March 7, 2018
By David Brennan
A new report from the Rand Corporation warned that NATO would be overwhelmed by superior Russian firepower in the event of war in Eastern Europe, despite years of trying to strengthen its forces in the region.

If war were to break out, the report warns, Russia could quickly overrun the Baltic region and use “brinksmanship to attempt to freeze the conflict,” according to lead author Scott Boston and colleagues.

While the report does not suggest that Russian aggression in the region is imminent, it argues that the growth of Russian military capability and its willingness to use force to achieve its goals must be met with “a more robust posture designed to considerably raise the cost of military adventurism against one or more NATO member states.”

NATO forces have been shifting their focus away from high-intensity, combined-arms combat, focusing instead on counter-insurgency operations in distant locations such as AfghanistanIraq and Mali.

Major NATO powers such as the U.S. and U.K. have not fought a conventional state-on-state war since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was over in less than six weeks.

NATO bolstered its military presence in Eastern Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, deploying four multinational battalion-size battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland on a rotational basis.

But that might not be enough. The report says NATO has around 32,000 troops in the Baltics, compared with Russia’s 78,000. NATO is also outnumbered 757 to 129 in tanks, for which the wide, flat plains of Eastern Europe are a perfect hunting ground.

Russia “has retained a combined-arms force that emphasizes mobility and firepower and trains to conduct larger-scale combined-arms operations,” the report explains. “This gives Russian forces an important advantage in conflicts between mechanized forces close to their border.”

As Russian capabilities declined following the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO’s global dominance meant there was little impetus to retain high levels of military spending and manpower.

But Russia is beginning to catch up. President Vladimir Putin has ploughed significant sums into creating a modern military capable of complex logistical planning and force projection.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia spent $20.9 billion—3.6 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP)—on its armed forces in 2000, the year Putin was first elected president. In 2016, Russia spent $70.3 billion on its military; 5.3 percent of its GDP.

Poor Russian performance in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, in particular, showed that upgrading military equipment and structures was vital to remain a potent force.

Russia now has “a growing number of volunteer soldiers, fielding of modernized weapons, improvements to readiness and experience gained from large-scale exercises and combat operations in Ukraine and Syria,” Boston and colleagues explain.

Russia’s improved logistical network allows it to mass significant forces within its borders, the report continues, as shown in recent large-scale military exercises. Given that its Western Military District is already home to the country’s elite ground and air forces, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have little chance of withstanding an all-out assault—even with the assistance of supplementary NATO units.

Russian firepower and home advantage means it could overrun and secure the Baltic region before the U.S. and its allies have a chance to strike back, by which time the war could already have been won—and not by NATO.