Since the early 1990s, the United States and NATO have effectively maintained military dominance in Eastern and Central Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there simply weren’t any actors capable of challenging NATO power. Recently, however, the security environment in Europe has become more complicated, with Russian aggression in Ukraine and posturing in the Baltic. NATO no longer has uncontested control over the region, and it is therefore vital to consider the optimal approach to deter Russian aggression and ensure the security of NATO’s eastern members. Thus, this report considers three broad questions. First, what are the threats associated with Russia’s conventional military forces? Second, what are the dangers associated with Russian irregular forces, the so-called “little green men?” Finally, what military posture should NATO adopt in order to most effectively counter Russian provocations?
Russia’s conventional military power is immense. With a 2015 budget of $66.42 billion – 4.5% of its GDP – Russia maintains the fourth largest military budget, and the third largest budget as a percentage of GDP (1). Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that Russian military spending has increased almost 50% between 2010 and 2015, allowing the Russian Federation to meaningfully augment its military capabilities. This level of spending affords Russia a sizeable military, demonstrating Russia’s desire to restore its former military prowess. With a force of 766,055 active military personnel, the Russian military is only surpassed in size by those of China, the U.S., and India. Russia also maintains a sizeable tank force of 15,000 machines, almost twice as many as the United States’ 8,000 tanks. However, Russia is still a shadow of its former self, and it is largely outclassed and outgunned by its potential NATO adversaries. The U.S. alone maintains a 3.8:1 ratio in aircraft and a 1.2:1 ratio in naval forces (2). These ratios become even more overwhelming when one realizes that America and its NATO allies possess significant qualitative advantages over Russian forces. In sum, Russia maintains a capable and professional military force, but lacks the requisite manpower and technology to seriously challenge NATO in a large-scale conflict.
Despite Russia’s impressive military budgets, recent economic woes have seriously impacted Russian military spending, and 2016 witnessed a nearly 27% budget decrease from the previous year (1). With the price of oil remaining relatively low and Ukraine-related sanctions diminishing FDI flows into Russia, there are serious questions regarding the sustainability of Moscow’s military modernization programs. Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russian military analyst at Harvard, argues that while Russia can likely continue to modernize its force structure in the short to medium term, increasing budget pressures will force Moscow to scale back its ambitious spending plans. Gorenburg asserts that even in the realm of naval shipbuilding – an area of military acquisition that receives the lion’s share of funding – Russian military spending has been “beyond the means of the Russian government even prior to the budget crisis that began in 2014” (3). Thus, while Russia will continue to maintain a capable force and remain an important actor in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it will not be able to project significant power abroad.
Russian conventional military power should not be underestimated, however. For example, the recent intervention in Syria demonstrates that Russia possesses the requisite logistical and strike capabilities to effectively deploy limited forces to areas beyond its borders. Moreover, as Gorenburg points out, Russia’s high operational tempo, improved inter-service coordination, and deployment of highly advanced precision guided munitions demonstrate that its forces are resilient and highly capable (4). In short, Russian conventional forces could pose a serious threat to smaller NATO countries, like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which fall within its near abroad.
And conventional military deployments are only one way in which Russia is capable of exercising power. Operations in Crimea utilized irregular forces composed of “little green men.” Instead of deploying clearly marked conventional soldiers, Russia employed special forces and other black ops groups to infiltrate and seize Ukrainian territory, while maintaining Russian deniability. These tactics, sometimes referred to as “gray warfare,” are defined by former U.S. Special Operations Forces Commander Eric Olson as tactics utilized by states who “seek to secure their objectives while minimizing the scope and scale of actual combat” (5). In other words, Russia’s “little green men” are utilized to rapidly seize key objectives, and are discreet enough to prevent military escalation.
