Our Next War Debate

My blogs normally address some kind of religious issue, and this one, strictly speaking, does not. What I do want to discuss, though, unquestionably has massive implications for ethics as much as politics. How exactly are we going to respond to the likely prospect of international crisis within the next couple of years, when that crisis stands an excellent chance of evolving into military conflict? How will we respond to the threat of war? How should we?

Looking around the world, several obvious threats face the US, and the amount of attention they receive does not necessarily reflect their objective seriousness. At the height of the power of the Islamic State, I reckoned it about number five in a league table of likely menaces. More serious was, and is, the danger from North Korea, which has the capacity to use nuclear weapons against the US, and Iran, which is working toward that goal. Even if they don’t deploy nukes, their conventional arsenals could wreak terrible havoc, especially when supplemented by guerrilla warfare and terrorist actions. At the top of the threat table are two nations with nuclear weaponry sufficient not just to harm the United States, but to devastate it utterly, namely China and Russia. (They would be destroyed in their turn, but that is small compensation). It would be difficult to choose which of those situations poses the greater danger, and rivalries in the South China Sea could make the Pacific Ocean a lethally dangerous place within the next two to three years. All these feature in a fun article by Robert Farley in a recent National Interest on “Five Places World War III Could Start in 2018.”

In this post, I am going to discuss a situation that is presently little known or appreciated in the US, but it may nevertheless be the area where US and Russian forces are most likely to come into direct violent confrontations, with a high potential for nuclear escalation. I am thinking of the Baltic Sea region. In describing this situation, I very much hope that what I say will in a few years be looked at as groundless panic-mongering. On the other hand, you might just find it useful to follow next year’s headlines.

Here is the problem. In 1991, the former Soviet Union broke up in to its fifteen constituent republics. The present regime in Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, deeply regrets this fact, and has vowed to reverse it by active measures. The most significant aspect of this policy occurred in 2014 in the newly independent nation of Ukraine, when pro-Russian forces effectively annexed sizable border territories, including the militarily vital Crimea. The fact that the West remained so quiescent in the face of this aggression sent a powerful message to Putin, assuring him that future moves would be treated just as mildly.

Just how the Russians played this situation demands careful study. At no point did a Russian army or navy threaten Ukraine, nor were Russian forces explicitly involved. Rather, activism notionally stemmed from ethnic Russian groups within Ukraine, who demanded to be protected from an oppressive and essentially fascist Ukrainian government. They formed parties, movements and militias, which campaigned for secession. They were supported by mysterious and well armed paramilitary units, the so called Little Green Men, LGMs. In fact, the whole operation was directed and organized by Russia, operating through front groups, and the LGMs were obviously Russian military forces. But that thin subterfuge gave Russia deniability, so that the West could never accuse them of invasion, and thus threaten military retaliation. Actions on the ground were powerfully supported in cyberspace, by devastating cyber attacks on Ukraine, and by the overwhelming deployment of Internet propaganda and fake news.

Combine cyber-warfare, conventional military actions, and paramilitary dirty tricks, and you have what we call hybrid warfare. Get used to the term, you will be hearing it a great deal.

All of which brings us directly to the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. From 1919 to 1940, all were independent nations, but in 1940 all were subsumed into the Soviet Union.The Nazis conquered them, but the Soviets took them back and reintegrated them into the USSR. During the process, the Baltic peoples fought a vast and prolonged anti-Communist guerrilla war that lasted into the mid-1950s, a heroic struggle that remains all but unknown in the West. Tens of thousands perished. Wikipedia notes that “Proportionally, the partisan movement in the post-war Baltic states was of a similar size as the Viet Cong movement in South Vietnam.” (I don’t expect Ken Burns to cover this one any time soon).

The Soviets then regained their power, and the Baltic Republics shared the ups and downs of the post-Stalin USSR, During that time, the republics were (by Soviet standards) relatively prosperous and Westernized, and they never lost their national identity. In 1991, all three resumed their independence. Crucially for the present argument, they entered wholesale into Western and European identities. All joined NATO, which means that NATO allies have an obligation to defend them if they are attacked or invaded. They joined the European Union, and accepted the Euro currency, aligning them with the core nations moving towards full European union. To that extent, they are as European as Italy or the Netherlands.


This image is in the public domain

It might be useful here to give a sense of the scale of territory we are talking about. If you look at a map of the Baltic sea, you will see the three nations I have mentioned, and also to their west, a small patch of land to which I shall return shortly, which is the small detached Russian territory of Kaliningrad. Taking the four lands together makes up about 74,000 square miles, roughly the size of Nebraska. About 6.5 million people inhabit these lands.

Assume that Vladimir Putin or a likely successor decides to appropriate some or all of the Baltic states, applying the same methods that worked so swimmingly in Ukraine. (Trust me, they have the contingency plans ready to go). The potential for such action is extremely encouraging, especially in terms of Russian minorities who can be represented as victims in urgent need of protection. During the Soviet years, many ethnic Russians took up residence in the Baltic lands, and their descendants remain – around one million in all. All three nations thus have sizable Russian minorities – Latvia (26 percent), Estonia (25 percent), and Lithuania (6 percent). Some of these populations are heavily concentrated in particular regions close to a Russian frontier, as in the far north east of Estonia, and the eastern portions of Latvia, around the nation’s second city of Daugavpils. (This region also borders on the Russian ally of Belarus).

