Exposed Outpost Russian Threats to Baltic Security and Transatlantic Responses

By: Jordi Vasquez, Ozan Beran Akturan, Alex Shura, Yiyang Li, Michal Rajski, Oscar Sarkes, and Alex Castro


Tucked in a corner of northeast Europe, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania do not, on first glance, seem like critical linchpins of European security. With only four percent of the total EU land area and a population of only 6 million among the three of them, to an outsider, they might appear as just a few of Europe’s many nations. However, over the span of just 13 years, these nations transitioned from forming a part of the Soviet Union to full-fledged members of both the EU and NATO in 2004. With their unique history and proximity to Russia, their security could very well be a litmus test for the future success of the European project.

The annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine has raised fears on both sides of the Atlantic of a resurgent Russia. The purpose of this article is to examine the full breadth of the potential Russian threat to Baltic security and its implications for NATO and the EU. What roles do and can these organizations play together and separately? The paper will begin by looking at the security situation from the lens of a conventional war, thereafter turning to other potential means of Russian activity, namely hybrid warfare and soft power. Lessons from Ukraine will be analyzed to the extent that they can be applied to the Baltic states. Finally, the article will examine the role that the EU can and should serve.

A failure to meet the challenges and needs of Baltic security would be disastrous for the current European and international order. That failure could take many forms, as will be discussed, but any one of them could destroy faith in the relevance of the EU, NATO, and the United States as guarantors of stability and security. And the implications of such failure would have global significance.

The Conventional War

Russian Military Capabilities

We will begin with a look at the capabilities of both sides in the event of a conventional war. The Russian Federation’s new military doctrine laid the foundation for a redefined national military strategy. Two main points emphasize this new strategic focus. First, throughout the document, Russia’s “great power” status is stressed, including the global responsibilities of such a power. The implicit challenge is to the United States, the European Union, and even perhaps China. Russia is confident in its capacity to act as a superpower in all realms, including military. While, previously, Russia did not overtly declare its equivalence to such powers, there seems now to be no impediment to the assumption of a greater global role.

Additionally, the doctrine expresses a strong commitment to retaining a preeminent military influence in former Soviet republics. Russian intervention in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has illustrated the application of this theory, with Russian forces engaging in a variety of operations aimed at securing Russian influence. However, even such activities as the 2017 ZAPAD exercises with Belarus reveal a strong tendency towards military projection into the former Soviet dominions. These two main points, engaging as a superpower and maintaining authority over neighbors, lead to the practical capacities stressed by the military itself. For example, one stated capacity is the ability to fight two “local wars” while simultaneously defeating and countering aerial aggression (generally expected to originate from Western nations). It is not hard to imagine this exact scenario occurring in the Baltic states, with Russian ground forces securing various objectives while NATO air attacks are deflected. Russia’s emphasis on both its own power and its regional preeminence creates a distinct military doctrine and strategic approach. This is defined by the idea of simultaneously countering the massed forces of NATO while retaining the simultaneous capacity to engage in local military actions.

In order to accomplish these goals, the Russian military has undergone a comprehensive reform and restructuring phase. The overall aim of this restructuring has been to create a modern, well-trained military able to facilitate the accomplishment of Russia’s diverse foreign policy goals. While the majority of troops are not as well-trained or equipped, the demonstrated capabilities of those completely modernized units are representative of the military that Russia is rapidly creating. Speed of deployment and the countering of local enemies are prioritized with the overall goal of regional superiority at points of conflict. As such, the aim of the Russian military is not to match the the NATO and EU man-for-man or tank-for-tank, but rather to create a force able to carry out various objectives with sufficient speed and precision so as to render the West’s numerical and technological advantages effectively null. Additionally, the deniable uses of military personnel (as, to an extent, in Crimea) provide a new role that avoids the necessity of direct confrontation with other “great powers,” despite rhetoric supporting such potential conflict. Finally, military posturing (as was common throughout the Cold War) remains a key facet of military strategy. While statements about nuclear weapons and tank divisions may be brushed off by Western observers, to Russian commanders such rhetoric represents a key assertion of global power and a restoration of military prestige. Russia’s military is not yet fully ready to execute the myriad missions proposed for it by the aggressive foreign policy of Vladimir Putin and his government. However, the steps taken towards this readiness and the operational capabilities displayed thus far reveal a more modern military with a clear strategic purpose.

