Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened concern about NATO’s ability to maintain its core mission of providing security and stability to allies across Europe. This concern is most acute in smaller, former Soviet states with Russian ethnic populations that are close to the Russian border, as is the case for the Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These security issues include political, economic, and military factors. NATO, as the political-military organization that guarantees security in the region, is critical to answering those concerns. Understanding how NATO currently works to protect vulnerable allies, such as the Baltic States, and how it might initially respond to a Russian incursion can provide insight into how U.S. strategic and operational activity can influence European security and global stability.
Comparisons of European Power in the 21st Century
To understand the context of strategic competition in Europe, it is important to understand the underlying resources that Russia and the NATO Allies can leverage to achieve their goals. In this resource-based sense, Russia’s relative power in Europe, though not at its nadir, is weaker than it has been over much of the past two centuries. Russia’s political and diplomatic power in Europe have not fully recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, Russia suffers from a weak economy with structural problems exacerbated by a comparatively small population, and a relatively small conventional military force with limited capacity for meaningful expansion because of increasing economic and political constraints.
NATO’s collective conventional force structure is dramatically larger than Russia’s. North American military forces number 1.4 million (mostly U.S.) personnel. Remaining NATO allies account for another 1.8 million personnel.1 Russia, meanwhile, has 850 thousand active-duty personnel.
At a more technical level, Russia has produced some of the most sophisticated weapon platforms in the world. However, because of its funding weaknesses, Russia lacks the ability to field significant numbers of those forces, so that any loss in major conflict would be operationally or even strategically significant. For example, Russia’s Severodvinsk submarine is widely viewed as one of world’s most capable nuclear-powered, cruise-missile capable submarines; but, with only three operational hulls (two in the Northern Fleet, one in the Pacific Fleet), the class is dangerous, but poses a limited threat.
Asymmetric Advantages in Competition
In view of the meaningful gap between NATO and Russian economic and military power in a conventional sense, Russia has outsized regional economic leverage through its energy exports and has invested effectively in asymmetric capabilities. However, Russia's poor timing in starting its invasion of Ukraine in spring has allowed NATO and the EU to build consensus and a plan to largely disconnect from Russian energy supplies, mitigating Russia's strength in this area. Notably, Russia has developed sophisticated cyber-warfare capabilities and, perhaps more important, continues to invest in significant information and influence operations. From a conventional force perspective, Russia also enjoys certain asymmetric advantages it could leverage to present strategic and operational challenges to NATO in a physical conflict scenario. Specifically, it enjoys a comparatively clear and unified command-and-control (C2) architecture closely aligned to its political objectives; it can choose the time and place of conflict; and it has short internal lines of communication, providing significant advantages to its ability to maneuver and supply operational forces. Russia’s missteps in Ukraine have demonstrated that this tight organization can also be a curse as politics and corruption appear to have undermined information flow, planning, and decision making in ways that have seriously undermined strategic and operational goals. Nonetheless, these advantages would allow Russia to seize the initiative and dictate tempo in a conventional conflict.
In contrast, NATO has a notoriously complex command-and-control structure whose actions are tied to political consensus across 30 countries. Gaining consensus for action, particularly major military commitments, can be challenging, especially in a chaotic situation. Moreover, the NATO military structure is a command-and-control (C2) construct that sits on top of existing national military C2 organizations, adding complexity for forces used to operating under national command structures. While this permanent allied C2 structure is necessary and better than any alternative, some of the force structure advantage that NATO enjoys over Russia is simply a standing allied C2 organization, not necessarily direct combat power.
