No, Russia is not going to invade the Baltics

The Russian press seems to have had a field day with the recent NATO conference in Warsaw. As is typical for them, they have portrayed NATO’s exercises and statements about the need for solidarity and responses to Russian aggression as “hysteria” and warmongering. This is rather amusing because at the same time many of these pundits are constantly screaming about “NATO encirclement” of Russia while ignoring the fact that Russia has far more troops on the border now than NATO does, even after the increases since 2014. But oddly enough, on a certain level they have a point. If you are not Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova, you don’t really need to worry much about Russian aggression, at least not directly.

As some have pointed out recently, Russia’s strategy is based on appearing to be far stronger than it actually is. While half the time pro-Kremlin pundits point and laugh at the supposed alarmist tactics of NATO officials, Russian media often spends the other half talking about how powerful its military forces are and how they could easily conquer the Baltic countries and defeat NATO conventional forces. Sadly it seems some people pay attention to the latter type of propaganda and then fall right into the Russian trap.

I’m by no means the first person to point this out, but let me make it clear- Russia is not going to intentionally go to war with NATO. They are not going to invade the Baltic states. All the while these same pundits talk about how close we are to WWIII, but when a Russian military plane was actually shot down by a NATO member state last year, what actually happened? We got roughly six months of impotent buttrage and then Vladimir and Recep kissed and made up so Russia can get tomatoes and Turkey can get drunk Russian office plankton on its beaches.

Here’s why Russia isn’t going to invade the Baltic states- it has nothing to gain and everything to lose. In the case of Ukraine, it was a neutral country already within their sphere of influence. The economies of both nations were extremely intertwined, and when you look at the role Ukrainian firms played in Russia’s defense industry, at a time when Russia’s military standardization and modernization reforms were in full swing, you can understand why they were willing to gamble so foolishly on an attempt to maintain this relationship.

Putin and his cronies probably never expected any sanctions or at least serious repercussions from the West at the time. Why would they? The West is where these men hid their stolen fortunes, whether in banks, holding companies, or real estate. While Putin’s claim that Crimea represented “holy land” for Russians was laughably spurious, the holy land for Putin’s elite was no doubt London and various other pricey Western locales. Even from a military standpoint it’s clear that the operation to seize the Crimea went forward simply because the Russian authorities, after carefully testing the waters, saw that they could get away with it.

If we look at the wider war in Ukraine, the motive here is pretty obvious too. The basic goal is to prevent Ukraine from successfully building a functioning, prosperous democratic state at all costs. The Kremlin says Russians are too stupid to take part in the governing of their own affairs. It says they are inferior to Western people whose own political participation is usually not too far beyond that which Russians are allowed to enjoy. So what do you tell your people when they look across the border from Voronezh or the Rostov region and there are millions of Russian-speakers (the Kremlin holds that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people) who are somehow able to enjoy the most basic fruits of Western democracy and what is more, who can travel freely in Europe? On that note the destabilization and destruction of Ukraine serves another narrative purpose- “Don’t protest. Obey the legitimate government no matter what. If you protest you’ll get chaos.” In short, Russia is doing all this to Ukraine because it can, for reasons which are on some level logical, however immoral and reprehensible they might be.

By contrast, what is to be gained from invading the Baltic states? A propaganda coup? Would it really be worth it when the same results could be accomplished with some photo ops or state-sponsored concerts? Alarmists say that the Russian forces could easily defeat the NATO forces currently stationed there. Okay- but at what cost? They moved in the Crimea once they established that there would be no resistance, and this was largely the case. In the Donbas they could rely on proxies and volunteers who wouldn’t be missed in Russia. Even if a Russian invasion force managed to defeat the NATO defenders in the Baltic, it would suffer far more casualties, actual, acknowledged Russian military casualties, than in the Crimea or Donbas. I would not be surprised to see them lose more than they did in the entire war in Ukraine so far. And while there would be a massive campaign to whip up patriotism and glorify the conquest, those dead soldiers have families. The message to every one of them is: “this will cost you.”

And that’s not even talking about sanctions and other measures against Russia. Say goodbye to SWIFT. Say goodbye to virtually any Western investment. The Russian elite will see their assets seized and frozen en masse, which pretty much negates the whole purpose of being part of the Russian elite. And what about arms sales to Ukraine? NATO would start giving the weapons away. Much of Russia’s best forces are tied down in or on the border of eastern Ukraine, and then you’ve got another significant portion tied down in Syria. Taking troops out of Ukraine or off the border leaves the puppet states in the Donbas vulnerable to an offensive, and they’re a juicy target because Russia can’t claim that it was attacked here. NATO, with the help of Turkey and other allies in the region, could launch an all-out attack on the Assad regime and Russian forces stationed in Syria, all while closing the Bosphorus to all Russian shipping. What is Russia going to do then? Invade Turkey? Of course in any scenario they’ll scream and shout about their nuclear missiles, but deep down they know that the launch of one nuke means the end of Russia and much of human civilization as they know it. That and the Russian elite doesn’t want to fry its own children in London, New York, or Paris.