Modernization and strategic redefinition efforts have had a substantial impact on the security environment in the Baltic states, as evidenced by increasing Russian military assets in the region. As referenced above, one facet of Russian military policy is the assumption that opposing forces will be considerably superior (as in the case of engaging with NATO). The Russian asymmetry doctrine aims to address this deficiency either through the rapid action mentioned above or through cyber, electronic, and hybrid warfare techniques. Russia, however, has increased is conventional military capabilities in Baltic states, so as to counter NATO’s preeminence. Russia’s military is structured into regional divisions, with the Western Military District encompassing the Baltic area. This District comprises the most powerful Russian regional formation, with three armies, two fleets, and numerous additional ground and air assets within the area. The accumulation of troops in the region, coupled with the elite status of many of the formations, make the Western Military District a prime staging ground for large-scale conventional military operations against nearly any foe. Not only is the area strong in military resources, but the strategic environment in the Baltic is also highly conducive to Russian interests. Belarus is closely allied with Russia and would likely present very little, if any, opposition to a potential Russian offensive action. In fact, some areas within Belarus may be used as staging grounds for such actions. Furthermore, the exclave of Kaliningrad enhances Russia’s offensive and defensive capabilities in the region.

Kaliningrad has recently been home to ostentatious displays of military power, but beyond this rhetorical position it occupies a key role in Russian military strategy. Precision strike systems, including nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles, make Kaliningrad a bastion with the ability to strike capitals and key points across the Baltic Region. The presence of the Baltic Fleet, substantial air defense resources, and an army corps in the enclave also create defensive and offensive value for Russia. The Baltic Fleet, in particular, has received two KALIBR-equipped vessels, creating greater offensive capacity while helping protect supply lines between St. Petersburg (Western Military District HQ) and Kaliningrad’s naval, army, and air bases. The exclave is also designated an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone. This means that the area is designed to counter and prevent aerial assaults while striking back with its own cruise missiles. Electronic warfare, integrated air defense systems, strategic air operations, and precision strike capabilities all contribute to this mission. This is particularly worrisome for the Baltic states, whose only hope of resisting a Russian invasion would be the prompt and decisive intervention of NATO and EU forces. With Kaliningrad executing precision strikes and clearing the skies and the armies of the Western Military District rushing into the region, NATO and the EU would be hard-pressed to effectively counter Russian aggression in the Baltic, much less protect the Baltic states and prevent the region from falling in the first place.

The ZAPAD 2017 exercises present a useful case study of the Russian military approach in the Baltic region. The exercises simulated asymmetric and conventional strategies for dealing with a small (but likely NATO-integrated) enemy in the Baltic region. As such, they were both an extension of the regional focus employed by Russia in other parts of Eastern Europe and a fulfillment of the broad idea of “great power confrontation.” In the exercises, Russia, with the help of Belarusian forces, used a limited number of troops to complete a conventional attack against a strong but relatively small theoretical enemy. Kaliningrad functioned as an A2/AD area, eliminating potential aerial threats and engaging in offensive electronic and information warfare capacities. The exercises demonstrated several key points. First, that Russia has the capacity to effectively accomplish a regional objective with modern, advanced conventional military forces. Second, that Belarus and Kaliningrad present strong strategic advantages for Russia in the Baltic region and can be used in a variety of ways to secure Russian military goals. Finally, and most crucially, NATO must be prepared to decisively counter such aggression in a manner that goes beyond simple brigade-level deployments (as will be discussed in the next section). ZAPAD 2017 showed that Russia’s military is nearly ready to fulfil its newly defined mission, and that the Baltic states, irrespective of current NATO or EU support, should indeed be worried about the conventional military menace modern Russia poses to their region.

NATO’s Capacity to Counter Possible Russian Aggressions on the Baltic States: An Overview

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s focus has gradually shifted from countering massive conventional aggression to taking part in low-intensity and diverse operations around the globe. However, the inclusion of the Baltic States, all former territories of the USSR and all comprised of Russian ethnic minorities and all three directly bordering Russia, into the alliance and the recent Russian annexation of Crimea again raised the problem of NATO’s ability to counter a Russian conventional invasion.