These operations do not represent a novel approach to warfighting, as Adam Elkus and Dan Altman have demonstrated (6). Moreover, they are not necessarily difficult to defeat: By relying on irregular light infantry, “gray warfare” artificially limits the strategic options of offensive forces, granting the defender escalation dominance. However, this irregular style of warfare is an innovative strategy in the NATO-Russia relationship. During the Cold War, NATO was postured primarily to deter and defeat a massive conventional assault by Warsaw Pact forces, not to defeat irregular, hybrid warfare. Thus, while Russian “little green men” do not represent an unprecedented or revolutionary style of warfare, they do present a challenge to a NATO force historically tasked with halting a massive conventional force flowing through the Fulda Gap. With the citizenry of certain NATO countries wavering in their support of Article V – the clause guaranteeing that an attack on one is equivalent to an attack on all – there are serious questions regarding NATO’s resolve in the face of non-traditional tactics like those employed in Crimea (7). After all, if German citizens aren’t committed to fighting a full-scale Russian invasion of Poland or the Baltics, why would they be willing to risk German lives over a small incursion into Baltic territory by Russian irregulars?
Russia clearly possesses serious conventional and irregular military capabilities, allowing it to hold NATO countries in Eastern Europe at risk. Indeed, a recent RAND report argues that Russian military forces could rapidly seize the Baltic capitals, concluding that “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members” (8). Though Russia possesses the capabilities required to launch offensive operations against NATO’s eastern members, the more important issue is whether it will actually do so. Fortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that Russia has any desire to engage in violent conflict with NATO (9). As explained previously, Russia lacks the economic and military strength to challenge NATO in a direct military conflict. Moreover, it is unclear what exactly Russia would hope to gain from a war. After all, it is not as if NATO has just recently lost its conventional edge in Europe. Russia has been building up local military superiority over a number of years. If Russia wanted to invade the Baltics or test NATO resolve, it could have acted before now. The fact that it hasn’t suggests that Russia is not seeking conflict.
Regardless of Russian intentions, it is still prudent to consider ways to maintain deterrence in NATO’s backyard. Even if Russia is unlikely to engage in direct conflict with NATO, it is still important to prepare for every possible contingency.
Currently, NATO lacks a substantial force presence in Eastern Europe, especially relative to Russia. The current forces capable of responding are a recently announced force composed of four NATO battalions – American, British, German, and Canadian – to be deployed to the Baltics and Poland (10). In addition to these recently deployed forces, NATO has the ability to deploy its Very High Readiness Task Force and, potentially, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based in Italy and the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg. Ultimately though, these forces are inadequate to halt a large-scale Russian invasion (11). NATO simply lacks the ability to rapidly deploy large numbers of troops. This deficiency is only further exacerbated by the presence of Russian forces in the Kaliningrad Oblast, a small piece of land sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. As Michael Kofman, an analyst at CNA Corporation, points out, this exclave allows Russian forces to effectively seal off the Baltic Peninsula by utilizing anti-access area denial weapons, in order to block NATO resupply teams and other military units from reinforcing their embattled comrades. Moreover, Kofman points out that “the Russian General Staff [might look] at the map and [realize] that there’s no need to seize Baltic cities since they can simply walk through Belarus and link up with Kaliningrad, thereby severing NATO’s “Army of Deterrence” in the Baltics from the rest of its forces in Poland” (12). In short, deterrence by denial is simply not an option. NATO does not have the means or political will to deploy a force sufficiently large to block a Russian invasion. Even if it does, it is unclear that a deployment of this size is even a wise idea, as it may generate fears in Russia and generate a security spiral (13). Therefore, instead of trying to defend the Baltic states directly, NATO should concentrate on maintaining a force posture capable of retaking lost ground from Russia, as holding territory in the strategically indefensible Baltics is simply infeasible.