The Russian economy, which is slowly sliding downhill now, will basically go into free fall, and a significant portion of the Russian population will be faced with a choice- stand up for your rights and demand change or starve to death. This is that point that Russia’s current leadership keeps forgetting throughout their country’s history- the point where all that rhetoric about Russians enduring anything indefinitely is revealed to be bullshit. 1905, 1917, 1991, 20xx…

Essentially it would seem that NATO leaders are falling for Russia’s so-called “reflexive control,” and falling hard. Russia makes a lot of noise with exercises and airspace violations, Baltic nations get scared and call for more troops, and then the Russian media says they’re paranoid, reacting to a phantom threat, and warmongering against Russia. Putin needs “NATO encirclement” to look real. The second a majority of people in Russia stop believing in the NATO conspiracy against Russia, they will turn their gaze toward the real enemy of Russia- the government. And this is where NATO countries should focus their attention when it comes to threats.

The Putin regime’s actions and style of government pretty much guarantee widespread instability and chaos in the Russian Federation at some point in the future. When that time comes, Eastern European nations will be faced with a terrible crisis. Massive migrant or refugee waves, organized crime, arms trafficking, and human trafficking from the struggling, possibly fracturing Russian Federation will challenge these states. It is not a resurgent, revanchist Russia bent on restoring the Soviet Union that the NATO countries should be worrying about- it’s the collapse of Russia that is a threat to the region.


27 thoughts on “No, Russia is not going to invade the Baltics

  1. AndyT

    Also, if Russia ever attacked the Baltic States, it would somehow force its non-Western allies to take sides – for example, what about China, whose own mantras are “stability”, and “respect for national sovreignty”?

    A war involving its main partners would be quite nightmarish for Beijing – which like most big economies is having its difficulties, too, if I’m not wrong.

    Russia’s BRICS partners have managed to keep a balance so far – but if they were to make a choice, would they really endorse Moscow agains the U.S. and the EU?

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This is an excellent point. If China wouldn’t risk recognizing the Crimean annexation, why would they be willing to go into an all out war with the West for the sake of Russia? From their POV it would be better to either let Russia get trounced or, even go against her at an opportune moment to seize land or force more unequal trade deals onto Russia.

      1. gbd_crwx

        To quote Mel Brooks:

        “I don’t want war! All I want is peace…peace…peace…!
        A little piece of Poland,
        A little piece of France,
        A little piece of Austria
        And Hungary, perchance!
        A little slice of Turkey
        And all that that entails,
        And then a bit of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales!”

        (And yes I know Godwins law and all that 🙂 )

  2. gbd_crwx

    Well I athough I guess some part of this posturing as you say is for domestic consumption in Russia, I wonder if it can’t at the same time be some doublethink. Nonetheless I think there is a lack of understanding on both sides.

    I can fuly understand the Baltic republics and central european countries rushing to join NATO,since there seems to be a genuine fear of Russian imperialism there, and vice versa. While at the same time a lack of understanding how one’s own actions are viewed.

    For example the case of Russian speakers in Estonia. That the estonian government saw those people as an attemp to russify the Baltic states is fairly obvious, but it was hardly fair to deny them citizenship and if a more soft part had been taken, a majority of them would just have considered themselves estonians with Russian ancestry and propaganda about Russians fairing badly in the Baltics. On the other hand I fail to understand how Russians think practising Nuking Warzaw in 2009 and Sweden in 2013 is going to help relations.

    Secondly, what is often disregarded when reporting about that famous report about Russia winning easily is that not much would be needed to rectify this. Probably it would be enough for the european NATO-countries to actually spend 2% of their GDP on defence, and if that is not enough, see if there is some american or german Surplus that can be given/sold cheaply. Than there would be a Streangthening of the defence without and “eastward movement” of troops.

    1. AndyT

      Yes, a chain of provocations and overreactions are not likely to defuse such tensions.

      Most Eastern European Countries have been fighting Russian nationalism with their own jingoism – in turn fueling even more hysteria on both sides.

  3. gbd_crwx

    Well, what do you mean by provocations, deliberate provocations or actions that might be seen as provocations but not meant to be. Also considering what happened post WWII, you might understand their antipathy.

    1. AndyT

      I mean the latter kind, in most cases.

