contributor perspectives

The Baltics Eye Russia's War Games With Growing Concern

Linas Jegelevicius
Board of Contributors
12 MINS READAug 18, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
A Russian-built BTR-82A amphibious armored personnel carrier lands on the shore during 2013 joint military exercises with Belarus in the Russia's Kaliningrad enclave.
(ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
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Note From the Interviewer:

Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Baltic states' concern for their security has only grown. But the Russian threat has existed since the Soviet Union began to fall apart in 1990, says Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis. Ahead of the Zapad joint military exercises in September between Russia and Belarus, not far from the Lithuanian border, Karoblis warns that even ordinary-looking war games can sometimes go awry.

The defense minister kindly agreed to answer some questions on the issue.

Ahead of his visit to Tallinn in early August, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the Baltics have never been so exposed to danger from Russia as they are now. He reiterated the idea again during his visit to the Estonian capital, claiming, "And no threat looms larger in the Baltic states than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east." Is the proposition substantiated — Russia has not waged a military attack since the annexation of Crimea over three years ago?

In no way is the estimation is exaggeration. Let's face the facts: Russia has annexed Crimea, triggered violence in Donbas in eastern Ukraine and, previously, it annexed Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia. In fact, the military demarcation line has been expanded there lately. There cannot be better proof that Russia does not adhere to any internationally accepted norms and does not care about the territorial integrity of sovereign countries.

Against this backdrop, the question rises naturally: Who is next? I'd say, in terms of security, the situation since 2014 has been indefinite and, as a matter of fact, it has not been determined since much earlier in 1990, when the breaking up of the Soviet Union began.

The second thing that raises concerns is the steady intensification of the Russian military and its rearming. Especially at its western borders — Russia has newly reformed the 1st Guards Tank Army there. [Its reactivation is expected to give Russian ground forces the ability to exploit their superior expertise at the operational level of war, already shown during the Crimea operation that took NATO completely by surprise and which is currently being demonstrated in Syria.] Its aim is clear — the West, i.e. us, too.

Third, we see the ongoing reinforcement of Russian military forces in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad which we border, causing another reason for unease among us and our allies. The military ramp-up in the exclave aims, among other things, to block our partners from reaching us either via the Baltic Sea or land, i.e. separating us from them. It is estimated that Russia can activate its military in Kaliningrad for a full-range offensive against NATO within 24-28 hours upon a political decision in Moscow.

To sum it up, the situation we're facing now in the Baltics is really the riskiest and most dangerous since 1990.

On the other hand, we have never had so many allies and security guarantees as now. We have the Warsaw agreement, which strengthened the alliance's military presence in the east with the deployment of four battalions in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on a rotational basis. The reaffirmation of security guarantees to the Baltics by the new U.S. administration and the increased preparation of our own military and civilians leads me to believe that we are in control of the situation and we can deter Russia.

Many prominent Baltic analysts firmly suggest that these fears are ungrounded and that they play into the military's hands as it consistently asks for more money. For example, according to Kestutis Girnius, a renowned Lithuanian analyst of American descent, although Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be bold politician, he is also a cautious one. In 2008, he halted military action after only five days, though the Georgian military was in disarray and the road to Tbilisi seemed to be wide open. He incited, supported and continues to support the rebels in eastern Ukraine, but despite Western anxieties, he did not urge the rebels to launch new offensives to capture other vulnerable regions when the Ukrainian forces were in trouble. In Syria, he sent planes and advisers rather than troops. Attacking the Baltic states would make no sense for Russia, taking into account that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are members of NATO. Do you not think that Russia would have proceeded with an offensive against the Baltics, had it planned it along with the aggression against Ukraine?

It may have taken place by now if it had been planned, indeed, but no one can be sure of Russia's original plan. What if the events in Ukraine had developed differently?

I have to admit Lithuania falls into a different category [of states] than Ukraine, in the sense that it is a NATO and [European Union] member and with all that arises from these memberships, being part of the collective defense system, etc. Yet no one can be sure that Russia and Putin will not decide someday to test the unity of NATO and how it functions practically. If Putin proceeded with the endeavor, it would certainly start here, in the Baltics.

Do you personally believe Russia will wage a military operation against the Baltics?

We do everything we can to prevent it from happening. We work with our allies and we strengthen our defense capabilities at the same time. We do all we can to lessen the risks. Nevertheless, we have to speak of Russia's current unpredictability. It constitutes the biggest problem of all. 

Russia doesn't have to wage a full-scale war against NATO — there are many other possible scenarios.

Russia, for example, can try to isolate our access to NATO military capacities and, having succeeded in this goal, try to get NATO and Lithuania into negotiations, urging us to withdraw from NATO and its defense system. There are many different variants apart from a full-scale invasion of the Baltics. The bottom line is whether Russia will have the political will to test NATO's unity and strength.

Are current deterrence measures against Russia efficient and sufficient? If not, what else should be done to boost the region's security?

The presence of foreign troops, first of all Americans, and the deployment of new NATO battalions in the three Baltic countries and Poland have improved the situation, security-wise, significantly. However, we wish there would be more measures aimed at defending the region.