In a conflict with Russia, delays caused by the decision-making processes may be exacerbated by the fact that most NATO forces are stationed away from the Russian border. While some tactical units have moved east, including high readiness elements of the NATO Response Force (NRF) a large NATO military response to any Russian incursion would have to move hundreds of miles across multiple countries. Even the likely addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO’s rolls would not immediately shift the preponderance of NATO’s military force disposition, though it would significantly increase NATO’s flexibility in potential force deployments along Russia’s border. In addition, to be effective for a conflict, those forces need significant logistical support from their parent nations or NATO. Executing force movement and establishing local or expeditionary logistics support for the incoming forces in any area, even the Baltic, takes time. The net effect is that physical distance of forces from the conflict area compounds with decisional delays to cede important time to Russia in a crisis. Time to operate in an uncertain or weakly opposed environment may enable Russia to use a brief window of confusion to quickly seize its objective.
Delay and Confusion as Operational Weapons
NATO’s conventional advantages point to eventual NATO success in any long-term and large-scale conventional conflict with Russia. Accordingly, Russia wants to avoid any extended, major conflict scenario with NATO—in fact, the Russian government is clearly unhappy to be engaged in a long-term conflict with a NATO-armed Ukraine. However, there might be conditions under which Russia could perceive an opportunity to foment chaos and quickly seize NATO territory. Russia’s aggressive move in Georgia and invasion of Crimea exploited chaos and confusion to delay international response while Russia established control of territory. It sought to do the same in its invasion of Ukraine, deflecting and denying reports of mobilization and flooding accessible media outlets with disinformation or Russian government talking points. Clearly, the Russian government miscalculated the skill and spirit of Ukraine’s defenders as well as the commitment of the international community (particularly NATO and the EU) to resisting Russian expansion.
Russia’s missteps in executing its invasion of Ukraine leave it mired in a major conflict that is consuming its operational forces and their equipment at an alarming rate. Even worse, rather than deliberating ineffectually, the NATO has responded more forcefully than Russia expected and looks set to expand to Finland and Sweden, both major strategic setbacks for Russia. This experience should suppress any desire to test international resolve with a new military adventure in the near term, though expansion of the current conflict remains a key concern. In targeting a NATO ally, Russia would need to be more cunning and subtle with its execution, though the potential reward of undermining the NATO alliance might be worth the risk.
A plausible Russian strategy for action against NATO might be to engineer a chaotic situation in a Baltic state and act quickly and forcefully while chaos or misinformation causes strategic indecision among the allies. In this scenario, Russia’s operational plan would be to seize a small piece of one of these states while NATO is confused and deliberating. An ideal target would be a frontier area with friendly ethnic Russian presence and little tactical or economic value. This might give Russia the chance to negotiate a political settlement in which they retain annexed territory or extract some other diplomatic concessions in exchange for retreating without major combat.
The strategic objective in this Baltic scenario is not to add land or strategic depth—Russia has always had plenty of the former and would gain little depth without wholesale seizure of the Baltic states. Rather, the goal is to begin to restore its status as a regional hegemon, lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Integral to that goal is its objective to undermine confidence in NATO, stop its growth, and begin to sow the seeds of its disintegration so Russia can replace it. Russia wants to demonstrate that NATO will not fully live up to its commitment to protect all members equally.
NATO Defense of the Baltic States
As the most powerful alliance in the world, with deep political and economic resources and global ties, NATO has considerable strength to engage diplomatically and economically with Russia, including through coercive mechanisms. Such nonmilitary action is NATO’s first means to dissuade Russian adventurism in Europe. NATO’s continued efforts to send the message to both allies and adversaries that the alliance is united and will uphold its commitments are an important part of keeping Russian aggression in check. Miscalculation is often a prelude to conflict, so NATO consistency in its message of mutual commitment to the security of all members, especially the Baltic States, is important to prevent Russia from perceiving some weakness in the alliance. This message is prominent in NATO communications and at a national level among allies as well.
When confronted with Russian posturing, NATO, or collections of allies, can respond with their own political and economic leverage, imposing costs on individual Russian oligarchs or their business interests through sanctions and international legal actions. Recent examples include the sanctions imposed broadly following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In addition, NATO allies perceiving imminent crisis can call for Article 4 consultations, as eight NATO member states did prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These consultations inherently focus global attention on any crisis and accelerate political decision making, as the world witnessed the immediate wake of Russia’s offensive. When taken early, these collective actions help send a message of resolve and remind Russia of the broad coalition of states and extensive power base against which it is competing.
