With its decisions from the Wales and Warsaw summits, NATO has made some progress on addressing the risks of escalation, partially as a result of allies’ ability to successfully integrate and balance the divergent views of more cautious and more hawkish members. Nonetheless, NATO has more homework to do. The risk of deliberate, inadvertent, or accidental escalation is still high in the Baltic region.
Russia’s strategy of new-generation warfare makes it necessary for NATO to develop a comprehensive strategy. That means going beyond nuclear and conventional deterrence and assurance. If NATO wants to address the risks that stem from Russia’s nonkinetic operations and from accidental escalation, its strategy has to thoroughly integrate and enhance the elements of resilience and risk reduction.
NATO should not respond with steps that could exacerbate escalation risks, such as stationing additional large-scale conventional forces in Eastern Europe or adding new nuclear capabilities or missions, which both would risk alliance unity (although such restraint should be contingent on Russian behavior).
One unpleasant reality is that a comprehensive strategy requires prioritizing certain goals at the expense of others. The following recommendations constitute a starting point for articulating a viable way to balance these goals, which are sometimes in tension.
Bolstering Deterrence and Assurance
- Improve NATO’s trip wire approach but avoid additional large-scale deployments. It is possible, if unlikely, that a limited Russian land grab in the Baltics might not activate NATO’s trip wire conventional forces (the EFP). In particular, the EFP might arrive too late to prevent a fait accompli. It is also possible that the first EFP forces to the scene might not include personnel from any of NATO’s most significant military powers. To correct these problems, NATO could ask Washington to consider deploying an additional small-scale rotational U.S. Army battalion (of about 1,000 personnel), split equally among the three Baltic EFP deployments. Equipped with observation drones, U.S. forces could continuously patrol and monitor the borders with Russia. NATO should also make sure that the EFP does not suffer from competing chains of command before and during a crisis by, for instance, harmonizing the relevant rules of engagement before NATO’s Graduated Response Plan comes into play. Deploying additional large-scale contingents of NATO forces to the region would not be politically feasible for the alliance. Moreover, such deployments might increase the risk of deliberate Russian escalation if Moscow misinterpreted NATO’s moves as offensive.
- Clarify the roles of the EFP and reinforcement forces in the event of externally instigated domestic unrest in the Baltics. In general, NATO forces have no role in the internal security of its member states. However, if Moscow instigated domestic unrest involving Russian minorities in the Baltics, the role of the EFP and perhaps NATO’s reinforcement forces is much less clear and should be clarified. NATO should also consider how to react if forces were to be deliberately targeted by protesters.
- Streamline NATO’s internal decisionmaking process so the alliance can respond swiftly in the event of a crisis. In the event of a crisis, and particularly when reinforcement becomes necessary, NATO’s political decisionmaking process might be painstakingly slow given the need for consensus among all twenty-nine members of the North Atlantic Council. This could potentially increase the risk that Russia might hope to get away with a military fait accompli. NATO should clarify internally what military or perhaps even political events would trigger reinforcement.
- Ensure that NATO is able to move forces if reinforcement becomes a necessity. Because of its A2/AD capabilities, Russia could severely complicate NATO’s abilities to reinforce its position, again increasing the risk of a fait accompli. Allies should think about enhancing defensive measures, such as additional air defense systems aimed at protecting NATO’s vital logistics and transportation nodes in Western Europe and defending vulnerable Baltic airspace. NATO should also continue to push for streamlining and adapting its logistics approach in Eastern Europe.
- Convey political resolve more clearly, but avoid changes to NATO’s current nuclear posture. Nuclear policies are highly contested within the alliance. NATO should thus avoid controversial changes to its nuclear posture that might undermine unity. Instead, NATO should focus on conveying a clear political message of resolve. NATO heads of state and government should publicly as well as privately convey the unified message to the Kremlin that the alliance is willing to defend its member states with all means necessary. This message should be augmented by regular, high-level, public appearances of individual NATO members’ political and military officials in the Baltic states, stressing that NATO is capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on any opponent in case of an attack on one of its members. The United States should continue its current practice of sending limited numbers of bombers to European exercises. In addition, NATO should communicate alert levels to Russia in the event of a (nuclear) crisis. Finally, individual member states should do a better job explaining to their domestic audiences why NATO remains a nuclear alliance and why that is important.
- Increase the pressure on Russia in INF but avoid a tit-for-tat response. Russia’s alleged INF Treaty violations represent a serious problem for the United States and particularly for its European NATO allies. However, if Washington responds by trying to deploy its own ground-launched cruise missiles, which would mean abrogating the treaty, this decision would meet strong opposition in most of Western Europe and carry enormous risk of undermining NATO. Instead, allies should explore alternative options, such as limited forward deployment of conventional cruise missiles on U.S. bombers and ships in Western Europe, supported by the deployment of cruise missile defenses at NATO’s vital logistics and transportation nodes. In parallel, all allies should engage Moscow head-on for a diplomatic solution. More broadly, allies should seek to increase the diplomatic pressure by making states in Asia voice their growing discomfort over Russia’s alleged violation.
