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Is Russia really going to attack NATO?

Polish Army servicemen of NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia with their battle tanks PT-91 participate in military exercises Namejs and Silver Arrow in Adazi polygon, Latvia, 29 September 2023.
© EPA-EFE/VALDA KALNINA   |   Polish Army servicemen of NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia with their battle tanks PT-91 participate in military exercises Namejs and Silver Arrow in Adazi polygon, Latvia, 29 September 2023.

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Warnings about a possible Russian attack against NATO have increased lately. Is the threat imminent, or is it just being used to increase readiness?

Warnings to the European public: you must be ready for war

In recent months, the politicians and military of several European countries have called on the citizens of their countries not to rule out the possibility that war – or its consequences – may be coming their way.  

Lieutenant General Martin Wijnen, Commander-in-Chief of the Dutch army until his resignation on January the 1st, 2024, has stated the Netherlands and its society must prepare for a possible war with the Russian Federation. “The Netherlands should be seriously afraid of war, and our society should prepare for it [...] The Netherlands should not think our safety is guaranteed because we are 1500 kilometers away [from Russia] [...] There is only one language that Russia understands, and that is one of a strong military,” announced Wijnen in an interview with Dutch media “De Telegraaf”. Besides, he urged Dutch people to make stocks of food and drinkable water.

The Swedish Civil Defence Minister Carl-Oscar Bohlin called to work more for the modernisation of the Swedish Civil Defence system. “Many have said it before me, but let me say it with the force of my office – there could be a war in Sweden” Bohlin warned. He was supported by the Swedish Commander-in-Chief Micael Byden: „On an individual level, you have to prepare yourself mentally [...] Look at the news from Ukraine and ask yourself the simple questions: if this happens here, am I prepared? What should I do?”

These announcements had an earthquake effect in Swedish society. While some Swedish people welcomed these announcements saying that this is a realistic point of view, others accused the politicians and officials of spreading fear. For instance, Swedish child protection group BRIS said its hotline had been saturated with calls from worried children.

Similar comments have been heard also from German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius who warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could attack NATO in less than a decade, and from Belgian army chief Michel Hofman who estimated that Putin’s next attack could target the south of Moldova or the Baltic States. Finally, the head of Poland’s national security agency noted that Russia could attack NATO countries within three years.

Experts and think tanks have been issuing warnings as well. The Washington–based Institute for Study of War wrote that Putin has been intensifying the rhetoric against the Baltic states, setting the stage for potential “future escalations”. Recently, Putin criticized Latvia for its immigration law, as around 1200 Russians were forced to leave the country because their residency permits were not renewed under the new rules. At the same time, the think-tank acknowledged that it hasn’t found any indications that Russia plans to attack the Baltics soon. However, Putin’s comments on the situation in Latvia were similar to the ones that Russia expressed before the invasion of Ukraine, accusing Kyiv is committing the „genocide” against ethnic Russians living in Ukraine.

Also, the tabloid Bild published a scenario considered by the German military according to which Ukraine is losing war against Russia and Moscow starts cyber attacks in the Baltic States and moves its troops closer to the Baltics in Kaliningrad and Belarus. The end goal is to move Russian troops into the Suwalki Gap which is around 80 km long and connects Poland to Lithuania. Thus, the Baltics would be cut off from Europe.

A threat exaggerated in order to kick start military preparations?

The Suwalki invasion is just a training scenario, according to Marcis Balodis, a researcher at the Centre for East European Policy Studies in Latvia. Worst-case scenarios need to be considered, but they are not necessarily based on intelligence says the expert, who thinks that the buzz created around the Suwalki scenario was a bit exaggerated.

Former NATO Secretary General George Robertson also feels that the Russian threat to NATO may be exaggerated, and he mentioned the relentless Russian propaganda as one of the possible causes. He reflects on a poll that suggested that a majority of Hungarians, Romanians, and Bulgarians believe providing weapons to Ukraine “provokes Russia and drags their own countries closer to the war […] Instead of the West being nervous of Russian escalation, something that they’ve maxed out already, we need to breed in the military hierarchy in Moscow the worry that if they overdo what is being done in Ukraine then an actual and not fictitious war with NATO might be the result; a war that they know they could only lose,” explains Robertson.

