Vladimir Putin is playing a vast chess game with NATO, and his next move is to invade the Baltic nations. When this happens, the United States will need to move armored forces quickly to Europe via Poland in order to prevent NATO from being checkmated, and it’s going to have a problem doing that. Note that I said “when” Putin invades rather than “if.” It’s clear that his grand strategy is to rebuild Russia’s empire of buffer states in a vain attempt to satisfy his nation’s cultural paranoia regarding outside invaders. It is equally clear, given his stated intention to seek another term, that he can afford to be patient.
Thus far Putin has done everything he could without provoking a NATO response. He has waged combat against the West in the cyber, economic, and military domains. It is unclear whether he will use the same tactics to attack NATO directly, or simply switch gears and use a massive Russian military exercise such as this year’s Zapad 17 as a rolling start for high-end combat operations. Either way, when he makes his move, the members of the NATO alliance will have a difficult time responding.
The alliance has, for the better part of a generation, underinvested in its own defense. While many nations, spurred on by their own internal decision-making and by the urging of President Trump, are now spending more on defense, the simple fact is that they have spent so little for so long that it will be difficult for them to ramp up their preparedness quickly. Many nations have eliminated whole segments of their militaries, from armored tanks to submarines to anti-submarine patrol aircraft. Many nations no longer have a viable domestic defense industry, and those that do find that their own arms manufacturers are not up to the task of producing the types of modern weapons that are required to fight and win the wars of today.
Additionally, the United States, long the strongest member of the NATO alliance, has spent years removing vitally important forces from Europe that had been permanently stationed there. At the end of the Cold War, the United States had 14,000 main battle tanks and over 300,000 military personnel on the continent. In 2013, at the beginning of the Obama administration’s second term, the last of these tanks left Europe on ships bound for the United States. Near the end of Obama’s time in office, after Putin’s illegal occupation of Crimea and war with Ukraine, the decision was made to send U.S. Army armored brigade combat teams to Europe on a rotational basis, but none were to be permanently based upon the continent.
All of this is to say that when Putin invades the Baltic nations, the U.S. will need to bring armored forces as well as other ground-combat teams across the Atlantic to Europe. Poland would be the ideal location for deployment, given its deep-water port at Gdansk and its proximity to the Baltic front, and therein lies the problem: As it stands now, the United States couldn’t get its forces to Poland.
Russia, following the collapse of the Soviet empire, retained a vestigial bastion at Kaliningrad, cut off from the rest of Russia’s territory in a narrow triangle of land between Poland and Lithuania. On a military base there, Putin has installed a complex of what have come to be known as Anti-Access/Area Denial weapons, to include the highly advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile and the Iskander surface-to-surface missile. Between them, these missiles can neutralize NATO air and surface units, prohibiting naval forces from moving beyond Copenhagen in the Baltic sea, far from Gdansk and its industrial ship-offloading facilities. This prohibition would force American armor to offload in either France or Belgium and then be mounted on railcars for transport across the continent, adding weeks to any movement of forces during which Putin’s invading forces could dig in and establish a new status quo in the region, just as they have tried to do in Crimea. If NATO and the United States is going to successfully repel a Russian invasion, NATO must plan to “pop” the Anti-Access/Area Denial “bubble” centered on Kaliningrad.
Maintaining access to the Baltic and Poland’s major ports must remain a high NATO priority in the event of war with Russia.
This can only be accomplished with “blue” missiles capable of hitting Kaliningrad in a salvo-overmatch campaign, forcing Putin’s forces to expend their advanced “red” weapons faster than they can be resupplied. These “blue” missiles could come from small, fast missile boats that can skirt the Baltic Sea’s island-strewn shoreline, small, missile-laden diesel–electric submarines that could operate safely beneath the shallow sea, or advanced fifth-generation attack aircraft that could avoid the S-400 and operate within Putin’s “bubble.” If Kaliningrad can be neutralized, allied forces can rush armor, men, and logistical supplies into the port of Gdansk, which will be a key enabler of NATO success.
Gdansk is an exceptional industrial port. Its many piers are crowded with large, heavy-lift cranes that on a daily basis offload hundreds of tons of goods bound for and from European markets. The density of piers and cranes in the port would allow American ships to speed in, offload, and be gone before Kaliningrad could resupply and reactivate. Gdansk is also proximate to the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which would allow American land forces to move immediately upon their strategic objectives. Maintaining access to the Baltic and Poland’s major ports must remain a high NATO priority in the event of war with Russia.
When Putin comes, as he clearly intends to do, the allies will need to respond rapidly to prevent him from solidifying his gains and establishing a fait accompli. In northern Europe, Kaliningrad and Gdansk are the two queens on the chess board. NATO must be prepared to defend its queen while eliminating Putin’s.