It is unlikely that Russia would wage a large-scale all-out war against NATO; rather,  it is most probable that in the event of an invasion of these three geographically exposed members of NATO, Russian forces would try to rely on the speed of their operation to secure control over the Baltic States before the bulk of the NATO forces can react to it. Therefore, we will evaluate the ability of NATO to defend the Baltic States from three perspectives: overall NATO military strength in Europe, the immediate military capacity available to the Baltic States, and the ability for NATO to rapidly reinforce the Baltic States to stop the Russian invasion.

Overall NATO Military Strength

NATO has drastically reduced in size since the Cold War. However, NATO remains undoubtedly the most powerful military alliance in the world. In comparison to Russia, NATO enjoys advantages in armed forces (5:1), defense budget (18:1), population (6:1), and GDP (20:1).These advantages are heightened by the weakening of the Russian economy in recent years.

With regard to airpower, the NATO enjoys an immense advantage in terms of both quality and quantity. Its leading member, the United States, possesses 13,762 military aircrafts, and the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Poland, Denmark, and Norway possess a total of 3,514 military aircrafts. Russia, on the other hand, possesses only 3,794, some of which are in Russia’s Far East.

Hence, it is evident that NATO enjoys a significant overall advantage over Russia, and if its primary members are willing to commit, then a protracted conventional war between the NATO and Russia over the Baltic states would likely result in a NATO victory.  A full-scale conventional war, however, would prove extremely costly to both sides. Furthermore, geographically speaking, any NATO attempt to regain the Baltic States by a counter-offensive would either have to be conducted on the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, or their force would have to proceed through the “Suwalki Gap”, a 65 miles wide corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad that connects the Baltic States to Poland, under Russian fire. The former could easily escalate the war even further, while the latter would imply heavy casualties.

Consequently, a failure to prevent the Baltic states from falling would probably force NATO to make the choice of entering a full-scale war with Russia, if such a choice had not already been made. Therefore, NATO’s strength in the Baltics is worth examining.

The Immediate Military Strength Available to the Baltic States

In stark contrast to the overall military advantage that NATO enjoys over Russia, the immediate forces available in the Baltic States are vastly inferior to the Russian forces that could be used to invade them.

Latvian forces comprise 1,250 troops and 3 tanks for training; Lithuanian forces comprise of 3,200 combat troops; Estonian forces comprise of 5,300 combat troops. None of the countries possess a single jet fighter between them.

Due to the increased Russian activities in Ukraine, NATO is now deploying a 800 troop British-led unit to Estonia, a 1,200 troop Canadian-led unit to Latvia, and a 1,200 troop German-led unit to Lithuania, with 4,000 U.S.-led troops  going to Poland. These troops are equipped with 250 tanks (M1A2), infantry fighting vehicles (M2/M3 Bradley) and self-propelled howitzers (M1903 Paladin).

In terms of airpower, the US Air Forces in Europe-Air Force Africa is equipped with 217 aircrafts, which could be deployed immediately to the Baltic States. In times of need, the US would also be able to rapidly deploy further airpower to Europe from the US and other air bases around the globe.

However, even after these further deployments, the defense of the Baltic States is still inadequate to hold off a possible Russian attack, due to the lack of heavy-armored units compared to the fully armored Russian divisions in Kaliningrad and its Western borders. The Russian advantage over NATO in heavy armor, artillery and surface-to-surface missiles is significant.

In 2015, the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, concluded that 3, instead of 1, armored brigades would be needed to significantly slow down the Russian advances, which could reach Tallinn and Riga, the capitals of Estonia and Latvia respectively, in 36-60 hours. It also points out that the most effective way to deploy the lightly armed quick-reaction forces is to have them dug-in in the capitals of Tallinn and Riga, which would negate the Russian armored and artillery advantage but implies heavy civilian casualties and economic damages. Such a pessimistic view was also openly adopted by U.S. Lt-General Hodges in 2016, who agreed with this analysis.

In light of these inadequate but improved NATO deployments to the Baltic States, NATO’s ability to preemptively reinforce the Baltic States  is vital.

