Last year, writing for an Italian think tank where I am a senior fellow, Il Nodo di Gordo, I asked the question, Will NATO Fight? And for What?) But today, perhaps the right question is not to ask whether NATO will fight, but whether America will fight for NATO.
That is not certain, by any means.
Most NATO planners and outside experts think that if any fighting breaks out between Russia and its neighbors to the West, the likely battlefields will be the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – or Poland. The most sensitive strip of land is known as the Suwalki gap , a 100-kilometer-long strip of land along the Poland-Lithuania border that also sits astride a corridor from the Belarussian city of Kaunas to the Kaliningrad Oblast, a strategic Russian enclave that has recently been reinforced with missiles and weapons stockpiles by the Russians.
Belarus is regarded as a close ally of Russia and likely to be willing to let Russian forces mass and operate on their territory. By the same token, Estonia, the northernmost Baltic republic, like Latvia, shares a border with Russia.
In Estonia’s case, Russian military forces could easily mass against Estonia on the one hand, and surge through Belarus on the other, establishing a corridor between Kaliningrad and Russia itself.
Kaliningrad now 87% Russian
It was agreed that Kaliningrad, originally known as Königsberg, would be given to Russia at the Potsdam conference in 1945, as approved by US President Harry Truman and then-British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. It had been the capital of East Prussia and was predominantly German. But that is no longer the case, as the Russians deported most of the Germans. Today the Oblast is more than 87% Russian and only 0.4% German.
The three Baltic States and Poland today get a significant part of their electric power from Russia. However, in June the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland signed a deal that will change over their power grids to the European Union by 2025. The matter of Kaliningrad was not addressed and, in theory, will need to be negotiated with Russia. The rationale for shifting to the power grid of the European Union is a fear that Russia might, in the future, cut its supply of power to either all or some of these countries.
Until now the Russians have never cut off power, and the supply of power is an important hard-currency earner for Russia. In addition, leaving Kaliningrad at the end of a canceled power grid is unlikely to sit well with the Russians, who are ultra-sensitive about the status of Kaliningrad. Under the deal, a new high-voltage direct-current cable will run under the Baltic Sea, around the Russian territorial waters off Kaliningrad. But that is a cable the Russians could easily cut.
According to negotiators, the Russians will have to negotiate with Brussels over how to supply Kaliningrad. Power grids were an important issue in Ukraine, where the Russians may have shut down some Ukrainian power stations using cyber attacks. Also, supplying power to the Crimea has been an important Russian strategic objective. It is also noteworthy that Germany’s Siemens, either directly or indirectly allegedly supplied the power generators that effectively bypassed Western sanctions.
Power deal may create conflict for Baltic states
The latest power deal sets up a confrontation that the Baltic states may come to regret.
Russia, at least temporarily (and not for the first time) deployed Iskander missiles to the Kaliningrad area. The Iskander, a mobile ballistic missile system called SS-26 ‘Stone’ by NATO, can launch two guided missiles with a range of up to 500 kilometers (about 300 miles) and can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads In addition, according to commercial satellite photography, Russia has been reinforcing its military bases and improving storage sites for weapons. Whether the weapons are conventional or nuclear is not known.
NATO has been concerned about the threat of hybrid warfare, especially in the Baltic states. There are well over one million ethnic Russians living in the Baltic countries, mostly concentrated in the cities. Many of them do not have local citizenship but keep their Russian passports. Latvia has an overall Russian population of 27.6%; its main city of Riga is 50% Russian. Estonia has 321,198 Russians and its capital Tallinn is 38.5% Russian. Lithuania has less – some 174,900 Russians, but a heavy concentration in Vilnius of almost 14.5% Russian.
Hybrid warfare is a designation of a sort of ethnic or political or military conflict like that taking place today in the Eastern Ukraine region of Donbass where pro-Russian separatist forces set up the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Russian volunteers are known to be supporting local separatists and reportedly Russian troops are also providing active assistance, along with supplying weapons – including the infamous BUK missiles that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July, 2014.
Baltic states’ military weakness
The Baltic states’ military capabilities are weak and probably could not offer any serious resistance to a Russian army attack. Estonia spends around 533 million euros (in 2018) for defense; its army has no tanks and has only 2,700 full-time soldiers and 3,100 conscripts. It has no air force or navy. Latvia has 4,600 soldiers and 8,000 in its National Guard. It spends 576 million euros on defense. Latvia has no tanks and no air force. Lithuania has the largest Baltic army of 20,565 and spends 873 million euros on defense. It has no tanks, a tiny navy (600 men) and no real air force.
Would any NATO member, particularly the US, want to get involved in a drawn-out, bloody and complex war scenario that resembles Donbass in the Ukraine?
For the most part NATO, notably the US and Poland, are supposed to make up the difference, but there are issues that make this a very difficult undertaking. These include the problem of resupplying NATO forces (assuming NATO forces stick around in a fight); the lack of commonality in NATO weapons (Germany’s Leopard II tanks, the few of them that work, would need a steady supply of spare parts if they survive for more than a few hours in an actual conflict); and the fact that the Russians would definitely attempt to foreclose bases, staging areas, airfields and ports where NATO resupply might take place. Even bigger than the logistical and operational challenge is the fact that NATO forces, even if they were all available and on the ground would be at a massive disadvantage.
Making the fight even more difficult could be riots by ethnic Russians and reinforcements by Russian “volunteers” following the Ukraine model. This makes intervention highly problematic as does any obligation to do so under the NATO Charter’s famous Article 5, the collective defense undertaking in the treaty.
Would any NATO member, particularly the United States, want to get involved in a drawn-out, bloody and complex war scenario that resembles Donbass? This is what the Russians have been practicing. And despite the fact that Europe (with some help from the US) helped stir up the Ukrainian mess, no NATO country has done much to bail out the Ukrainians. Ukraine itself tried to join NATO, but was rejected.
Anti-NATO mood, doubts about Germany
An even greater problem for the United States is why it should fight, especially if the unfolding situation is hybrid in character, or if the local states provoke matters with the Russians, as seems potentially likely the case in the power grid controversy. Today’s mood in Washington is not too friendly to NATO or to Europeans, who have not lived up to their agreed obligations and who have diluted NATO by setting up a separate and independent European command with an unclear mandate.
Then there is, in the background. the very real problem that key NATO allies could be put out of business by only the turn of a gas valve by the Russians. Germany, as US President Donald Trump recently noted, is 70% dependent on Russian natural gas that it needs to run industries, generate electricity and heat homes. Even if Washington had an inclination to fight in Poland or the Balkans, there is a very good chance its most important strategically positioned ally, Germany, won’t.
The US cannot support the Balkans or Poland without the Germans because Germany is a vital staging ground. Nor can NATO’s Article 5 work without 100% consensus. Germany presents a real problem and President Trump has laid it bare.
Without a radical upgrade in NATO’s posture and serious allied cooperation (not just some token troops rotating in and out of the Balkans), the US may not fight the next war in Europe since: NATO won’t necessarily agree; it is likely Germany might not cooperate; and the American people may see no upside to getting into a shooting war with Russia.