The Baltic Coast has descended, again, into a quandary against the backdrop of the placement of the Iskander Missile System in the Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. Concerns about Russian attempts at “nuclearisation” are increasing in its backyard. This move, which has already invited skirmishes and diatribes in the region, is bound to have varying repercussions. The implications of this altered strategic landscape can be decoded under the following heads: Was Moscow’s action a reciprocation to any geopolitical stimulus? Does it hold the prospects of escalating risks in the region? If so, are there options available to minimise the expected tensions?
Emerging Strategic Quagmire
The move comes at a time when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is expanding its wings across the Baltics. The US interests in this region are purely guided by NATO’s commitments to its member states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Washington is apprehensive of the Russian revisionist tendency that seeks to retrieve the erstwhile Soviet territories, and which caused alarm bells with the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The consequent fear among the NATO countries over the likelihoods of further aggressive policies by Russia had induced the former to redevise its style of presence on its eastern flank.
The White House has been wary of the fate of their Baltic counterparts, which were once part of the former USSR. A check over the security of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius has been brought within a first-of-its-kind deterrence mechanism. The deployment of an enhanced four-battalion sized troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as decided at the NATO Summit at Warsaw (2016) reflected a change from the earlier policy of “reassurance” as promised at the Wales Summit (2014) against possible threats posed by Russia. The galloping presence of NATO in the Baltic Republics since the Crimean annexation under the pretext of joint-military exercises and drills had already been a perplexing concern for the Russians.
NATO vis-à-vis Russia: an Offensive and Defensive Equation
The installation of 9K720 Iskander, a short-range and nuclear-capable tactical ballistic missile system, in the Kaliningrad; home to the Baltic Sea Fleet, during the first week of October 2016 can be viewed as the materialisation of a belated, but apt, reaction. Nonetheless, the Kremlin underplays fears about a possible nuclearisation of Baltic sphere and a direct military confrontation against the West. The placement of this mobile missile system reveals the chances of relocation in due course and it has been projected as part of the routine military drills of the Russian Armed Forces. Despite this claim by Moscow’s defence ministry, the NATO members see this as a provocation. Iskander with its range of 440 miles brings even Germany, a NATO member, within its scope of target.
The arrival of an E-3A AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft on 13 October at the Siauliai airbase in Lithuania was a natural counter-reaction of NATO. The situation seems to be even more tense when seen in conjunction with the altercations between the US and Russia over the ongoing Syrian War.
Solutions as Uncertainties
Should Russia invade any of these Baltic NATO allies on its western border, the alliance would have no option but to invoke Article V of the treaty that sanctions a collective action against the aggressor state. By considering the precedents of failures with regard to non-coercive measures such as sanctions that were adopted in the wake of the Crimean annexation, a military response is what the NATO might rely upon in a next crisis. The Iskander-M, which is known as SS-26 Stone in the NATO circles, has been placed as a reaction to the US missile establishments in Poland. What makes the alliance suspicious is the hesitance of Moscow to be transparent in its policies with respect to the region. Apart from that, the military geography also stands in favour of Russia in the event of a conventional battle. According to a report of the RAND Corporation, the optimum time that the NATO could buy, in a hypothetic crisis, to avert the entry of Russian forces into the Baltic capitals is 60 hours. It is also unthinkable to ensure the presence of a permanent combat troops from NATO countries on the eastern flank owing to the lack of unanimity among the member states. Therefore, what seems feasible as of now is the stationing of rotational troops across the region in defence of the Baltics. NATO would also have to consider an additional withdrawal of forces from Germany to Poland and beyond as conventional deterrence continues to be the only means for tackling a Baltic crisis. As a mutual withdrawal from force-restructuring and postures is unlikely, the only effort that can prevent NATO and Russia from a collision is to let the deterrence-building measures continue without any disruption.