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| American Enterprise Institute
To analyze how Russia could attack the Baltic States, it is necessary to think as the Russian military does. There are four possible scenarios for a campaign against the Baltic States. Each one is based on one element of the so-called New-Generation Warfare (NGW), which Russia employed in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The Russian strategy has eight interchangeable elements. The first four phases of the NGW are non-kinetic, using strategies of low-intensity conflict. Military action starts in the fifth stage, by readying the theater for a kinetic operation.
Russia would probably combine different strategic elements of NGW. For example, in Ukraine the focus is more on low-intensity conflict, while in Syria the focus is on noncontact warfare or sixth-generation warfare, to use the Russian terminology.
A Conventional Operation
The first scenario is a conventional military operation. One of the best-known studies discussing a Russian attack against the Baltics is Rand’s 2016 report “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank.”1 The main takeaway is that Russia could reach the outskirts of Riga and Tallinn in 60 hours, leaving NATO with limited options. The paper is not clear about Russia’s motivations to attack two NATO members. It also ignored Russia’s potential tactical objectives in the region, limitations due to terrain, and the fact that after Russian troops reached Riga, they would be in an urban warfare situation.
Russia’s Achilles’ heel is Kaliningrad, which is separated from the mainland by Lithuania. Therefore, in a conventional military operation, the probable objective would be to establish a corridor to connect Kaliningrad with mainland Russia using the Baltic States. In this scenario, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania would lose some territory (likely that bordering Russia) but maintain their independence. To achieve this objective, it would be necessary to launch an operation focusing mostly on Latvia and Lithuania while using enough forces to keep the Estonian military busy and dissuade it from helping its southern neighbors.
As a result, the Russian operation would have five main axes. The first would be toward Tallinn to paralyze Estonia. A second one would follow the Pskov road to Riga. A third would go from Pskov toward Latgale (Latvia’s region with a significant Russian-speaking population), to join with the fourth one entering Lithuania from Belarus. A fifth one would close the Suwalki gap—the roughly 100 km border between Poland and Lithuania. Seizing it would cut the Baltics off from other NATO forces.
As usual, this plan has several uncertainties and considerable risks. Russia would likely have to use Belarussian territory to attack Lithuania, and it is uncertain if such an operation would have Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenka’s approval. Another factor is the now permanent, albeit small, footprint of NATO forces in the Baltic States. The presence of American, Canadian, French, and other allied nations’ soldiers could present grave geopolitical consequences for any aggression from the Kremlin.
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