BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were to be the centerpiece of NATO’s big exercise at the end of March. Designed to send a deterrent message to Moscow, the exercise was scrapped due to the coronavirus restrictions.
(Of course, the larger question should be: if we scrapped these exercises–the largest NATO exercise along the Russian border in years–why in the Hell did we not scrap the USS Theodore Roosevelt‘s port call to Vietnam in the throes of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the Indo-Pacific?)
Anyway, I digress.
As this was set to be the largest exercise NATO has conducted in some years along the Russian border, the termination of this expensive show of force now leaves a gap in our ongoing attempts to reassert believable deterrence…or something.
Here’s the thing: even before NATO’s big set piece exercise was slated to go forward, the Russian Federation had already armed their tiny oblast in the Kaliningrad to the hilt. The Kaliningrad is Russia’s poison pill for any NATO defense of the Baltic states. You see, it is here where Russia has based their potent Baltic fleet (from where Russia has been launching mysterious submarine missions where I, suspect, they are tapping into or practicing severing the undersea communications cables between Europe and the outside world).
Kaliningrad is also home to Russia’s powerful Iskander missiles (similar missiles have been deployed to defend Bashar al-Assad’s territory in Syria and were also sent over to the Kuril Islands which have been contested with Japan since the end of the Second World War). The Iskander missiles are nuclear-capable. And it is believed that the Kaliningrad houses a massive tranche of non-strategic nuclear warheads (i.e. tiny tactical nuclear weapons designed to punch through advancing or defending armies of the kind that would be arrayed to defend NATO states, like those in the Baltic).
Much like China with Taiwan and the South China Sea, Moscow has converted the Kaliningrad oblast into a bastion of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD). From here, the Russians hope to create a reliable defensive bubble to preclude US Navy forces from interdicting against their own forces by the Baltic Sea route. Given that the countries most likely to be called into defending the Baltic states, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, are themselves maritime powers the likelihood of the overwhelming NATO victory over any potential conflict in this area that so many analysts in the mainstream assume is not a fait accompli.
If the Russians have made the Kaliningrad as protected from seaborne assault as I suspect, that would mean any potential conflict with Russia for control of the Baltic states would be mostly land-based. Under these conditions, the Kaliningrad has been so well fortified that the usual conventional strengths of NATO–AirPower and seapower–would not be either as reliable or effective as they should be. What’s more, given the Russian penchant for asymmetrical warfare, it is quite unlikely that any fight between NATO forces and those of Russia for control of the Baltic states would be as straightforward as either Brussels or Washington assume it would be.
Far from it. A few years ago I played the Russian all-source intel analyst for a war-game in Washington, D.C. which envisaged a potential Russian breakout in the Baltic states. I did not play by the rules. I played as a Russian would. I used the tenets of the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine” (which is not actually a doctrine) to my advantage. After a wave of information warfare operations and terrorist strikes directed against Western energy supplies, I pivoted and launched a double-edged cyber and space attack; a dual Pearl Harbor in cyberspace and space.
I then surged my forces forward in a blitzkrieg, pummeling NATO defensive lines with a pre-invasion launch of tactical nuclear weapons. Needless to say, the combination of radical misinformation (I did a feint where I appeared as though Russia was readying to attack non-aligned Finland), merciless cyberattacks on critical European and American infrastructure, and a sustained surprise counterspace assault on key American satellite constellations (such as the Wideband Global Satcom and NC3 constellation which is vital for early missile launch warning), left the NATO forces charged with defending the Baltic states dazed and confused.
Without their technological accoutrements, the much smaller NATO force was further incapable of effectively resisting the go-for-broke blitz that Russia subjected it to. On a good day, Russian forces outnumber NATO forces charged with defending the Baltic states by something like eight-to-one. Now, imagine if all of the lights are out; everyone is freaking out in the civilian populations because of disinformation and they can’t get their money from the bank; reinforcements cannot come nor can proper air cover to help the NATO ground forces; oh and low-yield nukes are popping off along suspected NATO defensive positions. This, as a surge of hilariously antedated (though numerous) Soviet-era tanks come rolling over NATO positions.
Moscow has spent years planning for such an event. Yes, in a head-to-head match-up with the United States globally Russia gets its ass kicked (unless they start throwing nukes into the equation). In specific areas of the globe, though, such as the Baltic states, the odds are evened out. This is especially true as the Americans are distracted globally and their European allies are simply ill-prepared for resisting a massive Russian push for the Baltic states, given Russia’s great advantages from nearby Kaliningrad.
Under these conditions, the best hope for the Baltic states resides not in the United States or United Kingdom. Instead, they reside in nearby Poland. This wealthy, well-armed country is Eastern Europe’s only viable hub for sustained defense. But it is hamstrung by NATO passivity and American dithering. The United States must afford Poland all of the tools needed to defend itself from a potential Russian push. After all, once they’ve captured the Baltic states it will only be a matter of time before the Russians desire to clip Poland’s wings.
In October of 2017, I was asked to talk to the United States Congress on this matter. At that time, I advocated for the United States handing off nuclear weapons to the Poles to match those Russian forces arrayed in the Kaliningrad oblast. This would not be an offensive tool. The Poles would only be able to use these weapons should the Russians initiate an attack. My outlook on any potential American-provided Polish nuclear deterrent would be the same as Charles de Gaulle had for France’s force de frappe. Yes, the arsenal and capability of these nuclear forces would be much more limited than what either the Americans or Russians could field. But locally, the arsenal would be sufficient for Poland’s needs.
And what are Poland (and therefore their neighbors’) needs? Simple: to be able to so badly weaken a potential Russian invasion force of the Baltic states (and Poland) that the Russians will either have to commit many more forces to such an endeavor or they will have to settle and leave well-enough-alone (this is the hope). Just as de Gaulle reasoned with the Force de frappe, any potential American-provided nuclear deterrent for Poland would not in itself definitely prevent a Russian invasion. The ability to “tear an arm” off the Russian invasion would be effective enough for Poland’s needs. This is about buying time for the West from a potential Russian use-it-or-lose-it attack on Eastern Europe.
As it stands, this is the only real option available in the near-term to our European friends. Without the ability to reliably interdict against the Kaliningrad’s effective A2/AD bubble around the Baltic Sea, neither the US nor UK navies will risk their assets by interdicting. Meanwhile, the Russians think that the combination of their larger ground forces, as well as their dedication to asymmetrical warfare, will yield a quick (if bloody) victory over the NATO forces protecting the Baltic states. But if the Russians know the Poles have nukes (and may even be moving them into the Baltic states), Moscow might blink. They don’t fear the nuclear decision-making of the Americans. Moscow would, however, fear the nuclear brinkmanship of the Poles.
I would love to hear alternatives. But, as it stands, this is NATO’s only viable option. Preferably, I’d love to see the Trump White House and Putin’s Kremlin get together and craft a viable agreement that allows for both sides to have their cake and eat it too. Alas, it seems that we won’t be getting this anytime. Therefore, we need to be ready for anything. Poland in this circumstance will be NATO’s only hope to rollback or prevent a Russian attack on the Baltic states. They can only do it with nuclear weapons at their disposal (as well as viable missile defense systems of the sort that the Obama Administration removed in 2009).