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Russian Shadowboxing in the Baltics

Late last month, NATO-member Lithuania issued a civil defense booklet with instructions on survival and combat techniques in the event of a Russian invasion and opened a hotline for citizens to report any suspicious or otherwise subversive activities. The publication of the booklet is yet another sign of the degree to which relations between Russia and the Baltic states have deteriorated since the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. And this happened even before Donald Trump’s election!

Russia’s surreptitious machinations in Ukraine and the tools it has employed to achieve its military objectives have altered the way acts of aggression unfold in a new type of “hybrid warfare,” consisting of unconventional troops and information warfare. An invasion of the Baltics through the backdoor is considered to be a serious possibility in the region.

Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors are taking the threat of Russian aggression very seriously. According to figures published by Lithuania’s Ministry of Defense, the country will be dedicating 1.8 percent of GDP to the acquisition of “new combat and combat support capabilities” in 2017, representing an increase of 148.3 million Euros or 25.8 percent compared to last year’s defense budget, which consumed 575.2 million Euros or 1.5% of GDP.

Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have considerably increased their defense spending for two consecutive years, making the Baltics the region with highest growth in defense spending in the world. Their defense budgets are expected to exceed 2 percent by 2018, with Latvia and Lithuania already displaying “the two fastest growing defense budgets in the world since 2014.”

Furthermore, Vilnius reinstated conscription in March 2015, having suspended it in 2008, in order to “enhance and accelerate army recruitment.” This move seems justifiable considering the massive Russian military build-up in the region, particularly in the Russian Baltic enclave Kaliningrad. Located between Lithuania and Poland, troops and materiel have been deployed in growing numbers, including plans to install S-400 surface-to-air missiles and Iskander systems capable of delivering nuclear warheads. NATO has reacted to these developments by amassing troops as well, putting 300,000 ground troops on “high alert,” with preparations to station 4,000 troops on the Russian border in what is the largest military accumulation since the Cold War.

However, even though the Donald Trump surrogate and shadow cabinet member, Newt Gingrich, once quipped that Estonia is a suburb of St. Petersburg and the U.S. shouldn’t get involved if Russia made a move, it remains highly unlikely that Putin would actually attempt to invade the Baltic states. First and foremost, neither Latvia, Estonia nor Lithuania represent the historical or cultural importance to Russia as has Ukraine. It is also crucial to note that, according to the analysis of Doug Bandow, a former Special Assistant to President Reagan, Putin seized Crimea and then only “sought to weaken, not conquer Ukraine.” More importantly, Baltic populations would be fiercely resistant to Russian occupation, as the Lithuanian’s defense booklet demonstrates which would likely involve Russia in a protracted and painful conflict. Russia is unable to fight NATO convincingly, which is why Putin has essentially pursued simple and realistic objectives in Ukraine that were easy to achieve.

The real conflict among Russia, NATO and the Baltic countries is fought on a different front entirely and yet is in line with the Kremlin’s limited objectives in its near abroad. Though unlikely to resort to outright military action, Russia is instead focusing on spreading propaganda throughout the Baltics to sow confusion and fear. In Lithuania, the number of pro-Soviet publications has increased and a similar trend has been observed across the other Baltic countries. Numerous pro-Russian websites and media outlets spreading false facts and disinformation have been created to push the Kremlin’s view. Notably, these efforts are not primarily aimed at mobilizing the Russian populations in these states, since many of them have spent all their lives in their respective Baltic countries of birth and have come to enjoy all the benefits of the European Union. It has been argued that Putin’s approach to information warfare in the region is taken from the pages of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” in which the state leader seeks to create uncertainty about his actions, scaring “a potential enemy into thinking you might just go to war.”

An example of the type of asymmetric threats Russia is putting forward can be found in Belarus, where Rosatom is building a nuclear power plant in the Ostrovets district, much to Lithuania’s dismay. The power plant is located a mere 50 kilometers away from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and is fraught with safety issues. Vilnius has repeatedly asked Russia to clarify the plant’s adherence to safety standards and has criticized the general lack of transparency about the project after various incidents occurred on the construction site, including the collapse of a structural frame and an “abnormal situation” that caused the construction to be suspended. Another major concern is the location of the nuclear power plant which is within a seismically active area, which could contaminate up to a third of Lithuania’s population, as well as cover large swathes of Poland, Germany, Central Europe and the Nordic states with radioactive fallout if the functionality of the plant were compromised in the aftermath of an earthquake.

Though it is unlikely that the standoff between NATO and Russia will escalate into outright military conflict, nevertheless Western Europe is well advised to tread lightly. Even if no “little green men” wearing unmarked Russian uniforms appear in the Baltic States, Russia has begun to hedge its bets by not attacking a country’s soil, but its citizens’ psyches.