      The WWII and decades of Communist rule have severely affected the feelings Eastern European people; however, the Soviet era has ended, and rallying behind right-wing, ultra-nationalist figures and discourse can only give Russian authorities more “evidence” they have to fight against Ukraine, to defeat “Fascism” once again…

      1. gbd_crwx

        On the other hand, from what we have seen from Ukraine, the Russian media don’t seem to need much for their propaganda

  4. Asehpe

    Russia certainly wouldn’t attempt an invasion of the Baltic states, but why not an indirect, deniable attack as in Ukraine? They could get the Russian speakers of the area to revolt (the Latvian ones in Latgallia look like the obvious targets), if need be with some smuggled-in leaders, and then keep giving them support while denying that this is happening. You’d probably get a stalemate rather than a full conquest, but:

    (a) the Russian press would get to say that ‘Russians are fighting against oppression’;
    (b) they would embarrass NATO, if the attack is really kept deniable;
    (c) if they are any reactions, Russia could claim victim status. “So now NATO intervenes to deliberately oppress people who are just fighting for their rights — and we are to blame?” etc.
    (d) this might eventually influence Baltic governments to become more favorable to Russia, out of fear of escalation (like Armenia, and, to a lesser extent, Moldova, or even Georgia).

    If it’s well prepared, why not?

    1. gbd_crwx

      Maybe, but wouldn’t this also require the Baltic republics to be totally unaware? Part of the “success” (well kind of ) in Ukraine must have come from Ukriane being in Chaos from revolution and also the European union being unprepared for someone to use military force to change borders

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This wouldn’t work. For one thing, the Baltic states are expecting this and they’ve trained for it. What a lot of people forget about Ukraine is that it worked largely because of the poor state of the Ukrainian military and corruption. In Crimea they didn’t do anything to resist even when they had massively overwhelming strength, and many Ukrainian personnel went over to the rebel side, including officers. In the Donbas there was a similar problem- corrupt or incompetent police and SBU officials refused to storm the buildings promptly, when the crowds were barely armed. Where officials acted promptly and professionally, you didn’t see a takeover.

      1. Asehpe

        Interesting. Do you have any references I could consult about the Baltic states actually being prepared for this eventuality? (I mean, I have seen a lot of people writing in Latvian news portals expressing fear about this possibility, but I don’t know of any measures or strategic plans by the Baltic governments to actually react in the eventuality of this situation ever becoming real.)

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    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I don’t think it will change much. Last I heard before I went to bed, the coup supposedly failed (I’m writing this before checking Twitter), and Turkey’s had plenty of coups in the past. If anything this will affect the war in Syria, but not in the Baltic.

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  7. TG

    Such an interesting and intelligent commentary.

    While I find much to agree with here, there is another angle to the picture:

    When the late unlamented Soviet Union finally fell apart, Neoliberal vultures from the United States took over and proceeded to strip mine Russia of all resources and turn Russia into a de-facto slave state. Look it up: under the influence of the ‘democratic’ West, Russian life expectancy plummeted in a way that is without precedent for an industrial power not at war. Putin – thug though he may be – reversed that process. If the average Russian sees the West as an enemy, and Putin as a patriot, well, we in the West have only ourselves to blame. We would do well to remember that.

    When the Soviet Union fell, we had so much goodwill, and we threw it all away so that Larry Summers and his ilk could make a quick buck… what a criminal loss of opportunity for the West.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Unfortunately that narrative is essentially a fairy tale. Don’t feel bad though, because I too bought it for many years.

      First of all, when you talk about the decline in living standards, you have to factor in several things like stagnation and Perestroika. Living standards were already on the decline at that point. For some people Perestroika was worse than the 90’s. In the 90’s if you had money you could get what you needed; in Perestroika you often couldn’t whether you had the money or not.

      In any case, these “vultures” didn’t come from the United States. All across the Soviet Union, managers and other people with privileges used their leverage to strip enterprises of assets and sell them off. Later on, similar individuals used the voucher system to buy up enterprises on the cheap and sell the high.

      Should the West have been more careful about accepting the dirty money that these people hauled out of the country by the suitcase? Sure, but then again this was somewhat unprecedented for them.

      To get a better detailed look at the process, I recommend reading The Piratization of Russia by Marshall Goldman. It deals with the all the different types of oligarchs and how they made their money. What you see is that this was not something engineered by the West- but something that came from late-Soviet society.

      Obviously Western advisers gave very bad advice and they gave Yeltsin a free pass to do whatever he pleased (including kill his own citizens and build the authoritarian system that Putin inherited), but the simple fact is that Russians had agency and the West didn’t force them to strip assets and rob their own people.

      Now as for Putin, he was involved in this kind of low level corruption while he was in St. Petersburg. When he became president he basically pardoned the entire Yeltsin family. He did not get rid of oligarchs- he merely replaced old ones with his people and institute a new rule- steal what you can but stay out of politics.

      So no, we don’t have only the West to blame. There are other countries that experienced difficulty after the fall of the “socialist” regimes and yet they managed to avoid the kind of horrors that occurred in Russia.


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