The Ability of NATO to Reinforce the Baltic States

In 2014, learning from the Ukrainian Crisis that NATO forces were still too slow to react to emergencies, NATO established a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). It comprises 5,000 ground troops, whose leading elements can be deployed within 48 hours, with the rest being deployed within 5-7 days. The NATO Response Force (NRF) was also strengthened, increasing in number from 13,000 to 40,000 troops. Both units are comprised of naval, land, aerial and logistics components, allowing them to quickly attain a high level of combat effectiveness. Command and logistics structures have also been improved to support the operation of these units.

In addition, according to a research by the Center for Complex Operations under the US Department of Defense, many NATO members maintain other rapid response units (such as the EU-based British-led Joint Expeditionary Forces), which would bring the total number of quick-reaction units to approximately 50,000 troops, mainly airborne and marine infantry units. But even so, it would still take approximately 90 days for the NATO forces to outnumber Russian forces in the Baltic States..

However, most of these conclusions are still based on the assumption that the Russian anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capacity based on their missile systems in Kaliningrad could be neutralized or suppressed. Otherwise, any large scale reinforcements, whether through airlift, by ship, or on land would be extremely dangerous.  In fact, without eliminating such a threat, no effective defense could be mounted in the first place.

Therefore, the deployment of the majority of the reinforcements would still be too slow to significantly affect the possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States, with the exception of the leading, lightly-armed units, which  would easily be out-gunned by Russian armor.


On the whole, the key to the defense of the Baltic States is to convert the overall NATO advantage over Russia into one which is felt on the regional level, to create deterrence in the Baltic States. In order to achieve that, the forces deployed in Poland and the Baltic States need to be enhanced significantly with heavy armor units. NATO would also have to be able to quickly neutralize the Kaliningrad A2/AD ability in order to mount a successful defense and deliver reinforcements. Considering the still too slow deployment speed of quick-reaction units compared with the expected time that the Russian forces would take to seize the Baltic States, quick decision and prior intelligence would be vital for these forces to be deployed before the conflict begins. The leaders of NATO members would also have to be resolute in countering any Russian aggression and even face the risk of resulting in high civilian casualties by defending the major cities. Only when these conditions are met, would the NATO forces really serve as a military deterrence to possible Russian aggressions on the Baltic States.

Hybrid Warfare: Lessons from Ukraine

Having examined the capabilities of both sides for a conventional war, it is useful to look at other potential means of Russian aggression. First, we will look at hybrid warfare. To understand how the Russian Federation could potentially threaten the Baltic states using hybrid warfare, we must first understand its methods and previous applications, most notably in Ukraine in 2014. The fundamental nature of hybrid threats is predicated on the incorporation of a full range of different modes of warfare. These include “conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder” [1]. General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, is considered to be at the helm of Russia’s hybrid war tactics, calling it a form of “modern war”. Gerasimov asserts: “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed…The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures – applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population” [2]. Articulated in 2013, this mode of war has a striking resemblance to the concept of hybrid warfare Russia used in their subsequent actions in 2014 in Ukraine.

Gerasimov spoke of this doctrine as a prediction of military theory, but Russia has indeed adopted it as a military practice. But what does hybrid warfare look like? To answer this, we will look directly at the actions taken by the Russian military in Ukraine. The Kremlin first pursued an information war in an attempt to shape the narrative of events. These actions included “accusations that the Maidan movement was composed of fascists, and that the post-Yanukovych government presented a direct threat to the rights of Russian compatriots living in Ukraine” [3]. Since there existed Russian-speaking minorities in Crimea that were pro-Russia and consumed pro-Russian media, the Kremlin’s information campaign could directly persuade and embolden these native separatists. Kiev was initially reluctant to suppress these separatists and their sympathizers, which allowed the “little green men” – Russian soldiers who wore unmarked green uniforms – to operate under the guise of separatists. This allowed for enough delay of action by Kiev for the Russia to complete the invasion and annexation of Crimea before the Ukrainian government could create an effective response.