- Deny Russia the ability to escalate through nonkinetic means. Russia’s ability to escalate tensions with NATO through nonkinetic operations (propaganda, cyberattacks, or criminal operations) cannot be countered with military means. NATO must, therefore, increase efforts to support its members and work closely with the EU to build up civilian resilience—that is, societies’ ability to deal with and absorb shocks. One way to further incentivize allies’ national efforts to improve resilience could be to make these expenditures as well as resilience assistance to NATO’s eastern members count toward NATO’s 2 percent goal for defense spending. Allies should continue to educate their publics about Russian efforts to meddle with their domestic politics. In so doing, allies should avoid the mistake of portraying the Kremlin as some kind of “superman” that could bring down Western societies.
- Counter Russian propaganda and disinformation on NATO’s eastern flank. Russia is currently the dominant source of Russian-speaking news and entertainment in the three Baltic states. Its propaganda and disinformation is a particular problem, in part because it hinders reconciliation efforts between the Baltic majorities and the Russian minorities and could stimulate unrest. In response, allies should consider a joint NATO/EU fund for financing capacity-building efforts for Russian-speaking journalists, scriptwriters, and social media entrepreneurs, and for supporting technical and financial assistance to Russian-language broadcast stations, programs, and social media platforms. Allies should also increase their individual contributions to such efforts, ensuring local buy-in from the Baltics’ Russian-speaking minorities.
- Keep a close watch on the state of integration and representation of the Russian minorities in the Baltic states. The better these minorities are integrated, the less leverage the Kremlin has to influence their perceptions. NATO should therefore support integration efforts and encourage regular self-reporting by the Baltic states about minorities’ state of integration and representation. While NATO is wary about infringing on members’ national sovereignty, the alliance is built on shared values, and the integration and representation of those Russian minorities is too important to be ignored. If allies found such a reporting mechanism to be too politically controversial, they could increase cooperation with the EU and encourage it to report regularly about the situation on the ground.
Reengaging on Risk Reduction
- Continue talks with Moscow on incident prevention and crisis communications. The risk of an accidental crisis in the wider Baltic region continues to be high. In addition, following the Ukraine crisis, communication channels between NATO and Russia are still not functioning as effectively as before. An accidental crisis might, therefore, quickly spiral out of control, against either sides’ wishes. NATO must continue to engage Russia to reduce these immediate risks. At a minimum, talks should focus on commonly agreed-upon and adhered-to rules for the busy civilian and military airspace over the Baltic Sea. Washington and Russia should start making continuous use of the bilateral Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities. In addition, NATO should encourage Poland and the three Baltic states to seek to conclude individual INCSEA-like agreements with Russia. Beyond that, NATO must re-establish continuous military-to-military crisis communication channels with the Russian General Staff at the working level and augment them with regular seminars on military doctrine. Particularly in the event of NATO reinforcements becoming necessary during a crisis, NATO must have a way of clearly communicating the purpose of its actions to the Kremlin to avoid misperceptions and, perhaps, inadvertent escalation.
- Start preparations for a conventional CSBM and arms control process with Russia. To maintain alliance unity and stabilize the strained relationship with Russia, NATO—at an appropriate time during the next few years—should present Moscow with concrete elements of an approach involving conventional confidence- and security-building measures and arms control that goes beyond immediate risk reduction. Preparations for doing so can and should commence now. Allies should, for example, increase efforts to negotiate with Moscow an updated version of the OSCE’s Vienna Document, allowing for more military transparency and addressing snap exercises as well as large exercises broken down into multiple components. Since NATO’s militaries are concerned about the possibility that Russia may attack one of its eastern members, the alliance should seek reciprocal reductions and/or limitations on heavy conventional equipment in the wider Baltic region. In doing so, allies must take into account the security concerns of NATO’s easternmost members and strive for a unified position on CSBMs and arms control.
- Explore potentially beneficial synergies between additional NATO deployments and arms control. Allies could explore whether Russia’s regional military superiority in the wider Baltic area and NATO’s global military dominance perhaps allow for some kind of mutually beneficial arms control deal. If that is impossible and if additional conventional NATO deployments to the region are deemed necessary in the years ahead, NATO could use the threat of additional deployments as leverage for pressing Moscow on conventional arms control. Similarly, Washington and its allies could use the pending threat of a military response to Russia’s alleged INF violation as leverage to induce Moscow to participate in broader talks about European security and arms control. If such talks were to result in a satisfactory outcome, NATO could renounce its arms buildup. Such an approach, not without political risk, would have to be very carefully timed and communicated, both within the alliance and to Russia.