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2019.06.21 18:00

NATO eroding Russia's military trump card in Baltics

BALTOPS 2019
Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt2019.06.21 18:00

With Spanish jets flying overhead, US, Romanian, Polish and Spanish and other NATO troops landed on Baltic beaches from two amphibious strike groups. The scale and speed of such operations had not been seen in the Baltic states before.

Just recently, the only regional power able to deploy large numbers of troops within days was Russia. Now, the capability balance around the Baltic states is shifting.

Read more: Focus on military mobility marks shifting deterrence priorities in the Baltics

The renewed US 2nd Fleet reached its initial operational capability just months before deploying for BALTOPS 2019 exercises, following almost a decade-long hiatus after its dissolution in 2011.

Standing on a beach in Lithuania, US 2nd Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Andrew L. Lewis, told LRT English that “it’s certainly in my mission” to “come forward” and deploy in the Baltics again, if need be.

“I’m a maneuver arm for [US] naval forces in Europe,” he said. “My mission is to be expeditionary, deployable, operational headquarters that can command and control forces that are assigned to me.”

Alongside BALTOPS presence, the US has announced plans to deploy 1,000 additional rotational troops to Poland – still falling significantly short of the Fort Trump pushed for by Poland.

Demonstrating capabilities in the Baltic sea region

While still surpassing NATO’s posture, Russia may perceive US actions as escalating regional tensions.

Russia staged its own drills in parallel to BALTOPS, while its jets circled over NATO ships, intercepted Swedish and US reconnaissance planes, and the Russian navy mirrored the allies’ ships out at sea.

Despite avoiding incidents, the interactions are more common than reported, according to Lithuanian and US officials.

Vice Admiral Lewis stressed that the 2nd Fleet’s mission is to “convey commitment,” and that he does not believe Russia will see it as escalation. The fleet’s presence during BALTOPS, according to him, is meant to build partnerships that “ultimately guarantee deterrence”.

The 2nd Fleet was revived in August 2018 in response to growing great power competition and the emergence of near-peer adversaries – Russia and China – according to the then Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and other US officials.

“The difference is now the changing relations [between the US and Russia],” Steffi Yo, Deck Division Officer told LRT English aboard the USS Fort McHenry.

So-called war at sea exercises during BALTOPS, which involves groups of ships and submarines facing off against one another, “was also done previously,” said Steffi Yo, but now “we obviously reflect” the changing politics.

The choice of the Baltic states for the amphibious landing operations is highly significant.

The reason was straightforward – to make sure the deterrence factor really hits home, according to Lieutenant Commander Alex Dwarshuis, a Dutch exchange officer in the US and a key organizer of the exercise.

“If we chose Germany or Sweden, assurance factor wouldn’t come across – especially in the eastern Baltics,” Lt. Com. Dwarshuis told LRT English.

So far, Russia has only reacted to the announced additional US troops in Poland, maintaining its internal narrative of US forces edging closer to Russia via NATO and the Baltic states.

“It will not remain without an answer,” said Leonid Slutsky, Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs in the Russian State Duma, in June, “the Russian military will present response measures.”

Russia’s regional trump card is eroding

Dr Pavel Luzin, professor at Russia’s Perm University and an expert on international politics and defence, told LRT English that the “Kremlin tries to say to Europe: ‘Guys, you're stronger, but we are faster, and the main US forces are far from here.’”

NATO has previously said Moscow is seeking to create a "zone of influence through military means,” including in the Baltics.

The Russian authorities, according to Dr Luzin, “understand that NATO forces need significant time to be fully deployed,” which is why the Kremlin “relies on fast deployment of its own forces”.

However, the speed of deployment, a key aspect of Russia’s power in the region, may now be significantly challenged and subsequently mirrored by the NATO forces in the region.

Russia’s main response, according to Dr Luzin, is to continue with asymmetric capabilities, seeking opportunities for “political pressure on the whole of Europe”.

Seeing its regional trump card of deployment speed eroding, however, could see Russia eyeing further steps in the Baltics.

Yet even deploying more classical deterrence measures – additional nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad – may be impossible, according to Dr Luzin, as there simply is “no infrastructure for it”.

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