Russia’s New Challenges in the Baltic/Northern European Theater Russie.Eurasie.Visions, No. 130, Ifri, November 2023
The long war in Ukraine has brought a drastic geopolitical reconfiguration of the Baltic theater and a deep shift in the military balance between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Russia has effectively lost its position of power and the capacity to threaten its neighbors with projections of military power, and while for many Western policy planners these changes appear unnatural and transitional, in Moscow they are perceived as both unacceptable and irreversible.
Already in the first phase of its invasion into Ukraine, the Russian high command found it necessary to redeploy the most combat-capable units, including the Air Assault Division and the Marine Brigade, to the key offensive operations, while the Baltic Fleet dispatched its amphibious capabilities to the Black Sea. In the ongoing phase of defensive battles, these units are fully engaged in countering the Ukrainian counter-offensive, so that “Fortress Kaliningrad” is left without most of its garrison. The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO has undercut Russian strategic planning, in which the Baltic and the Arctic theaters were separate directions under different commands, and particular goals in exploiting military superiority, which is currently lost. Russia has gained unrestricted military access to Belarus, but the shortage of forces limits the usefulness of this alliance, while the deployment of non-strategic nuclear warheads amount to a very troublesome combination.
Whatever the scope of the outcome of the war, Russia will not be able to rebuild a position of military superiority in the Baltic theater or even to set an approximate balance of forces with NATO, which is implementing a new plan to strengthen its posture in this reconfigured direction. Moscow might rely on “deterrence by punishment”, assuming that many Western urban centers are within the reach of its Kalibr and Iskander missiles, but it may also opt for greater reliance on nuclear weapons, which can be deployed to Kaliningrad. These measures cannot alter the strategic reality of Russia’s irreducible vulnerability, so a new post-Putin leadership, whatever its composition, might find it necessary to moderate or abandon completely the track of militarized confrontation with the West and to seek opportunities for restoring cooperative patterns, for which the Baltic region is the most promising interface.
Dr Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). He is also a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., and an Associate Research Fellow at Ifri, Paris.