Next, the Russian government was able to effectively arm and facilitate the use of local separatists. High-powered systems like the Buk surface-to-air missile system, which shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in July of 2014, and the T-72B3 main battle tank, along with “shoulder launched surface to air missiles, mobile rocket launchers, anti-tank guided missiles, land mines, and small arms” [4] poured into Ukrainian separatists’ hands. Approximately 14,400 Russian troops were supporting over 29,000 separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine, with an additional 29,000 Russian troops stationed in Crimea and anywhere from 55,000-90,000 Russian troops stationed on the Ukrainian-Russian border [5]. All of this defines Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy: near perfect coordination. Asymmetric and informational warfare is not a particularly new or unique strategy, but the application of the full spectrum of tools in conjunction with each other is highly effective and threatening. Hybrid warfare in-effect destabilized the Ukrainian government, as has led to increasingly serious fears that Baltic nations like Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia may be the next targets of the Kremlin’s strategy. The effectiveness of Russian’s coordination does not just explain their success in manipulating and controlling the conflict in Crimea, but moreover informs that hybrid war, as it was conducted in Ukraine in 2014, may become the model and military practice for most future Russian conflicts.

Russian Minorities in the Baltic States

As we have seen, a large portion of Russian hybrid warfare in Ukraine involved the use of pro-Russian separatists, both as troops on the ground and as justification for actions taken. In order to understand the potential applicability of hybrid warfare to the Baltic states, we must understand the Russian minorities in the Baltic states. Whether in Lithuania (6%), Estonia (24%), or Latvia (37%), the Russian minority in the Baltic States is large, outraged at its historical mistreatment by post-Soviet Baltic governments, and dissatisfied with the status quo. For comparison, the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine before the annexation of Crimea was about 17%. However, as we will see, for a diverse set of reasons the ethnic Russian minority in the Baltic states are not Putin’s “compatriots”; rather, they are generally first citizens of their respective countries. Thus, the Baltic States are not in the same precarious situation as Ukraine, but if serious efforts at integration are not made soon, that could very well change.

The History of Baltic-Russian Minority Relations

The Russian minority’s presence in the Baltic States began in earnest with their annexation by the Soviet Union immediately before WWII. In the post-war period, russification programs were begun. After Stalin’s death and the subsequent end of the industrialization/russification program, the wave of emigration ended, and the Russian populace began to integrate into the local populace. This state of affairs would continue until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

The relationship between the Russian minority and the Baltic States took a dramatic downhill plunge directly after the dissolution of the USSR. In Estonia and Latvia, the new governments reinstated pre-Soviet citizenship laws, effectively depriving the large Russian minority populace of citizenship. In order to become citizens, they would have to pass a test which always included knowledge of the local language and sometimes included history of the nation, knowledge of the constitution, and the taking of a pledge of loyalty to the state. Making matters even more difficult for the Russian minority population, the Estonian and Latvian governments forbade dual citizenship, forcing the Russian populace to make the difficult choice between undergoing the long process of naturalization, moving to Russia, or becoming trapped in a grey area of no citizenship. Due to Russian and international pressure, Estonia and Latvia softened the difficulty of these tests, but even that did not go far enough to incentivize the naturalization process. A substantial minority in both Latvia (11%) and Estonia (approximately 7%) of the populace are stateless, and the overwhelming majority are ethnically Russian. While efforts have been made to simplify the naturalization process, the language fluency requirement is still perceived by the Russian populace and Russia as discriminatory and they have desired for it to be changed.

The Russian Minority: Identity Politics and Integration

The Russian minority population in the Baltic States is a powerful political pressure group. In the 2014 Latvian Election, the Concord Party, a pro-Russian party overwhelmingly supported by the Russian minority populace, won 23.1% of the vote to become the single largest party, though a centrist coalition formed the government with 58% of the vote, promising strident anti-Russian measures. While the centrist coalition did emerge victorious, it is important to not discount the potential political influence of the Russian minority. Compared to the relatively fractured nature of parliamentary politics, the voting cohesion of the Russian minority represents a powerful force with political potential. In Estonia, the Centre party, the pro-Russian party, currently heads the coalition government after an internal scandal forced the Reform Party, the former leading party, to lose a vote of no confidence in the parliament. In Lithuania, due to the low size of the Russian populace and better historical treatment of that populace, the prominent pro-Russian party, the Lithuanian Russian Union, has failed to gather much support in the country (around 1000 members out of the approximately 176,000 Russian populace). The failure of the Lithuanian Russian Union to rally Russian minority support offers a potential path forward for the security conscious Estonian and Latvian governments. To protect their security, the Baltic States must work to integrate the Russian minority, but that does not mean they necessarily have to assimilate them. The Russian populace should still be proud of their homeland, but the Estonian and Latvian governments must work to convince them that they should be equally proud to call themselves Estonian or Latvian. Perhaps most importantly, the Baltic States must work to disabuse the Russian minority populace of the notion that they are second class citizens. Whether that be through easing citizenship requirements, providing more economic opportunities, or education, something must be done to ensure both present and future generations of the Russian minority do not feel threatened enough to seek the protection of Moscow.  

