20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Kremlin’s aggressive tactics in Ukraine have caused experts and Western military leaders to sound the alarm over the threat Russia poses toward the NATO member states in the Baltic region. But would Russia’s military have the upper hand in a Baltic conflict with the West? Journalist and military analyst Matthew Bodner breaks down the two sides’ assets and determines that Russia would face a tall task in confronting NATO.


If a war in the Baltics were to break out, NATO would have every chance of winning in the end. Photo: © Konstantin Semenov | Dreamstime.com


As tensions continue to simmer between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine, an alarming concern has emerged in U.S. and European policy circles: that Russia may pose a real threat to the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. To be sure, given the presence of a significant ethnic Russian population there, this region is vulnerable to the sort of hybrid warfare that Moscow employed in its annexation of Crimea and is currently applying in eastern Ukraine. It is also thought to be the region most likely to be targeted by Russia if the Kremlin decides to test or confront NATO. As speculation has it, with an attack on the Baltics, President Vladimir Putin could attempt to split the NATO alliance and show that the vaunted Article 5 provision of the Washington Treaty—which says an attack on one is an attack on all—is a false promise.

Russia’s frequent large-scale military exercises serve to fuel this concern in the West, and in response, NATO has moved to show its resolve in support of the Baltic members of the alliance. It has begun patrolling regional skies for Russian aircraft and established a 13,000-man rapid response force capable of deploying to the region within 48 hours. A recent policy brief by the European Leadership Network think tank warned that massive exercises by both Russia and NATO could make conflict between them more likely. While NATO assures its members that these steps are enough to deter any potential Russian action, other observers such as Chatham House have pointed to the potential conventional force strength of Russia’s Western Military District—the organizational division of its forces stationed near Europe—to argue that Putin could take the region easily.

But this assumes that Russia’s numerical advantage translates into actual military superiority. In fact, if a war in the Baltics were to break out, NATO would have every chance of winning in the end. Some in the U.S. military establishment fear that the alliance is underprepared for a possible fight with Russia, but NATO’s forces train more often than Russia’s, have newer equipment, and have seen more actual combat. Russia’s military, meanwhile, has only recently begun training regularly as part of the country’s decade-long 20 trillion ruble ($350 billion) military modernization drive. And the gains of this program have not been equally spread across the military. For example, Russia’s air force, which would be the vanguard of any Russian attack on the Baltics, is largely a legacy of the Soviet era, and its bomber fleet was built during the Cold War (although some of its fighter jets, such as the Su-34 fighter bombers, are new aircraft).

Russia does, however, have something of an advantage in land-based electronic warfare platforms, which, if deployed and used successfully, could shield Russian forces using electronic noise designed to disrupt NATO’s guided weapons and other automated systems. According to U.S. officials cited in a recent Wall Street Journal report, Russia is already successfully demonstrating its ability to use these capabilities on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, and U.S. efforts to train with Baltic allies are also being complicated by these Russian technologies.

Still, the age and quality of Russia’s aircraft is an important calculation in assessing Russia’s true military strength in a Baltic war scenario, since air power is the military arm used to launch campaigns in modern warfare. Since the beginning of June, Russia’s air force has experienced an astonishing eight airplane crashes as a result of technical failures or pilot error—a trend that analysts attribute to the higher rate of patrols since the start of the Ukraine crisis. While Russia could leverage its proximity to the Baltics and initial numerical advantage to achieve an early victory in the region, likely pushing out the small NATO presence that is permanently stationed there, it would have a hard time holding onto these gains.


Troop Breakdowns

Looking at what military men call the order of battle—a sketch of what assets are available to each belligerent force involved in a conflict—Russia looks much stronger than it would likely be in a real fighting match. According to numbers compiled in a recent Chatham House report, Russia has in its Western Military District—the command that would fight a Baltic war—65,000 ground troops, 850 pieces of artillery, 750 tanks, and 320 combat aircraft. (While other estimates, such as one by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, place Russia’s force at a much higher 300,000 troops, there is a high degree of uncertainty about their combat readiness.) Russia also has its Baltic Fleet, but these ships, which are in poor condition, have been largely demilitarized since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is too isolated to support a large fleet. The Baltic Fleet has only two small Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines, one of which has been set aside mostly for training new submarine crews. The surface fleet isn’t much larger, featuring a handful of Sovremenny-class destroyers, a frigate, and four corvettes backed up by smaller support ships.

