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  • Writer's pictureRed Line Producer

Episode 56. Could NATO Defend the Baltic States?

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With Russia becoming increasingly brazen on NATO's Eastern flank, the Baltic nations aren't looking as secure as they once were. Could we see another unofficial invasion of the Baltic states by Russia's little green men, and if so how would NATO respond? This week we sit down with our panel and talk through NATO's Baltic defence plan, and what needs to change to be able to guarantee the safety of NATO's Eastern frontier.



Mathieu Boulègue

  • Research Fellow for the Russian and Eurasian Program at Chatham House

  • Author of several fantastic papers on Russian and NATO Defence Doctrines

Thomas Graham

  • Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

  • Co-Founder of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Program at Yale University

  • Former Special Assistant to the President of the United States

  • Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council Staff, managing the White House-Kremlin Strategic Dialogue, where he was Director for Russian Affairs

David Shlapak

  • Senior Defence Researcher at the RAND Corporation focusing on the Return of the Great Power Competition as the Defining Characteristic of the Global Security Environment

  • Currently working on the Future of US Missile Defences, Considerations of Introduction of Nuclear Weapons into US Defence Planning, and the Technological Aspects of Long-term Competition with China.


Part 1: Prime Real Estate (4:10)

  • Boulegue helps us understand the exact nature of the commitments and defence arrangements between the United States, NATO members, and each respective Baltic state. While discussion of the region often groups them together, in fact there are key political, military, organisational differences between them, which must be understood to come to terms with the nature of defence policy in the region.

  • We look at the likely danger to these states; one that is raised regularly by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as by Poland. That Russian "Little Green Men" will engage militarily in the country in an unofficial capacity, and undertake a campaign like the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

  • Moving from the theoretical to the practical, Boulegue outlines exactly what Russian aggression would look like, with civilian defence and the terrain making traditional ground warfare likely very difficult. The specifics of cyberwarfare operations that would be required, the anti-air capacity needed to deny NATO air superiority, and non-conventional tactics like sabotage and unusual aerial forces.


Part 2: The Pocket (27:27)

  • Graham takes us through the dangers to the United States and NATO in attempting to defending the Baltic states.

  • The Suwalki gap is the only way for NATO to enter the Baltic states, but is also the only route for Russia to reinforce Kaliningrad, its exclave which houses crack Russian troops and highly advanced military capacities. We look at the importance of this road in the wider context of the geographic challenges inherent in defending the Baltic states

  • We tackle the question of US domestic support. Several years ago, a study indicated that only 16% of Americans could point out Estonia on a map. To what extent is the US domestic populace likely to support a war, and how will that impact US decision making or tactics in the event of conflict? Graham highlights the high general support for NATO, and the fact that this has been a question since the very formation of the organisation, and is already baked into the many scenarios planned by NATO staff.

  • Graham outlines the likely scenarios that would lead to war, and the escalation thereafter. Would an invasion of Estonia mean all-out war on every front? And would that ever happen unprovoked?


Part 3: Commitment Issues (47:06)

  • Shlapak takes us through the wargame scenarios played out by the RAND Corporation and the US military a few years ago about how the Baltic could be defended.

  • This includes examining what seasons work best for Russian military aggression, what types of equipment are most useful and likely to be used in the event of conflict, and the Russian control over much of the electricity going into the Baltic States.

  • We run through a few scenarios, tackling questions about how many troops should be stationed in the Baltics given the danger of being cut off, how effective NATO air power will be given the enormous amounts of anti-air capacity in Kaliningrad and Belarus.

  • We also discuss the potential for Swedish NATO membership, whether NATO forces in the Baltics should immediately go on the offensive or dig in and defend capitals and ports, and whether NATO should attempt to attack Russian air bases or not.

  • Finally we round out by looking at Shlapak's s recommendations for improving NATO's outlook in the Baltics. This includes the specifics of rearming and reorganising existing US divisions, creating NATO composite divisions, adding Anti-Armour munitions, anti-radiation missiles, infrastructure destruction preparation in the Baltics, and improving NATO artillery technology and deployment.


The Red Line's Baltic States Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of NATO's defence of the Baltic States.


The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace

Oscar Jonsson

The Modern Russian Army 1992-2016

Mark Galeotti

Margins for Manoeuvre in Cold War Europe

Laurien Crump



For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon members James Hunt and T Swan.


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