Vladimir Putin is playing a vast chess game with NATO, and his next move will be to invade the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. 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 an attempt to assuage 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.
So far, Putin has done everything he can do without provoking a NATO response, a line that’s easy to toe because the United States and its allies have been more than transparent about their approach to conflicts. Beginning in the early 1990s, after the Desert Shield–Desert Storm campaign, the U.S. articulated a doctrine according to which there are six phases of war: “shaping” the pre-war environment (phase zero), “deterring” the enemy (phase one), “seizing the initiative” (phase two), “dominating” the battlespace (phase three), “stabilizing” the post-battle environment (phase four), and after-action enabling of civil authority (phase five). It has since become clear that the first two phases, shaping and deterrence, are the arenas where the United States and NATO prefer to operate, and Putin has taken advantage of this tendency. He has waged nearly constant cyber, economic, and military combat against the West but has always stopped short of actions that would trigger phase-three operations, such as a recognizable military incursion across a defined border. Thus a gray zone exists today throughout much of Eastern Europe, a zone that Putin defined strategically and operates within on a daily basis but that Russia does not fully control. It is unclear whether he will use the same tactics to attack NATO directly (as the Baltic states are NATO members) or switch gears and use a massive Russian military exercise (such as the past year’s Zapad 17 exercise in Belarus, between Russia and the Baltic states, which included over 13,000 troops and 250 tanks) as a rolling start for combat operations, but NATO will have a difficult time responding either way.
The alliance at present has two notable weaknesses. The first is that it is large and bureaucratically lethargic, even when responding to military aggression, as was evidenced during Russia’s recent invasions of Crimea and Ukraine, when NATO struggled to find a consensus response. The second is that its members have underinvested in their own defense for the better part of a generation. On the former point, Putin expects to take advantage of NATO’s noted preference for diplomatic or economic solutions as well as the regional schisms (north vs. south and east vs. west) that make it difficult for NATO to find a response agreeable to all 29 members. Regarding the latter point, while many nations are now spending more on defense, both of their own volition and at the urging of President Trump, they have spent so little for so long that it will be difficult for them to prepare for war quickly. Many nations have eliminated whole segments of their militaries, from armored tanks to submarines to anti-submarine patrol aircraft. Some members no longer even have a viable domestic defense industry, and those that do find that their arms manufacturers are not up to the task of producing modern weapons.
Additionally, the United States, long the strongest member of the NATO alliance, has spent years removing 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 those tanks left. 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 on the continent.
All of this is to say that when Putin invades the Baltic nations, he will be counting on NATO’s desire to reach a diplomatic solution, or perhaps impose additional economic sanctions, rather than respond militarily; its failure to reach a consensus on how to approach the problem; and the fact that the U.S. will need to cross the Atlantic to ready NATO for combat. Moscow believes that time is on its side, for the longer NATO dithers, the longer the period available to Russia to create a false narrative of a free political realignment built around carefully scripted local referenda, as in the case of Crimea.
Putin’s goal will be for Europe and a delegitimized NATO to accept a new status quo, with the Baltics returned to Russia’s orbit. However, if NATO makes the correct preparations, it can defend the Baltics, repel Russia, and preserve itself.
In the event that Russia invades the Baltic states, America could immediately recognize that an “attack upon one is an attack upon all,” invoking Article V of the NATO treaty. This would allow the U.S. to unilaterally move the Army’s First Armored Division, along with the other elements of the III Corps, from Fort Hood, Texas, to Europe. Invoking Article V would also have the effect of strengthening NATO’s resolve as it deliberated. But for the movement of forces to be effective, they would need to be placed close to Russia’s offensive operations.
Poland would be the ideal location, given its deep-water port at Gdansk and its proximity to the Baltic front. Therein lies the problem: As things stand now, the United States would not be able to get its forces to Poland.
Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia retained a vestigial bastion at Kaliningrad, cut off from the rest of its 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, including 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, keeping naval forces from moving beyond Copenhagen in the Baltic Sea, far from Gdansk and its industrial ship-offloading facilities. This would force the U.S. to offload its forces in either France or Belgium, where they would be mounted on railcars for transport across the continent, adding weeks of delay.
If NATO is going to force Russia to reverse course in the Baltics, in other words, the alliance must have the capability to pop the anti-access/area-denial bubble centered on Kaliningrad. This can be accomplished only with conventional missiles capable of hitting Kaliningrad in a “salvo-overmatch” campaign; that is, by compelling Putin’s forces to expend their weapons faster than they can be resupplied. These missiles could come from small, fast missile boats that can skirt the Baltic Sea’s island-strewn shoreline; small diesel-electric submarines that can operate safely beneath the surface of the shallow sea; or advanced fifth-generation attack aircraft that can avoid the S-400 missiles and operate within the bubble. If Kaliningrad can be neutralized, allied forces can rush armor, men, and logistical supplies into the port of Gdansk.
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. The density of piers and cranes in the port would allow American ships to offload and be gone before Kaliningrad could resupply and reactivate. Gdansk is also close to the Baltic states, meaning that American land forces could move immediately on their strategic objectives.
One might worry that such a strong reaction by the United States and NATO could spiral into a larger war, especially given Putin’s recent successes in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine. But this is unlikely. It is the perception of NATO weakness — compounded by eight years of Obama’s “lead from behind” vacillation, the West’s recent distraction in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a generation of chronic underfunding of NATO’s defenses — that has invited Putin’s aggression. It naturally follows that a demonstration of Western strength and resolve would rapidly force his withdrawal from the Baltics, the initiation of real diplomatic talks, and the resolution of the questions surrounding Ukraine and Crimea. Russia’s population and economy, after all, are a fraction of NATO’s.
When Putin comes, the alliance 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 chessboard. The United States and NATO must be prepared to defend their queen at Gdansk while neutralizing Putin’s.
– Mr. Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. This piece is adapted from one that was published on National Review Online on December 20, 2017.