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LMC 2021

Close to the Wind

In my 2015 report, “The Coming Storm” (2015) I highlighted the strategic incoherence of the Baltic Sea region.

Edward Lucas

Senior Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis

Mistral short-range air defence missile system.
Mistral short-range air defence missile system. Photo: Estonian Defence Forces

I noted that though the five Nordic countries, three Baltic countries, and Poland had a GDP greater than Russia’s, and had defence budgets that on paper could easily match Russia’s aggressive capabilities, their “generally weak defence spending and poor coordination” made them highly vulnerable to a “multi-pronged and sustained military, propaganda and espionage offensive from Russia.” I warned that not only regional security, but NATO’s credibility was, therefore, at stake.

Much has changed since then. The war in Ukraine, the refugee crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and the Trump administration’s “America First” approach presented new challenges to EU and NATO. Russia has strengthened its quantitative and qualitative military advantage in the Western Military District, with new equipment, increased readiness, better exercises, and logistics. Absent credible reinforcement plans, this places a great emphasis on the credibility of Western deterrence, chiefly provided by the US.

Russia has also honed and developed its sub-threshold warfare capabilities, lately known as “hybrid” or “active measures” by those who remember similar Soviet-era tactics.


On the plus side, every country in the region has raised its defence spending. NATO’s role in the region has transformed, with the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in the Baltic states and Poland creating a significant land-based contribution to national defence efforts in these countries. Baltic Air Policing deployments have increased. NATO has two divisional and one corps headquarters in the region. The US presence in the Baltic region has increased. Finland and Sweden have sharply strengthened their security cooperation and bilateral and trilateral ties with the United States. A US Army Green Beret team is stationed full-time in Sweden. Poland, NATO’s eastern flank hub and military heavyweight is now closely working with the Baltic countries, particularly Lithuania.

Trust across the four main fault lines in the region – big/small, rich/poor, NATO/non-NATO, and EU/non-EU – has grown. It is hard to identify a period in recent history when national efforts and regional security ties were stronger.

Trust across the four main fault lines in the region – big/small, rich/poor, NATO/non-NATO, and EU/non-EU – has grown.

Yet strategies, capabilities, and threats in the Baltic Sea region are mismatched. The most important weapons systems — such as Air and Missile Defence — are unaffordable for the countries that most need them. Land, maritime, and air strategies are unequally developed and scarcely integrated. The approach in many countries is backward-looking: getting ready to fight the last war, not the next one. Strategic thinking about the region is piecemeal: few of those involved in regional security can articulate a clear picture of a desired end state for regional security, or how that might be achieved. Every element of the region’s defence is based on compromise and improvisation, with a dose of wishful thinking often added for good measure. In many cases, the answer to the hardest questions is an assumption, stated or unstated, that the US will fill the gap.

This and other assumptions about the region’s defence, in terms of political decision-making, logistical capabilities, and military plans, are not properly tested in exercises. All the region’s defence arrangements are, therefore, gravely vulnerable to surprise shocks, such as a strategic distraction.

The result is dangerous complacency. The security of the Atlantic alliance and all its member states is only as strong as that of its weakest and most peripheral members. Put bluntly, defence shortcomings in the Baltic Sea region risk a crisis in the credibility of deterrence, with potentially catastrophic consequences for NATO, its members, and partner countries.

Main Shortcomings

1. Sub-threshold threats are potentially a more serious threat than full-scale kinetic conflict. Comprehensive or “total” defence plans require more resources and better, more comprehensive implementation. International coordination remains nascent.

2. NATO remains the linchpin of regional security. Finland and Sweden’s status as non-members of the alliance is not the biggest problem. Far more important are:

  • An unclear and untested command and control system.
  • A lack of a common threat assessment.
  • A growing imbalance in mass and readiness.
  • A lack of high-tempo exercises at the appropriate scale, including short-notice readiness exercises to shock and sharpen the system.

3. Given the imbalance between Russian and Allied capabilities, credible, well-rehearsed reinforcement plans are vital. But these are lacking. The “Notice to Move” and “Notice to Effect” times of NATO’s higher readiness forces need reexamination.

4. Military mobility is potentially a force multiplier. Friction corrodes readiness. Despite the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation efforts, the ability to move personnel and equipment around the region in a “military Schengen” is still weak. Infrastructure, legal and political obstacles are self-imposed handicaps on the vital “speed of assembly.”

5. Outdated or absent air and maritime strategies are another serious gap in regional security.

6. So too is the lack of long-range precision strikes (with the exception of Poland and Finland’s JASSM missiles).

7. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and effective intelligence sharing are still insufficient. The countries of the region need an “unblinking eye” that encompasses air, sea, land, and cyber domains, and that analyzes and acts on what it sees.

8. The US carries too much of the burden of deterrence and reinforcement in the region. This is unsustainable in the long term. So far, other countries — the United Kingdom, France, and (particularly) Germany — are not in a position to compensate for the diminishing US role.

9. National defence spending is rising but it could be more effectively targeted. Fragmented acquisition programmes, domestic political considerations and bureaucratic friction mean that the region’s huge collective defence budget often fails to deliver the results it could and should.

10. Deterrence is not clearly articulated and relies too heavily on the US (and to some extent British) nuclear guarantee and on the multinational land-based, “tripwire” eFP forces in the Baltic states. This is a bluff. It risks being called.

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