No. 38




Deterring of the Russian Federation in the Baltic States: NATO’s Possibilities and Dilemmas

05 December 2018


RiTo No. 38, 2018

This analysis discusses the challenges of NATO deterrence from the point of view of the Baltic States.

Deterrence is the corner stone of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) collective defence. NATO’s Strategic concept says: “No one should doubt NATO’s resolve if the security of any of its members were to be threatened.” Thus the conventional weapons and nuclear capability of the North Atlantic Alliance has to convince the opponents that the costs of the aggression exceed possible gains, or constitute a sufficiently high risk for the attacker themselves. Credible deterrence acts as the guarantee of peace and stability in the region. However, the recent events in Ukraine and the conflict in Georgia in 2008 have brought to light the potential cracks in the deterrence models of today. Looking for low-intensity opportunities for destabilising its neighbours or former dependent territories, Russia constantly tests the credibility of today’s international security order and the strength of deterrence.

Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are members of NATO, to whom the NATO security guarantees apply. Although, on the one hand, the difference in the effectiveness of deterrence resulting from that has to be admitted, on the other hand, there is even more reason to test strategic capabilities and send strategic messages in the case of Russia’s direct contact with NATO.

From the practical point of view, there is the question of what the support of the Alliance to the allies actually include. NATO’s primary purpose is not winning the attacks threatening the Alliance, but avoiding them (so-called deterrence). Thus, the purpose of NATO is to develop the capabilities at the disposal of the Alliance to the extent that they would ensure deterrence against all aggressors. According to the strategy documents of the Alliance, deterrence is ensured through joining the NATO conventional capabilities (or conventional forces) and nuclear capability.

Unfortunately, the initiative still seems to be on Russia’s side, who is ready to decisively respond to all NATO’s regional initiatives, in this way moving towards regional arms race. Russia’s strength is built on prioritising national emotional categories. On the positive side, NATO’s expenses in increasing the security of the region have so far been relatively low, allowing an important additional room for action. Still, it is necessary to take into account the risk that each conventional defence measure implemented by NATO on its Eastern flank may result in disproportional arms race or mobilisation on Russia’s side. Second, the wider idea of NATO nuclear capability as the greatest guarantee of deterrence is not very convincing in controlling the regional ambitions of Russia. So Russia is enjoying the conventional regional superiority in the Baltic region. Third, it is not possible, at least not in the medium-term perspective, to achieve balance in conventional weapons in the region, neither with the help of the defence capability of the Baltic States themselves nor even with the help of the pre-positioned capabilities of the allies.

In this context, it is crucial to assess the credibility of different components of NATO deterrence in the Baltic States in avoiding Russia’s possible aggression. Therefore, the authors are describing several Russia’s possible aggression scenarios against the Baltic States and try to find answers to what can and should be done in order to increase the effectiveness of NATO’s deterrence strategy.