If I were Vladimir Putin, I would be viewing these regions greedily as the core of a future secessionist and pro-Russian land, whose inhabitants were clamoring for reunion with Mother Russia. The sizable Russian population around the capital of Riga itself poses a special difficulty for Latvia, which would be the obvious target for a Ukraine-style assault.

Presumably, we would see the same 2014-style script, of ethnic Russian movements and groups, supported by Little Green Men. We can also more or less write the propaganda surrounding the campaign, which would likely focus on charges of Nazi sympathies among the leadership of the Baltic states. Given the extraordinary technological orientation of nations like Estonia, the Russians might be harder pressed to launch successful cyber-warfare, but they would certainly attempt it. In the non-electronic world, Estonians and other Baltic peoples have formed militias and private armies ready to resist a Soviet occupation, as they did back in the 1940s.

You may also recall that mysterious bit of ground called Kaliningrad, which was formerly known as Königsberg, best known as the home of Immanuel Kant. When the Baltics seceded in 1991, this area became an oblast, a physical territory belonging to Russia, although separated physically from the nearest Russian soil by some four hundred miles. It thus presently stands between Poland and Lithuania. It matters so enormously because it is the center of Russia’s still potent Baltic Fleet, which has major ice-free ports at Kaliningrad itself, and at Baltiysk. In the event of a secession crisis in the Baltic republics, Russia has excellent means to intervene directly should it so choose, and (more likely) to deny the area to assistance from Western forces. An awful lot has been written in late years of Anti-Access/Area Denial, A2/AD, and the Russians are very good at it.

A Russian move against the Baltic republics would pay multiple dividends. Most essentially, it would reassert Putin’s most heartfelt goal of restoring the Soviet Union, with himself as unquestioned master, the heir to Stalin. But it would also provide a critical strategic test for the two institutions that most conspicuously stand in the way of Russian expansion, namely NATO and the European Union. If the West failed to respond to such a direct attack on a member of both circles, it would effectively leave Europe detached from the United States, and largely dependent on Russian good will.

Always recall the old semi-joke about NATO’s chief functions: it’s there to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. The Baltic gambit would defeat two of those goals at a stroke.

No less significant, such a move would pose very limited risks for the Russians. If the Baltic secessionists won, that’s wonderful news for the Kremlin. If they lost and were suppressed, well, we Russians had nothing to do with them, and they were a purely internal Latvian or Estonian matter. We deny everything.

Low risk, high potential gain. Why not try it? It’s a question of when rather than if.

The only slight caveat here is that the Ukraine outcome has been somewhat more time-consuming and difficult than Putin first imagined, which might encourage a degree of caution in the Baltic. Where a Baltic move would be irresistible would be if the US and NATO were totally focused on some other global confrontation, with North Korea or Iran. In that case, the world’s media would have little attention to spare on the Baltics.

For the sake of argument, imagine that a Ukraine-style crisis developed in Latvia, with intensive use of hybrid warfare. What would NATO do? What would Europe do? This situation would be radically different from Ukraine because now we are dealing with a nation bound to Western nations by close formal ties of treaty and law. Ukraine was not. Baltic leaders have said repeatedly that they would regard the appearance of Little Green Men on their territory as demanding the invocation of the NATO Treaty’s Article 5, so that other nations (including the US) would be required to come to their defense. At the same time, one could argue that this was not a genuine Article 5 situation, because Latvia was not facing an actual Russian invasion, but rather an entirely spontaneous and autonomous upsurge by disaffected citizens and minority groups. And who really knows who those Little Green Men might really be? (They are of course Russian soldiers and special forces, but let’s say that very quietly, or we might end up having to go to war).

Adding to the pressure on Western nations would be the unspoken Russian nuclear threat. In recent exercises, Russian forces have made dummy nuclear runs against Warsaw and Stockholm, while threatening nuclear attacks on Copenhagen. Last year, the Russians moved nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into the Kaliningrad enclave, within easy reach of multiple EU capitals. Ultimately, then, any decision to resist an effective Russian re-annexation of Latvia (and then the other two republics) would be a matter for policymakers and political leaders within the United States, the only nation with the possible ability to face down the Russians.

What happens then, I have no idea. I can already hear the two sides of the debate.

Isolationists and Doves: Are you prepared to risk nuclear war for Latvia? For Latvia? Can you find it on a map? It’s not our business. We aren’t the world’s policeman. We have so many problems at home.

Interventionists and Hawks: But if you don’t stand up to the Russians now, NATO will effectively collapse. Who would trust our word on anything tomorrow? We are facing a re-run of 1939, and this is no time for appeasement.

Given current political splits in the US, the debate would very soon get to the issue of whether the administration was cooking up a crisis for its own partisan ends, to distract attention from internal discontents.

And then there is the debate within Europe itself. After Russia reabsorbs the Baltics, would they turn their attention to restoring the old Warsaw Pact? Poland would likely be next for intimidation. What happens to the European Union?

Those debates might rage at an intellectual level. But there is always the possibility that rival ships or aircraft will tangle with each other in the Baltic, with the loss of Russian or American lives. And then the crisis becomes deeply dangerous.

So here is a diplomatic riddle. Where in the world is more frightening than the South China Sea, or Syria, or North Korea? It has to be the Baltic.

What better way to wish everyone a happy and prosperous 2018 ….


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