Window on Eurasia: RAND — NATO Can Defend Baltics But the Baltics Could Defeat Themselves

Paul A. Goble
(This article was published in the Estonian newspaper Postimees 9/28/04.)

Tartu, September 28 — NATO could successfully repel any Russian military attack on the Baltic countries at any time during the next decade – unless Russian covert actions were able to destabilize the three Baltic societies and then Russian psychological operations in Western Europe were able to divide the Western alliance, according to a study conducted by a group of senior American defense analysts.

Their conclusions are contained in a paper entitled „Assuring Access in Key Strategic Regions” that was prepared for the U.S. Army by RAND, a leading American think tank that for more than 50 years has prepared studies for the American government on a wide variety of topics. This 187-page monography was posted in its entirety on the Internet at It should become „must reading” for everyone concerned about the security of the Baltic countries.

In the study’s own words, its nine authors „developed scenarios and conducted political-military games to determine what strategies, tactics and capabilities potential adversaries might use to complicate U.S. access to key areas and how effective the U.S. counters to these tactics are.” As is usually the case with such planning exercises and as anyone reading their conclusions must remember, they organized this game not because they or those who ordered the study expect particular conflicts but rather they are interested in doing what is necessary to preclude them.

This particular RAND study includes discussions of the results of games conducted about possible conflicts in Southwest Asia, the Pacific Theater, the European Theater, and Latvin America and the Caribbean. The European theater game concerned a Russian decision to invade Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in order to detach these three Baltic countries from NATO and the European Union and to project Russian power westward.

The scenario for European theater game, according to the RAND analysts, was „a deteriorating U.S.-Russian relationship,” one in which Russia felt increasingly vulnerable to encirclement and the U.S. increasingly angered by „continued Russian close ties with Iran.” Indeed, for the purposes of this game, Washington had reached the conclusion that Russia’s support for Iran’s nuclear program meant that Moscow was no longer an ally in the war against terrorism but rather an „enabler” of the terrorists and the governments supporting the. Because of these changes, ever fewer Russians were willing to view Baltic membership in NATO as irreversible, and ever more officials in NATO countries reached the conclusion that any Russian assertivenss must be countered quickly and effectively.

The „catalyst” for the crisis between Russia and the West over the Baltic countries that formed the basis of this strategic planning game was, in the words of the RAND document, „the failure of Estonia and Latvia to fully integrate their ethnic Russian populations.” That „failure,” the document says, led to increasing activism by ethnic Russians in both countries, and that activism in turn opened the way for „Russian intelligence services to exploit existing protests and unrest by providing financing and organizational expertise” to these groups. According to authors of this scenario, this dramatically expanded ethnic Russian unrest then prompted the governments there to „ a violent crackdown,” something that gave Moscow „an opportunity to pose as a protector of human rights,” a stance with the potential to divide the NATO alliance.

In this game, Russia then threatened the Baltic countries, but NATO reacted by demanding that Moscow stop its „provocative” actions and by taking steps to defend the Baltic countries in the event of a Russian move. „Fearing that the loss of both international and domestic face will lead to a collapse of the government, the Russian leadership then ordered an invasion of the Baltic states.” Because of its continuing problems with organization and supply, the Russian Army commander tells its political masters that the military needs at least 30 days to prepare.

That delay made all the difference, the authors suggest, because it gave NATO the time the alliance needed to respond. And the study states that on the field of battle that would result from this, NATO could and would defeat or repulse any Russian military moves against the Baltic countries. That conclusion, the study says, is true now and will be true for at least the next decade.

For many in the Baltic countries, such a conclusion would seem to be the answer to their dreams, a guarantee against Russian theats for some time to come. But – and this is the most important aspect of this RAND study — this silver cloud has a very dark lining. The study’s authors note that precisely because of „the chronic and difficult-to-reverse weaknesses of the Russian military” on the battlefield itself, Moscow will have to depend on covert intelligence activities and psychological operations as its „most effective” weapons to divide the Western alliance and to give Moscow a freer hand in dealing with the Baltic states.

What are these type of activities likely to involve? One part of the covert action has already been mentioned: Russian security services promoting ever more extreme activism by ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia and causing precisely the kind of crackdown by the two governments that the Russian authorities could invoke as justification for their demands. But another part of such covert action could, according to the authors of this scenario, include special operations to impede NATO operations both in the Baltic countries and in NATO countries in which the forces to be used against a Russian thrust into the Baltics would have to operate.

Moscow, according to the game’s scenario, would then launch its psychological operations — including massive propaganda campaigns and increased diplomatic activity — against the the major NATO countries in Europe in order to try to cause at least some of them to refuse to support an alliance effort in this area.

Despite their confidence that NATO could win on the Baltic battlefield if things ever reached such a pass, the RAND authors say that such Russian intelligence operations and psychological warfare could divide NATO countries on the question of how or even whether to respond and thus create a situation in which Moscow could gain the upper hand.
That conclusion is not something many in the Baltic countries will want to hear, in the first instance because it highlights not how well they are protected regardless of what they do but how what they themselves do will determine how well they are protected.
Indeed, the security of all three Baltic countries in the minds of the authors of this RAND study appears more likely to depend on how well the Baltic countries can integrate all those living on their territory and on how well Baltic governments and their diplomats can explain these efforts to their NATO partners — rather than on their own membership in the Western alliance alone.
This RAND study thus provides a useful correction both to the euphoria many in the Baltic countries felt upon gaining NATO membership and to the pessimism many of the same people feel in the face of the recent changes in Moscow. And as such, this RAND document merits the widest possible discussion in all three Baltic countries, a treatment that few such papers ever receive or deserve.