There also are defensive military actions that NATO can take early or in advance of crisis to help prevent conflict. Perhaps the most useful pre-crisis activities are NATO’s regular military exercises that build tactical and operational interoperability. While generally not focused specifically on Russia, these activities demonstrate commitment of resources and attention to relevant common defense priorities. In the maritime domain, the annual Baltic Operations exercise demonstrates NATO’s ability to cooperate effectively in the Baltic region. More broadly, Exercise Neptune Shield provides the opportunity to train maritime forces in Allied C2 and combined operations throughout European waterspace. NATO can also use exercises to practice the movement of forces to potential conflict zones, developing familiarity with requirements that would speed the deployment response process in a real crisis and demonstrating the will to do so if necessary. The United States leads this type of initiative with its “Defender” exercises, begun in 2020, which practice joint movement of large U.S. Army formations into Europe to respond to crisis (though not specific to the Baltic States).
Beyond this present activity, NATO or individual allies can incrementally demonstrate their concern and readiness by repositioning mobile standing forces (e.g. Standing NATO Maritime Group, Neptune Challenge, BaltOps exercies) to the proximity of the conflict. Their ability to be close to a potential flashpoint while remaining in international waters and away from the confusion on the ground is valuable. In the land domain, NATO began its enhanced forward-presence deployments to Eastern European allies in 2016 for the express purpose of demonstrating “Allies’ solidarity, determination, and ability to defend Alliance territory.” Highlighting or adjusting that commitment of forces would also reinforce the Alliance’s message and complicate Russian operations in their vicinity.
Once Russia has violated NATO sovereignty, possibly by seizing some piece of destabilized territory along the Latvian or Estonian frontier, NATO’s potential responses expand dramatically. The first and most significant response at the political level is an Article 5 decision; formally, the unanimous decision that a foreign entity has attacked a NATO ally and the alliance will respond with “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” Once decided, the political pathway to increasingly severe political, economic, and military action is clear.
Invoking Article 5 triggers the start of significant collaborative military efforts, including conventional warfare operations. Immediate actions following NATO’s Article 5 declaration in 2001 provide many examples that could be extrapolated to this scenario. For example, allied efforts might begin with enhanced intelligence sharing, both to better inform military actions as well as political decision making. NATO may also expand existing authorities governing the use of standing NATO forces as well as their tactical disposition and the rules of engagement that constrain their actions, particularly regarding collective defense. NATO would likely activate its Response Force, including its Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which can mobilize in as little as three days, to blunt Russia’s initiative and send a collective message of military commitment.
Generalized overflight and access to airfields and ports for the purpose of large-scale force movement and reception also would be expected as the Alliance signals to Russia that it is preparing for a prolonged and concerted effort to reverse the invasion. In addition, activating and integrating forces under operational command of Joint Forces Commands Brunssum and Naples, as well as Striking and Support Forces NATO, would send a clear message to Russia that its efforts to achieve a quick resolution are bound to fail.
Russia continues to seek to rebuild its influence on the peripheral states where it was once a hegemon. Russia’s actions in Ukraine demonstrate the threat, and President Vladimir Putin’s own words show the intent. NATO presently acts as an effective shield for allies, with its tremendous political, economic, and conventional advantages over Russia. Despite these strengths, NATO must be mindful that Russia has its own asymmetric advantages in a potential conflict in its near abroad.
NATO has rightly pursued a path to avoid conflict with Russia by maintaining political unity as well as military interoperability and readiness through combined exercises and operations. NATO must continue to maintain that unity and readiness to prevent Russian aggression. Should deterrence fail, swift and credible action to demonstrate collective commitment to NATO defense will be critical to successful defense of the Baltic, and the health of the Alliance as a whole.
1 Institute for Strategic Studies. Armed Forces Personnel by Country database.