NATO countries understand that their armies need more money. Politicians know that, so they need to mobilize society. “They are trying to make the threat, which is quite serious for the Baltics, bigger than they are. Belgium or the Netherlands are unlikely to be attacked. Here it is rather a question of the need to help the Baltic States. The threat is a little condensed, but it is not a lie [...] It is completely legitimate to say that Russia can do something bad in the future. But if you want to kick-start the military industry, then you have to talk about the threats, which is happening right now [...] One has to create a justification [to invest in the army]” Toms Rostoks, an Associate professor at the University of Latvia and senior researcher in the National Defence Academy of Latvia told Veridica.

Marcis Balodis notes that since the full-scale Russian attack on Ukraine, the feeling of threat has changed. On the one hand, it is good, because people pay more attention to international affairs, but on the other hand – “the heightened perception sometimes turns into a certain paranoia”. There is a dissonance in strategic communication - politicians are saying that there are no threats but at the same time people are called to be ready for something. In these cases, people are confused because it is not clear – are we under threat or not? Besides, Russian politicians and propagandists are threatening other countries and sometimes these threats cause anxiety in foreign countries, especially in the Baltics.

Latvia: we have to be ready for everything, but rationally. A Russian attack in the Baltic region, possible but not likely in the near future

The alarm raised in Latvia by the wave of warnings was high enough for the president Edgars Rinkevics to feel that he needs to answer. On 17 January, Rinkevics wrote on Facebook that “the situation in Europe and the world is complicated, it is difficult to predict the development of events even on an annual basis, therefore we have to prepare for all scenarios without a sense of doom; we do it thoughtfully and rationally”. The president listed several measures Latvia has taken or must take to strengthen its security: for example, strengthening the border with Russia and Belarus, the development of military industry and its production in Latvia, a tougher attitude towards crimes against the state, and others. “Latvia is a member of NATO and the EU, there are no other better security guarantees for us and other countries in the region. At the same time, the responsibility for our country lies primarily with us. Without questioning the readiness of our allies to defend us, we must be able to do so first, in order to expect additional support at the possible X hour. The better prepared we are, the less likely is that Russia will attack,” wrote the Latvian president.

The defense ministers of Baltic States signed in January an agreement about the construction of „anti-mobility defensive installations” on their eastern frontiers. The politicians also agreed to develop missile-artillery cooperation. Estonia has announced that it will build 600 bunkers along its border with Russia, Toms Rostoks, stresses that infrastructure is one of the most important problems when it comes to defending Baltics. Just one example: the bridge in the Salacgriva – a Latvian town near to Estonian border – is in very poor condition. So, here comes the question of how allies will help Estonia if this strategically important bridge is in a catastrophic state.

The possibility that Russia in a foreseen future could attack Europe or the Baltics is low, according to Toms Rostoks. He says that theoretically, Russia could understand that now is the best moment for an attack on the Baltics since Western country’s stocks are quite empty. „In the coming years, the military capacity of NATO and the West will increase, and the number of men and women in uniforms will increase [...] but it is still in the process,” says Rostoks.

The war in Ukraine is more and more trench warfare and Russia doesn’t need all the troops it currently has in that country just to hold positions along the frontline. Theoretically, they could be deployed to the Baltics. However Rostoks thinks that NATO’s  policy of deterrence, which has worked for almost 75 years, is likely to continue to work. Hybrid war or operations against the Baltics are more realistic but the outcome would be more NATO soldiers next to Russia’s borders, according to the expert.

Marcis Balodis admits that “Russia is and will be the source of threats. To say that Russia is incapable of starting something is unjustified. Russia has a tendency to be stronger than we think but it is not as strong as it claims [but] even if Russia has enough resources to launch an attack against the Baltics, it does not mean that […] it is going to take a risk”. He reminds that Russia has been considered stronger than Ukraine but it was not capable of proving it on the battlefield. Besides, even if the war ends today, years will be necessary to renew the stocks of weapons, human resources, and economy of the country.

Overall, Toms Rostoks believes that these discussions are good for the Baltic States because the allies are more active. However, if discussions are too loud, some investors or tourists could decide not to come to the Baltics.

Balodis, on his side, reminds that Russia likes to speculate on what it calls the split in NATO. But as proved by the invasion of Ukraine, plans made at home may not work when faced with a determined enemy. “Russia tends to put together their opponents instead of reaching its aims,” concludes Balodis.

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Kaspars Germanis

Kaspars Germanis




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