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The three Baltic states can’t confront the Russian bear on their own

Security: Baltic Air Defence


BRUSSELS – Military mobility, budgetary burden-sharing and deterrence led allied talks in the months leading up to NATO’s 11-12 July Summit here in Brussels, with the budget issue dominating the Summit once again. Yet a more tangible security matter has been inching closer to the allies, requiring their close attention and a workable large-scale solution.

Since NATO’s 2016 decision to lay down enhance forward presence (eFP) along its eastern flank as a reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Baltics states have emerged as the frontline for detecting and deterring a potential Russian threat.

Lying at the interface between the alliance and Russia, the Baltic states’ geography also thrusts them into the unwanted frontline position of being the first to identify and react to a Russian attack. Not only is tighter coordination among the three small states needed, they also lack the capacity to react to Russian threats, particularly in the crucial domain of air defence.

This is all the more worrisome in view of Russia’s steady build-up of its Western Military District’s offences which no doubt would exploit the Baltics’ weak points, such as using the Suwalki Corridor and Russia’s strongholds in Kaliningrad and Belarus to isolate the region in the case of an offensive manoeuver.

In a report published in July 2018 by the Washington DC-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), the latter underlines the importance of securing the Suwalki Corridor. It typifies the corridor as a “box” that connects allies Poland and Lithuania to Russia’s client state Belarus and its enclave at Kaliningrad – a strategic military artery exploited since Napoleonic times.

Russia’s militarisation of its western district is a clear indication of Moscow’s appreciation of the Suwalki factor. According to CEPA, Russia will have stationed close to 15,000 soldiers near the corridor, in Kaliningrad, by 2020.

While the Kremlin will argue that Russia’s growing military presence in the district and Kaliningrad is simply a reaction to NATO’s eFP, it resembles more a new “stab, grab and hold” strategy that Russia perfected during its contemporary operations in Georgia, Syria and Crimea, observes the CEPA report.

“This operational approach is calibrated to evade the traditional mechanisms that undergird NATO’s strategy of collective defence. And while hybrid war is not new, Russia’s evolving way of war is radically different from the all-out conflict that allied planners had previously prepared,” it observes.

The CEPA report also addresses the consistent Russian pattern of violating Baltic airspace, further demonstrating the need for the Baltic states to fill the gaps in their air defence capabilities.

Those gaps are laid out in detail in another report, published in May 2018, by the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn. According to the latter, Baltic air defence lacks adequate command, control, computer and communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities and suffers deficiencies in ground-based air defence and radar systems.

This is acutely the case in regard to comprehensive and integrated layered air defence of long, medium, short and very short range missile assets for the three nations – a capability firmly entrenched within Russia’s arsenal.

Estonia and Lithuania each have very short-range air defence systems, while the British Army operates a short-range missile defence system as a part of NATO’s eFP measures for Estonia. In addition, Lithuania is actively operating and acquiring medium-range air defence systems.

But long-range air defence is completely missing. Without it, they don’t have a strategically effective air defence system.

“In the event of a crisis or war, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be unable to support a shift from peacetime operations to a robust NATO air defence posture, and would themselves be able to protect just a handful of critical assets from attack from the air – and then only for a short period of time,” notes the ICDS report.

This inability to transition to an offensive posture is due to their weak C4ISR capability. According to ICDS, the Baltics’ lack: connectivity (not all their control and reporting centres or control and reporting posts are connected or stable), certain command and control capabilities, interoperability between Baltic and NATO surveillance systems, trained personnel and, finally, situational awareness in Finnish and Swedish airspace.

Both the ICDS and CEPA recommend that the three countries immediately fill these gaps to deter any destabilisation attempts by Russia. Their reports differ in that they place the onus of responsibility on different parties. IDCS argues that the Baltic states are largely responsible on their own for bringing their air defences up to scratch and should only rely on NATO when those shortfalls cannot be effectively addressed. CEPA suggests that the U.S. Army can fill some gaps in short-range air defence by deploying highly mobile assets to serve as “mobile tripwires” that would greatly strengthen the deterrent effect against Russia.

Both agree that NATO’s eastern flank would benefit from more frequent military exercises comparable to Russia’s grand-scale Zapad exercise in autumn 2017.

Regardless of who takes charge, far more effort is in order to encourage and help the Baltics fill their gaps in air defence as Russia continues to strengthen its Western Military District. Unfortunately, as history shows, overwhelmingly imbalanced military force along a frontier too often tempts the holder of that force to use it.


Expecting the three Baltic countries to rapidly pay for and install a complete layered air defence capability on their own is unrealistic. Their economies and military budgets are too small and they lack sufficient connectivity among themselves, across the Baltic Sea and with NATO.

More bilateral assistance is needed from other allies and a more creative use of NATO’s common fund, known as the Security Investment Programme (SIP). Its rules could be loosened to help pay for things that the Baltics cannot afford.

While critics within NATO will pedantically argue that the SIP cannot pay for purely national military expenditure, the Baltics sit on the frontline of a hostile neighbour where their vulnerability exceeds that of any other ally in terms of conventional threats from Russia. Facing Russia across the Black Sea, Turkey has a huge army and a will to use it. Norway has a strong navy and sophisticated weaponry. The Baltics have none of these. NATO investment in the Baltics is an investment in all the allies’ security.


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