Russian, But Not Compatriot

The Baltic States are far more likely to withstand Hybrid Warfare tactics than Ukraine. Principally, that is because of the absence of a significant fifth column like there was in Crimea and the Donbass Region. While the population of the Russian minority may be greater in the Baltic States, the youth generally view themselves as Estonian, Latvian, or Lithuanian rather than Russian in a national sense. One speaker, Artiom, a doctoral student from Riga, said of whether he considers himself to be a compatriot “No, why should I?  I’m a Latvian citizen and I don’t think of myself somehow involved in Russian national modeling or political field”. However, while the Russian youth may not consider themselves to be compatriots or supporters of Russia, the older generation is different. For example, during the Crimean Crisis, a poll about which side bears responsibility for the crisis showed that  among Baltic Russians, 68% in Estonia and 67% in Latvia place the blame for the crisis on the Ukrainian government. In comparison, 68% of those of Latvian Ethnicity and 78% of Estonian Ethnicity blame Russia for the crisis. This split reflects the increasingly polarized opinions of Russia in the Baltic States and represent a worrying figure for Baltic Security.

However, while the majority of Russians in the Baltic states hold pro-Russian opinions and largely get their information from Russian sources, economic reasons prevent them from supporting Russia annexing their home countries. The differences in pensions in the Baltic states (approximately 370 euros per month) and in Russia (approximately 100 euros per month) incentivize the older generations while the benefits of EU membership (including significantly improved standards of living and visa free travel) incentivize the younger generations. Thus, the increased economic benefits of the Baltic countries, as well as membership in the EU, ensure that the Baltic states are not nearly as susceptible to Russian propaganda, even if the population is larger and significantly pro-Russian in foreign affairs. In order to maintain security, thus, the Baltic States must strengthen relations with the EU and pursue greater and more equitable economic prosperity so that the Russian minority continues to be incentivized to support the Baltic States over Russia.

Soft Power

Having addressed the threats posed by both conventional and hybrid warfare, we will now examine another potential security threat to the Baltics: economic soft power. In November of 2010, newly-elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych withdrew from negotiations seeking stronger economic ties with the European Union. In response to the Pro-Kremlin move, protests erupted in the Freedom Square of central Kiev—after a month of violent clashes and the deaths of over 100 protesters, Yanukovych was finally ousted on the 22nd of February. Pro-Russian fighters stormed and occupied government buildings in the capital of Crimea within a week, a fraudulent referendum was held on March 16th, and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill to formally annex Crimea to the Russian Federation two days later.

Though frequently overshadowed by rapid, brute military action, Russia has and continues to rely on what is known as “soft power” to attain its geopolitical goals. Soft Power refers to “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion”. Russia has long exploited Ukraine’s near-total dependence on its gas exports—cutting off supplies as recently as June of 2014—but the Kremlin has also attempted to influence its neighbor’s political decisions more subtly. As a kind of reward for Yanukovych’s warming of relations with Russia, the state natural gas company Gazprom slashed the price of exports to Ukraine by a third, while raising them back by 80% after his removal and the election of pro-Western President Petro Poreshenko. Although Russia has not intentionally disrupted gas exports to extort EU member states, Europe’s reliance on Russian gas nonetheless presents very real problems for its sovereignty and energy security.