What, then, is the optimal deterrence posture for NATO to pursue? This report suggests two general objectives for NATO to follow, in order to shore up its defensive posture vis-à-vis Russia. First, NATO should work to build up its offensive military capabilities in Europe. Specifically, the U.S. and other major NATO countries should bolster forces in parts of Germany and Western Poland, areas protected from Russian encirclement, yet close enough for rapid and sustained deployment to the Baltics and Eastern Europe. By bolstering forces in Central Europe as opposed to Eastern Europe, NATO can ensure the safety of its large-scale maneuver formations and assuage Russian fears of a NATO buildup, while still signaling to Russia that NATO remains poised to defend its eastern members. Second, NATO should work to strengthen police and paramilitary forces in the exposed Baltic states in an attempt to block the deployment of Russian irregulars. These “little green men” are particularly concerning for small states like Estonia and Lithuania because they are sufficiently small-scale to offer NATO-skeptic countries an excuse not to deploy, but sufficiently disruptive to pose a substantial threat to the small militaries of the Baltic states (14). By increasing the capabilities of non-military police organs, NATO can better prepare its Baltic members for the potential disruption of Russian military irregulars and “volunteers” crossing borders and inciting trouble. In short, these Baltic police and paramilitary forces will allow Baltic states the ability to arrest and defend against Russian encroachment, without escalating to a full-scale war. Moreover, by blocking an easy Russian fait accompli, these police forces will raise the costs of victory: Russia will either have to deploy a significant military force to overwhelm Baltic police groups, thus making an Article V declaration more politically feasible, or Russia will have to back off, defeated and disgraced.
It is unlikely that NATO will be forced to contend with Russian aggression against a NATO member. For all its talk, there is little to suggest that Russia is considering military options against NATO states. That said, NATO will need to continue to be prepared to respond to a Russian assault, as failing to develop contingency plans risks degrading deterrence. By combining large scale conventional formations with improved paramilitary and police capabilities, NATO will be able to deter and defeat Russian aggression.
(1) All data is from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “Military Expenditure Database” (Stockholm: SIPRI, 2015), http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex.
(2) Pennington, Reina. “WAS THE RUSSIAN MILITARY A STEAMROLLER? FROM WORLD WAR II TO TODAY.” War on the Rocks. July 6, 2016. Web.
(3) Gorenburg, Dmitry. “Russian Naval Shipbuilding: Is It Possible to Fulfill the Kremlin’s Grand Expectations?” PONARS Eurasia. October 2015. Web.
(4) Gorenburg, Dmitry. “What Russia's Military Operation in Syria Can Tell Us About Advances in its Capabilities” PONARS Eurasia. March 2016. Web.
(5) Olson, Eric. “America’s Not Ready for Today’s Gray Wars.” Defense One. December 10, 2015. Web.
(6) See Elkus, Adam. “50 SHADES OF GRAY: WHY THE GRAY WARS CONCEPT LACKS STRATEGIC SENSE.” War on the Rocks. December 15, 2015. Web. and Altman, Dan. “THE LONG HISTORY OF “GREEN MEN” TACTICS — AND HOW THEY WERE DEFEATED.” War on the Rocks. March 17, 2016. Web.
(7) Dempsey, Judy. “NATO’s European Allies Won’t Fight for Article 5.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. June 15, 2015. Web.
(8) Schlapak, David A. and Michael W. Johnson. “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. Web.
(9) Galeotti, Mark. “No, Russia is not preparing for all-out war.” openDemocracy. June 21, 2016. Web.
(10) “NATO Shores Up the East.” Wall Street Journal. July 10, 2016. Web.
(11) Kofman, Michael. “THE EXPENSIVE PRETZEL LOGIC OF DETERRING RUSSIA BY DENIAL.” War on the Rocks. June 23, 2016. Web.
(12) Kofman, Michael. “Fixing NATO in the East OR: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NATO's Crushing Defeat by Russia.” War on the Rocks. May 12, 2016. Web.
(13) For an analysis of security spirals and arms racing, see Jervis, Robert. Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1976. Print.
(14) Haines, John R. “How, Why, and When Russia Will Deploy Little Green Men – and Why the US Cannot.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. March 2016. Web.
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Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.