is highly advantageous for the Baltic States because a significant proportion of their population is of Russian descent and could therefore be coerced into action by Russia as was seen in Crimea. In a conventional war scenario, the forces sent to the Baltic States are weak, but in hybrid warfare their influence is expanded.
An added advantage to the deployment of foreign NATO troops in the Baltic States is the legitimacy it gives to the government. In a time of instability and confusion, the civilian population can become confused with multiple actors rising up in order to gain local control. It would be clear to the local population that NATO troops will ultimately support the legitimate government. This helps to stop the population being coerced through propaganda onto the side of the aggressor in hybrid warfare. NATO troops would ensure that the legitimate government acts correctly and within the confines of law, making it the more desirable faction to follow.
In conclusion, it can be clearly seen that the NATO forces sent to the Baltic States are insufficiently equipped to fight a conventional war and threaten the Russian Federation with attack. Nor is the force much of a conventional deterrence, with its position being far away from sufficient reinforcement from the western countries. In this aspect the force is a paper tiger, although in the face of hybrid warfare, the detachments sent are sufficient for the task at hand. The NATO alliance has successfully acknowledged the latest threat and has acted accordingly.
 By David Blair. (19 Feb 2015). How do we protect the Baltic States? https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11423416/How-do-we- protect-the-Baltic-States.html
 Tom Batchelor. (5 February 2017). The map that shows how many NATO troops are deployed along Russia’s border. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-nato-border-forces-map-where-are-they-positioned-a7562391.html
 Shawn Woodford. (29 March 2017). The Russian artillery strike that spooked the US Army. http://www.dupuyinstitute.org/blog/2017/03/29/the-russian- artillery-strike-that-spooked-the-u-s-army/
 Peter Biles. (28 December 2012). The Falklands War ‘surprised’ Thatcher. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20800447
 David Blair. (19 Feb 2015). How do we protect the Baltic States? https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11423416/How-do-we-protect- the-Baltic-States.html