Currently, North Sea gas deposits enable limited production in Europe, while additional natural gas is imported from the Middle East and North Africa—these sources mostly satisfy the demands of Western Europe. However, as of 2012, seven EU Member states—Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland—imported 100% of their natural gas from Russia. Greece, Austria, and Poland imported between 60% and 90% of their gas from Russia, while even countries like Germany and Italy saw about a third of their gas imports come from Russia. The geopolitical risks brought on by these dependencies are only compounded by the lack of infrastructure to support Europe’s energy needs in the event of service disruptions from Russia. Presently, Europe simply lacks Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals and alternative pipelines to match the capacity of the Yamal (Belarus), Brotherhood (Ukraine), and Nord Stream (Baltic Sea) pipelines which supply virtually all of Russia’s gas exports into Europe and which are controlled indirectly by Russia. Moreover, many have questioned the ramifications for European solidarity that the Nord Stream project and its expansion present. It would allow Russia to cut off exports to the Baltic States and Central European countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia without affecting supplies to Western Europe—a potential energy security catastrophe that the project may exacerbate.

As of June 2017, Russia supplied around 30% of total European gas imports, a very limited drop from its high of 32.4% in 2013. Nonetheless, Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states have taken steps to reduce their dependence on Russian gas imports through the development of new LNG terminals on the Baltic Coast. Lithuania built its Klaipeda LNG SRU Terminal in 2014 and was soon followed by the Swinoujscie LNG Terminal in northwestern Poland. Finland’s Tornio Manga LNG Terminal is set to open in 2018, while Latvia and Estonia plan to build their own within a few years. These specialized ports allow for the delivery and long-term storage of liquefied natural gas, while enabling its import through any tanker small enough to pass through the Great Belt Route, an international waterway in the Danish Straits. Thus far, significant progress in ensuring energy independence in the Baltic region has been made. Qatargas agreed to double LNG exports to Poland this year, and the Swinoujscie Terminal is expected to satisfy half of Poland’s expected gas demands. Czechia and Ukraine have also expressed interest in importing liquefied natural gas from outside of Russia through Poland. Meanwhile, Croatia hopes to bolster its pipeline network into Central-Eastern Europe, allowing exports from its own Adria LNG Terminal in Krk. By enabling alternative energy sources for the Baltic region, these developments may also provide an economic weapon against Russia, whose steep reliance on the export of natural resources provides a significant economic and geopolitical weakness.

Curbing European and Baltic dependence on Russian natural gas, and more importantly building the infrastructure to enable imports from alternative sources, offer an effective way to curb Russian soft power in the region. As we have argued, the current dependent relationship offers the potential for Russian coercion in the event of a crisis. The inability to address these problems to this point may at least partially explain the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions on Russia. It is no surprise that European diplomats have shown immense caution in putting sanctions on Russia. Given that Russia has already show a willingness to cut exports amidst political disputes, it is entirely possible that such retaliation may quite literally leave EU countries out in the cold.

The Role of the EU in Baltic Security

Having examined various potential Russian security threats to the Baltic states, namely conventional war, hybrid war, and economic soft power, it is worth focusing in on the role that the EU plays and could play. After all, much of our analysis of Baltic security focused on the NATO capabilities to defend against a Russian invasion. What, then, is the EU’s role in Baltic security?

The EU can play a part in countering each of the three potential threats which we have analyzed. In the area of conventional defense, the EU can encourage security cooperation in ways that NATO cannot, especially with regard to the countries of the Baltic sea. In the area of hybrid warfare, the EU can and does play a role in limiting the effectiveness of the Russian minority populations as security threats. Finally, in the area of economic soft power, the EU can work towards weakening the gas dependence of the Baltic states on Russia.

Beginning with military security, it might seem that the EU is a redundant entity. NATO is the chief guarantor of Baltic security. It has been NATO, not EU, deployments, which have reassured the Baltic states of the transatlantic commitment to their security. NATO has more centralization and experience waging wars. There is also significant overlap between members of NATO and members of the EU. How can the EU seek to support Baltic security without being redundant?

The EU can play a crucial role in Baltic security by taking advantage of what makes it different from NATO. It is true that there is significant overlap between NATO and the EU, but this overlap is not complete, especially in the Baltic sea region. Sweden and Finland are both EU members but not members of NATO. This provides the EU with a unique opportunity to help coordinate regional security. A report from the Center for European Policy Analysis has argued that there must and should be increased security cooperation among the so-called Nordic-Baltic-Poland 9 (NBP9) countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland [6]. Of these, only Norway and Iceland are not in the EU. By coordinating those that are in the EU, what one could call the NBP7, the EU can bring to bear its unique capabilities.