The Baltic Fleet, however, could be reinforced with ships from Russia’s largest fleet, the Northern Fleet, stationed in Murmansk. The Russian ships to watch in this case would be the Petr Veliky battlecruiser and the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, as well as the destroyer and nuclear submarine escorts that would accompany them. NATO vessels could be called in from the Atlantic to counter these assets.

Looking at Russia’s strength in the Baltic theater, the big questions are: How many of these units exist only on paper, how many are combat ready, and how well armed and trained are they? The latter question is less pressing for NATO, which regularly trains its troops and outfits them with reportedly better equipment. It’s true that the combined strength of the Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian armies pales in comparison to the reported strength of Russia’s Western Military District. These NATO forces rely on a mere 10,450 men on the ground, 158 pieces of artillery, three tanks, and no aircraft, according to the Chatham House report. But NATO has begun to move alliance assets into the region. Earlier this year, the United States began to preposition heavy armor, such as M1 Abrams battle tanks, in Estonia, and NATO boosted the size of its Eastern European rapid response force to 13,000 men. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, following a meeting of defense ministers representing the alliance’s 28 members in June, said the size of the response force would be tripled to 40,000 men.

The three Baltic states have no air forces, and in a bid to show Russia that it would step up to defend their air space, NATO increased the size of its Baltic Air Policing mission from four to eight aircraft last year and later expanded it to 16 planes. Earlier this month, NATO announced that it would reduce the size of the BAP mission back to eight, however. Considering that the first step in any modern war is to launch massive airstrikes on strategically valuable targets—such as communications, defenses, and supply lines—Russia could leverage its numerical superiority in the air to gain control of the Baltic skies at the outbreak of any Baltic conflict.

Even if the Kremlin decided it needed to seize the Baltics to rebuild the Baltic Fleet, its shipyards are already crammed with orders for the Black Sea, Northern, and Pacific fleets. Indeed, unless Putin is bent on restoring the Russian empire, there are few reasons that Moscow would risk igniting a nuclear war over the Baltic region from a military standpoint.

According to data compiled by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, NATO’s overall force strength in Europe vastly outweighs what Russia could bring to bear from the Western Military District. Assuming a prolonged conflict erupted in the Baltics, NATO would have vast reserves of troops and equipment to rally for the fight.

NATO’s 26 European members have at their disposal just under 2 million active service personnel, 7,000 battle tanks, 11,000 pieces of large artillery, and 2,100 fighters and ground attack planes, though IISS expert Douglas Barrie cautioned that Turkey and Greece skew these numbers. According to Barrie, Turkey alone has one-quarter of NATO’s military personnel and one-third of its tanks, with half of NATO’s tanks split between Turkey and Greece.

Breaking things down further, the Western European members of NATO command about 800,000 active personnel, 1,000 tanks, 1,600 artillery units, and 1,000 fighters and ground attack aircraft. The newer Eastern European members have 320,000 active duty soldiers, 1,600 tanks, 2,700 pieces of artillery, and around 250 fighters and ground attack aircraft.


Air War Scenario

If Russia decided that its force was adequate to push NATO out of the Baltic states, or simply to call NATO’s bluff and test whether nations like Germany and France were willing to honor their Article 5 obligations, the scenario would likely turn first to an air war over the region—in modern war, the aerial campaign comes first. To launch this strike, Russian military planners would call upon the 6950th Air Base, the arm of Russia’s strategic bomber command that is based out of Engels Air Force Base in Saratov. According to the annual Almanac of Russian Air Power published by Air Force Magazine, Russia has stationed at Engels about two squadrons of the advanced Tu-160 “White Swan” supersonic bombers and two of the older propeller-driven Tu-95 “Bear” bombers. Farther north, also under the command of the 6950th Air Base, are three squadrons of the shorter-range Tu-22M3 Backfire supersonic bombers at Shaykovka Air Base in the Kaluga region, near the Russian—Belorussian border, and two squadrons based at Olenegorsk Air Base in Murmansk.

The majority of these bombers are equipped to handle cruise missiles with a so-called “standoff range” of up to 600 kilometers. Given the proximity of the 6950th to the Baltic theater, most of the force could be in the air and within firing range of NATO infrastructure in the Baltics within an hour of taking off. Because of the range of the cruise missiles, a strike could be launched by the bombers without ever leaving Russian air space. Such an operation could conceivably be launched as a surprise attack by disguising it as one of the Defense Ministry’s massive snap exercises that have been conducted since the start of the Ukraine crisis. Escorted by wings of smaller MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets, and masked by electronic noise blasted into the Baltic air defense zone by electronic warfare aircraft, the Russian bombers would likely target NATO air surveillance radars, air defense command centers, and communications infrastructure in the first round of the assault, air warfare expert Thomas Withington told IMR.