The current measures focus first on Russian deterrence, not defense, I'd say. More allied troops and more exercises conducted together with our own military would help to increase our security. Where our vulnerability particularly stands out is our aerial defense. Although in July the United States deployed a battery of Patriot long-range anti-aircraft missiles in Lithuania to be used by NATO — marking the first time the advanced defense system has been brought to the Baltics where Russia has air superiority — I believe their wider range with bigger capabilities have to be available here, too, especially with a looming possibility of us being blocked from the NATO partners by the militarized Kaliningrad region. We rely and count too much on the solidarity of our NATO partners — the bloc has been in transition since the early 1990s, it has focused mostly on international operations throughout. Now there is an urgency that NATO makes decisions and adapts to the rapidly changing security situation faster.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, like the previous one under former President Barack Obama, has repeatedly expressed its unwavering support for the Baltics, yet it stops short of satisfying the Baltic nations' biggest security request – deploying the Patriot anti-missile system across all three Baltic states. The need for this system has increased since October 2016, when Russia moved nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles into the Kaliningrad region. Fears have also been triggered by planned joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus, which Lithuania believes are a possible simulation of an attack against NATO. Do you believe the United States, under Trump, will deploy the anti-missile system in the Baltics? Have you received a signal following U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's Tallinn visit that the United States will fulfill the Baltics' goal?

We have never had doubts in the United States' solidarity with us, despite some worrying signals at the end of 2016 and early this year. [A statement by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump that NATO is "obsolete" has caused worry within the alliance and among the Baltic states alike.] We've lately conducted a series of meetings with high-ranking officials within the U.S. administration, and both the U.S. Senate and Congress have repeatedly expressed their resolve to stand by us. The continuity of U.S. policies in the region remains.

As far as the defense of our airspace is concerned, there are a few things that need to be taken into account. First, the technical peculiarities: Due to the very short distances [between Kaliningrad and Lithuania], it would be better if some of the anti-missile defense system is stationed over our borders. Should it be installed here, it might be subject to damage by hostile forces during a military conflict. I'd rather not speak about the deployment of the anti-ballistic systems in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but focus on creating an effective air defense system with the elements of the system. We are working in that regard with our NATO partners and hope that at least some partial decisions will be made on the matter.

It is undoubtedly crucial that in case of an enemy's aggression, the civilian populations in the Baltics rise up against it. Has your ministry ever assessed the Lithuanian public's readiness to resist an aggressor? What parts of society would be actively engaged in this resistance? What parts would stay passive? And how many of Lithuanians would collaborate with an invader?

This is hard to tell. Judging from the public mood, it does not seem to me there would be many people willing to collaborate with an aggressor. Yet there are certain risk groups, however, that might collaborate.

Our estimation is that two-thirds of the Lithuanian population would support our armed forces in one way or another. Those who themselves would join the ranks are thought to be around 50 percent. Although some Lithuanian politicians believe the number is a little too small, the ministry's opinion is the result would be OK.

I am delighted to see a rising public spirit in Lithuania — in all age groups and among women, too. Especially our youth exerts a resolve to defend its land; that is very heartening. We see more Lithuanians willing to join the ranks of national defense volunteers and enlistment at Lithuania's War Academy has increased. I stand by the notion that, first of all, those who have the required knowledge and the respective training ought to become part of the land's active defense. I am against the idea that people would become what I call meat for the cannons.

Do you support the idea of mandatory conscription in Lithuania?

I personally support it. I want every 12th grader after graduation at secondary school to be enlisted. However, we're not prepared for it yet due to a lack of the necessary infrastructure, i.e. military barracks, training facilities and even a shortage of officers capable of handling the influx of new conscripts. We plan to call up 800 conscripts this year. It is heartening to know that the number of voluntary servicemen from the National Defense Volunteer Forces will come forward to fill these slots, so there is no need for a mandatory call to serve. I want to emphasize the strengthening relations between the public and the Lithuanian Armed Forces, which demonstrates the public's growing understanding of the necessity to defend its motherland.

If an aggressor invades Lithuania, how long do you believe we can stand our ground until NATO steps in?

The political will, no doubt, would be to defend the land — we are not going to repeat the blunders that we've made in the past. The leadership of the Lithuanian Armed Forces has a very concrete plan as to how to proceed with defending its land against an invader, and I am sure we would avoid chaos and our actions would be proper and timely.

To answer your question about how long we would be able to stand our ground, I'd say this: We're not talking about hours and days, we're talking about much longer time periods that would enable us to resist until the allies come. 

It is a myth that we can last on our own for only 24 to 72 hours.

What is characteristic in modern warfare is that the capabilities of the perpetrator and the victim are often similar, at least at the beginning.

Russia proved in the last U.S. presidential election to possess immense surveillance capabilities. Can you be sure that your communications at the ministry are safe?

I cannot be 100 percent sure about it. In fact, communications security is one of the fields we have to bolster, both in the military and civil sectors. Last year, we introduced legislation on cybersecurity in Lithuania. Alas, many state and public institutions haven't yet implemented these new provisions. Cybersecurity remains one of our top security priorities.

Next month, Russia is scheduled to hold large-scale military maneuvers with its ally, Belarus. U.S. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who heads the U.S. Army forces in Europe, said in late July that the Zapad war games could be a "Trojan horse" resulting in military equipment being left in Belarus. Do you worry about these drills?

I do. First of all because of the exercises' primary goal: simulating an offensive against NATO. To put it mildly, knowing that the attack will be simulated against the so-called higher-military-capacity countries, i.e. the NATO alliance, does not make me feel good. In the cusp, there are the Baltic nations and Poland first. Although we are talking about military exercises, intelligence data does not show that [Russia and Belarus] can turn the situation into a prelude for a full-scale or partial military conflict. The biggest risks stemming from the Zapad drills are possible errors, including stray shots, local attempts to test our vigilance through other measures, and so on. Although the exercises otherwise seem routine, we're prepared for them and our NATO allies have provided us support before they start.

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