There is currently a great deal of alarmist concern, triggered by a recent RAND report, about Russia’s supposed ability to conquer the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, three former Soviet republics that are now part of NATO — and thus drive a wedge into NATO without the West being able to do anything to stop it.
But before we start to panic, it’s important to consider not just whether Moscow might ever actually want to do this, but also all the many ways in which the West could retaliate other than with military force. There are, after all, more ways to win wars than just with tanks and fighters.
The reality is that not only does Russia likely have zero ambitions to capture the Baltic states in the first place, but even if it did, the US and NATO could do a whole lot to punish it for doing so.
That’s because for all the talk of Russia’s brilliant use of "asymmetric" or "hybrid" warfare — that is, fighting not so much on the regular battlefield but by using all kinds of sneaky and unconventional approaches, from information and cyber warfare to political manipulation — the truth is that if anyone has an "asymmetric" or "hybrid" edge, it is actually the West.
The RAND report: Russia takes the Baltic states while NATO is caught napping
The present debate was sparked by a RAND report, released earlier this year, that was based on a series of war games whose goal was to evaluate "the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states." The report concluded that "as presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members," essentially the Baltic states, which, it claimed, Russia could conquer in at most 60 hours.
There are serious questions over the RAND study’s numbers and assumptions, not least that the Russians would get pretty much everything right and NATO would be caught by surprise. Just because the Russians could take Crimea (against no opposition) and bomb rebels in Syria (who have no serious air defenses), that doesn’t make them 10 feet tall — and any invasion would be impossible to hide from the West, even under the guise of a "military exercise." That might have worked two and a half years ago, but since Crimea we are on the lookout for such scams.
The study also fails to consider the most crucial question: intent. In other words, would Russia even want to take the Baltic states in the first place?
The Baltic states would just be a major headache for Putin
The answer, in short, is probably no. Vladimir Putin is, of course, currently engaged in an aggressive campaign to raise Russia’s international standing and undermine the West’s will to punish him for his actions in Crimea and Ukraine. However, he is neither a lunatic nor some kind of imperialist desperate to rebuild the old Soviet Union.
Conquering the Baltic states may be possible, but it would win him the overt enmity of the West, the worry of his other neighbors, and three territories full of disgruntled locals with a history of guerrilla warfare against Muscovite conquerors.
And for what? There are no resources of the sort Russia could readily use (their real assets are their people, who would hardly be enthusiastic about their new overlords). Rather than dividing NATO, it would probably unite and galvanize it and make Moscow look dangerously erratic. Even China would be alarmed to find its neighbor and quasi-ally suddenly flirting with global war.
The West has many ways to make Russia pay if it did take the Baltic states
Even if Russia did take the Baltic states, though, the West would have plenty of ways to punish Russia short of launching a full military counterattack.
The first is with financial means. If Russia relies on tanks for its attack, the West could turn to banks for its response.
An invasion of the Baltic states would be grounds for invoking NATO’s Article V, which treats an attack on one member as an attack on all members, thus making all NATO members at war with Russia. Member states could not only seize any Russian state assets within their jurisdictions but could — and should — extend this to Russian companies and the personal property of those Russians deemed to be significant players within the state.
Oligarchs and officials alike have gleefully taken advantage of Western financial openness and rule of law to stash their usually ill-gotten gains away from the Kremlin’s hands. That could be turned into a vulnerability, a chance to encourage dissent and division within an elite more interested in its own kleptocratic opportunism than in Putin’s historical vision.
Not only could the West close its markets to Russia — and likewise ban all exports there — but it could also use its political and economic muscle to try to isolate Russia from its other trading partners. Russia imports almost 40 percent of its food, and while countries such as Iran are unlikely to be willing to curtail exports to Russia, others without land borders with the country could be prevented from supplying the country’s needs.
The West could also in effect force Russia out of SWIFT, the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. This would severely limit Russian banks’ capacity to move money and engage in economic activity, and although it’s not the "nuclear option" some make it out to be — in part because there are some ways around it — it would still be a severe blow to the Russian economy.
Another way the West can hurt Russia is through cyberattacks. While Russian cyberattacks have been most evident, this is more because Moscow has been more willing to encourage its hackers to cause mischief in the West than because it has that much greater capacity. The West could strike back in kind once it was willing to take off the virtual gloves.
Putin may be willing to see ordinary Russians make sacrifices in the name of geopolitics, but with the ruble already having devalued by some 50 percent, and more than half of household budgets in Russia currently being spent on food, how long would they be willing and able to put up with that?
The old stereotypes of the fatalistic Russian peasant willing to endure any hardship for the motherland are long since out of date. Putin’s popularity at home depends on giving the appearance of easy wins, whether in Crimea or Syria.
What happens to that narrative when, for example, cyber attacks crash the cellphone networks on which Russians have come to rely? How does the country function when the software behind the railways and airports becomes compromised? How do Russians buy, sell, and work when banking systems are hit and ATMs closed down?
There are also "non-kinetic" military options that play to Western strengths and would have a disproportionate impact on Russia. NATO is worried about the threat of "A2/AD" — anti-access/area denial — as Russian missiles and submarines prevent NATO planes from flying in Central Europe and NATO ships from operating in the Baltic Sea.
But, conversely, NATO can close the Dardanelles to any Russian military or civilian shipping, locking it out of the Mediterranean, just as it can also deny Russia the Baltic, and maybe also the Barents and Okhotsk seas to the north and east. Beyond that, the West controls the global sea lanes and could impound Moscow’s ships and cargoes, or prevent third-country trade with Russia.
Of course, there are limits to such indirect ways of waging war. China can hardly be leaned on — although it is unlikely to be comfortable with a Kremlin that is willing to start such a pyrrhic and dangerous war — and none of this will be easy or cheap.
But this is war, and if the West wants to save the lives of its soldiers, it has to spend money instead.
To really deter Russia, the West needs to stop playing nice
The West can do it, though — and Moscow knows this. While we have been worrying about Moscow’s ability to wage so-called "hybrid warfare," the truth is that this kind of warfare is actually a Western strength. Moscow is just hoping we don’t notice.
Russia has in the past often managed to punch above its weight because it has been able to assume that West will be moderate and well-mannered. It has kidnapped an Estonian security officer across the border, shielded the people who shot down a civilian airliner, buzzed US warships, and invaded a neighbor.
The day the West decides to be as ruthless as Russia will be a very black one for the Kremlin. However, it is vital not only that the West grow to realize this — because if we feel powerless, we become vulnerable to Putin’s mind games and power plays — but also that we practice and posture such that the Kremlin appreciates that this is a real threat.
Just as Moscow puts on an exercise simulating an attack on a Western country or talks about nuclear attacks when it wants to push our buttons, we can do the same. Wargaming closing the Mediterranean or openly discussing how economic warfare could cripple an unnamed but obvious enemy will spark furious denunciations from Moscow. But the very scale of the response will indicate just how seriously the Kremlin takes such a risk.
The fact is that Russian security discussions are dominated by an awareness of the country’s vulnerabilities to a stronger, richer, larger, more advanced West. Up to now, though, we have not let ourselves acknowledge our strengths.
The greatest risk for the West is, after all, not its weakness of means but a perception of its weakness of will, both at home and in Moscow. After all, deterrence only works when it is displayed, when the other side knows the misery and ruin it risks.
Mark Galeotti is a professor of global affairs at New York University, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and is on Twitter as @MarkGaleotti.