This would give Russia a huge advantage in a surprise air attack scenario. As the strategic bombers hit their first round of targets, disrupting NATO’s ability to understand what was going on and hindering its ability to react, the Russian air force could expand its attack to include ground-based anti-aircraft missile systems in the Baltics. Smaller tactical aircraft such as Sukhoi Su-34 fighter bombers armed with anti-radar missiles—rockets that home in on signals emitted by radar stations—would then join the attack, Withington said, striking radar stations in Norway, Denmark, Germany, and perhaps even non-NATO countries such as Sweden and Finland.

Because of the range at which Russia could launch its first cruise missile volley, and the relatively small contingent of immediately available NATO aircraft in the region, Russia would have a high chance of succeeding in this first round of the conflict.

Depending on what Russia’s objective might be—either seizing the Baltics or working to get NATO to back down and thereby show Article 5 to be a false promise—ground troops might begin moving into the region. Russia’s second wave of air attacks would aim to disrupt NATO ground and naval forces from entering the fight to stop Moscow’s movements. This would involve launching cruise missiles at NATO ships, supply depots, rail yards, and air bases to force the alliance to operate farther back from the fight—increasing the time it would take for NATO to move its units into the fight, said Withington.

Beyond this, it is difficult to predict how things would play out. Either Russia would back down in the face of a massive NATO counterattack, or Russia would win as the alliance accepted its losses and ceded the Baltics. Or neither side would back down, and the nuclear option would come into play—in which case nothing that could happen on the conventional level would really matter.


Unlikely Scenario?

In the end, Russia’s key to success in a Baltic campaign would depend greatly on the speed with which its air force could strike key NATO infrastructure in the region to prevent a speedy response by the alliance. Furthermore, it would depend on Russia’s ability to retain command of the skies as NATO attempted to push back. But it is questionable that Russia has the air assets to do this. NATO aircraft are generally better maintained, the pilots better trained, and the electronic warfare suites—which are used to confuse Russian aircraft and disrupt their targeting—considered to be a grade above those outfitted on Russian aircraft. Russia’s bombers themselves are also in questionable condition. Its bomber fleet of Tu-95s, the mainstay fleet, has been grounded since early June, with a small period of activity between two crashes that occurred during routine training exercises.

These crashes have been accompanied by similar losses since June of MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 and Su-34 fighter bombers during training exercises. All told, Russia’s air force has lost eight planes to accidents in the last two months. This is a shocking rate of failure, attributed by analysts largely to Russia’s poor track record of maintaining and caring for its aircraft, as well as the sorry state of pilot training in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Russia’s entire Tu-95 bomber fleet has remained grounded as of early August as the air force investigates what caused the crashes. It is unclear how long they will remain out of action. But the problems dogging Russia’s air force are unlikely to change in the near term, casting doubts on the air force’s ability to fight an actual war.

The likelihood of war breaking out is hard to gauge. So far, most of the sparring has been limited to symbolic deployments of troops and hardware in Eastern Europe and massive exercises of Russia’s military near Europe. It is instructive to look at the military rationale that motivated Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year. Sevastopol, the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, is a major strategic asset for Moscow to pursue its interests in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as well as in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. The prospect of losing access to that naval base, and perhaps even losing it to NATO in the long term, likely played heavily into the Kremlin’s thinking as it weighed the political costs of annexation.

A similar strategic consideration is hard to find in the Baltics, but this conclusion depends on how one views the Russian president and his motivations. Strategic value might explain why Russia annexed Crimea—a vital military holdout—but has not formally moved into the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine to seize territory. The Donbass doesn’t have the same level of military value as Crimea, and neither does the Baltic region. Even if the Kremlin decided it needed to seize the Baltics to rebuild the Baltic Fleet, its shipyards are already crammed with orders for the Black Sea, Northern, and Pacific fleets. Indeed, unless Putin is bent on restoring the Russian empire, there are few reasons that Moscow would risk igniting a nuclear war over the Baltic region from a military standpoint.

But if the Kremlin decides it is backed into a corner and must attempt to destabilize NATO and intimidate its Baltic neighbors, it may take a chance and launch a risky attack. Fortunately for the Baltic states, the Western alliance would likely come out on top in a contest against an inexperienced and outmanned Russian military—that is, if NATO chose to commit.