An important lesson from the Caucasus conflict is that NATO has to be able to surmount Russian naval power anywhere in the mandate area in order to defend its post-soviet newcomers against Russian aggression. The most vulnerable NATO members are the Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - strategically locked between their mighty neighbor’s mainland and its military stronghold of the Kaliningrad zone.
In any conflict involving Russian aggression toward the Baltic states, the Baltic Sea provides a crucial operation theater and access corridor. And - as was the case in the Caucasus and the Black Sea - Russia has an advantage over NATO forces and can prevent a contingency operation.
The bulk of NATO forces protecting the Alliance's eastern flank are located in Western Europe. The US Army V-Corps is stationed in Germany and the NATO Response Forces are rotation-based. In times of conflict some units may be located as far away as Spain or southern France. The Baltic Sea is the default route of relocation. But Russia has an enormous strategic asset: the Baltic Fleet and relatively large land and air forces in the Kaliningrad zone.
A Rand Corporation study of 2002 concluded that “for the United States and its allies, the greatest anti-access in-theater vulnerability is concentrated in the area of the Baltic Sea. If Russia could find a successful combination of mines, submarines, and air-launched anti-ship missiles, it could potentially deny NATO forces access to the eastern Baltic Sea.” In the analyzed scenario a limited Russian operation against the Baltic states was launched on the grounds of protecting a Russian ethnic minority.
Russia may not be as strong in the Baltic as it is in the Black Sea - with the mighty missile cruiser Moskva - but it has enough fire-power and capabilities to prevent NATO from quick deployment in the Baltic states. With Sweden and Finland being neutral, Germany and Denmark concentrating in the North Sea and western Baltic, the only NATO navy close to the theater of operations is the Polish navy. And it is no match for the Russian Baltic Fleet.
Poland's naval capabilities have been on the decline since the early 1990's. Its firepower dropped dramatically from 16 missile attack ships in service to only 3 small missile vessels. The only larger ships in service are two obsolete US-granted OHP-class frigates, equipped with Harpoon missiles. Poland had plans to strengthen its navy with 6 new corvettes, but failed to build even one.
NATO has to make a full and credible commitment to defending its outer-circle member states. Reinforcing the Baltic states with defensive measures will only have limited effect, as they are not able to sustain under Russian attack for more than a day or two. In order for any NATO contingency to succeed, the Baltic Sea must be controlled by strong NATO navies and air forces. Otherwise, the collective defense clause may be impossible to implement.
Marek Swierczynski is a journalist with a special interest in defence and security matters and and a member of the Polish Euro-Atlantic Society.
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- Marek Swierczynski:Dead End in Sight for Poland's Missile Defense Site
- Alexandros Petersen & Ryan R. Miller: The Polish-Lithuanian Tandem