"Russia's recent aggression against Ukraine has disrupted nearly a generation of relative peace and stability between Moscow and its Western neighbors and raised concerns about its larger intentions. From the perspective of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the threat to the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — former Soviet republics, now member states that border Russian territory — may be the most problematic of these. In a series of war games conducted between summer 2014 and spring 2015, RAND Arroyo Center examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The games' findings are unambiguous: As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members," the analysts said.
"It can be hoped that Russia's double aggression against Ukraine is the result of a unique confluence of circumstances and that it does not portend a more generally threatening approach to the West. However, President Putin clearly appears to distrust NATO and harbor resentments toward it. His rhetoric suggests that he sees the Alliance's presence on Russia's borders as something approaching a clear and present danger to his nation's security. Aggressive acts, angry—even paranoid—rhetoric, and a moderate but real military buildup combine to signal a situation where it may be less than prudent to allow hope to substitute for strategy," the RAND researchers said.
According to the report, Russian forces knocking on the gates of Riga and Tallinn in two or three days would present NATO leaders with a set of highly unattractive options.
"The leaders and people of the Baltic states, who would need to decide whether to defend their capitals, would confront the first quandary. Quality light forces, like the U.S. airborne infantry that the NATO players typically deployed into Riga and Tallinn, can put up stout resistance when dug into urban terrain. But the cost of mounting such a defense to the city and its residents is typically very high, as the residents of Grozny learned at the hands of the Russian Army in 1999–2000. Furthermore, these forces likely could not be resupplied or relieved before being overwhelmed. Whether Estonia's or Latvia's leaders would choose to turn their biggest cities into battlefields—indeed, whether they should—is, of course, uncertain," the report reads.
The second and larger conundrum would be one for the U.S. President and the leaders of the other 27 NATO countries. A rapid Russian occupation of all or much of one or two NATO member states would present the Alliance with three options, all unappetizing.
First, NATO could mobilize forces for a counteroffensive to eject Russian forces from Latvia and Estonia and restore the territorial integrity of the two countries. Under the best of circumstances, this would require a fairly prolonged buildup that could stress the cohesion of the alliance and allow Russia opportunities to seek a political resolution that left it in possession of its conquests.
Even a successful counteroffensive would almost certainly be bloody and costly and would have political consequences that are unforeseeable in advance but could prove dramatic. Any counteroffensive would also be fraught with severe escalatory risks. If the Crimea experience can be taken as a precedent, Moscow could move rapidly to formally annex the occupied territories to Russia. NATO clearly would not recognize the legitimacy of such a gambit, but from Russia's perspective it would at least nominally bring them under Moscow's nuclear umbrella.
The second option would be for NATO to turn the escalatory tables, taking a page from its Cold War doctrine of "massive retaliation," and threaten Moscow with a nuclear response if it did not withdraw from the territory it had occupied. This option was a core element of the Alliance's strategy against the Warsaw Pact for the duration of the latter's existence and could certainly be called on once again in these circumstances.
The third possibility would be to concede, at least for the near to medium term, Russian control of the territory they had occupied. Under this scenario, the best outcome would likely be a new cold war, with the 21st century's version of the old "inner German border" drawn somewhere across Lithuania or Latvia. The worst be would be the collapse of NATO itself and the crumbling of the cornerstone of Western security for almost 70 years.
"Fortunately, it will not require Herculean effort to avoid such a failure. Further gaming indicates that a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades — adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities — could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states," the report said.
The RAND report appeared a day after the White House said it would propose quadrupling what it spends on its troops and training in Europe.
"Taking measured steps to bolster NATO's defensive posture in the Baltic states is not committing the United States and Europe to a new Cold War and does not signal irreversible hostility toward Russia. It is instead due diligence that sends a message to Moscow of serious commitment and one of reassurance to all NATO members and to all U.S. allies and partners worldwide," RAND's research said.
This research was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of the Army and conducted the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.
RAND Corporation (Research ANd Development), founded in May 1948, is considered to be the world's first analytical center. It is a U.S.-based nonprofit global policy think tank originally formed by Douglas Aircraft Company to offer research and analysis to the United States Armed Forces.