The impetus for increased security cooperation is clear. Virtually all of these countries have experienced airspace violations and many have been the target of Russian wargame simulations. For example, in 2014, Russian jets armed with live missiles simulated an attack on the Danish island of Bornholm while 90,000 of the country’s political and journalistic elites were visiting for an annual meeting [7]. Sweden spent time in 2014 dealing with probable Russian submarine activity in its waters. These countries have correspondingly shown fears of a resurgent Russia. Potential membership in NATO has grown in popularity in Sweden and Finland in recent years, although such a move is still not the policies of those governments, and integration would take a considerable time even if it were. In the meantime, the position of Sweden and Finland in the EU but not in NATO gives the EU a unique ability to coordinate security in the Baltic region. Coordinated together, these countries could provide a formidable obstacle to Russia. After all, the combined GDPs of these 7 nations in 2016 were $1.62 trillion compared to Russia’s $1.28 trillion [8].

Facing other Russian threats to the Baltic states, the EU can also leverage its capabilities. As we have argued, the effectiveness of hybrid warfare in Ukraine was in large part based on the existence of dissatisfied local Russian minorities. Russian minorities in the Baltic states are less vulnerable to such action in large part due to the economic and social pull which the EU exerts on them. Merely by providing a stable and economically prosperous alternative to Russia, the EU goes a long way towards Baltic security. It could also take more direct action by encouraging Baltic governments to take proactive steps to ensure that their Russian minority populations do not feel politically dissatisfied.

Finally, regarding the threat of economic soft power, the EU would do well to take the threat posed by the dependency of the Baltic states on the Russian Nord Stream pipeline seriously. As we have shown, this pipeline allows Russia to exert specific economic influence on the Baltic states. By encouraging the ongoing construction of liquefied natural gas terminals in these countries through funding support, the EU could help limit the threat of Russian economic soft power.


This piece seeks to create a comprehensive view of the Russian threat to Baltic security. Our examination of Russian conventional war capabilities indicate that current NATO forces would likely be unable to prevent a rapid Russian takeover of the Baltic states, which would put NATO in an extremely unfavorable position. However, the potential negative consequences (political, economic, and military) of a conventional war in the Baltic make it relatively unlikely that Russia would choose to invade the Baltic states. While one cannot discount the possibility of a rapid incursion into the Baltic states, alternative security threats to the Baltic are more substantial. One of these alternative security threats is hybrid warfare. Because of the pull of the EU, the Russian minority populations of these countries are less supportive of Russian interference than those of Ukraine were. However, this support is not set in stone. It is dependent on prosperity and favorable EU policy. Finally, although dependence on Russian gas in Europe as a whole, and in the Baltic in particular, is a potential threat, steps are underway to lessen it through the building of liquefied natural gas terminals and improved infrastructure.

That the security threats to the Baltic states are less applicable than they were in Ukraine does not mean that they should not be taken seriously, or that measures should not be taken to improve the situation. NATO must focus on increasing military capabilities in the Baltic to a level at least able to adequately delay a sudden Russian advance, while the EU can facilitate other forms of security cooperation with non-NATO members, specifically Sweden and Finland. The EU can play a unique role in Baltic security by taking steps that NATO is incapable of taking. It can encourage security coordination among what we have called the NBP7. All of these countries are members of the EU and have faced security threats from Russia. Acting together, they would be a much stronger deterrent to the full spectrum of Russian activity than they are currently. It can also play important roles in encouraging economic and social development in the Baltic states, which will limit both the effectiveness of hybrid warfare and economic soft power.

Any failure to properly defend the Baltic states would be catastrophic for the international order. Having failed to defend their allies and members, the credibility of NATO, the EU, and the United States on the world stage would evaporate. Traditionally, defense has been considered in conventional military terms. Nonetheless, a failure to properly respond to other threats we have outlined, such as hybrid warfare and soft power, could also have dangerous consequences for the perceptions of these organizations. Proactive steps from NATO, the EU, and the United States against the wide range of Russian threats to the Baltic states are thus needed to maintain European security and the global order.

[1], (Hoffman 2007, 8).

[2] (Gerasimov 2013; Coalson 2014).

[3] (Person 2015, 153).


[5] (Person 2015, 154).

[6], p.3