Baltic States And Poland Cast A Wary Eye To The East

Lithuania’s president took advantage of the anniversary date for the May 3 Constitution of 1791 to lob a shot across Russia’s bow. While in Warsaw addressing an online session of both Poland’s and Lithuania’s parliaments, President Gitanas Nauseda affirmed that Lithuania will never recognize the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, its military pressure on eastern Ukraine or Russian moves to influence Belarus. “Lithuania will never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea and will be taking steps toward ending the actual occupation of part of eastern Ukraine,” the Lithuanian president said. “Whatever happens, we cannot allow Ukraine to slide back into the past.”

Poland’s president Andrzej Duda also said today that Russia’s actions in Ukraine “must never be accepted.”

The two leaders were joined in Warsaw by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the leaders of Latvia and Estonia to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the joint Poland-Lithuanian constitution. Symbolically, the setting and event were tailor-made to demonstrate the Eastern European unity against Russia’s expansionist actions and desires in recent years. The consensus from Riga to Warsaw is that once Russia is finished with Ukraine, it will set its sights on the Baltics and eventually Poland. Perhaps even before the Ukrainian adventure is brought to a favorable end for Moscow.

Belarus has been a cause for concern recently. From the large-scale unrest and protests following the presidential election last year to Alexander Lukashenko gravitating nearer to the Russian sphere of influence, the nations bordering Belarus suspect that Russia’s ambitions include developing that country into a springboard for future operations against the Baltic states and Poland.

Multiple European Governments Plunged Into Crisis

The past week has seen scandals and government impasse cause two European governments to fall. Another continental nation’s government teeters on the brink of failure, which is more of a political tradition in that country rather than an extraordinarily rare event. The resignation of a large part of a fourth nation’s government appears to be a fait accompli intended to bring about largescale political reforms that will allow the ruling party to remain in power almost indefinitely. By all measures, this has been an extraordinary week in European politics, made even more so by the fact that reporting on all of the above-mentioned political events has been minimal in Europe and around the world. Yet the consequences have the potential to be rather significant.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch government resigned collectively on Friday following a scandal over childcare benefits that saw thousands of Dutch families wrongly accused of fraud by tax officials. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government accepted full responsibility for the scandal and tendered their resignations. Parliamentary elections were already scheduled for March, 2021. The government’s resignation, coupled with the fact the nation is now under a national lockdown due to COVID-19, and the growing need for a post-pandemic economic plan are helping to add a strong note of urgency to the upcoming elections.

Estonia’s government also fell in recent days. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas resigned after a key government adviser was accused of impropriety in the Porto Franco property development. Many other government officials resigned in the wake of this, hoping that their departures will allow the storm to blow over and give their parties time to regroup before the next election. The Estonian president has tasked the head of the main opposition party to form a new government within 14 days. Like the Netherlands, Estonia is facing a deteriorating COVID-19 situation, as well as pandemic-caused economic despair. The political future of Estonia is now precarious, to say the least.

The Italian government is always one heartbeat away from collapse. This time, it is former Premier Matteo Renzi pulling the strings. Renzi has removed his support from Italy’s shaky coalition government, causing two ministers from his Italia Viva party to resign from the government. The heart of the dispute is how the current government intends to spend its share of  the European recovery funds. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte plans to appoint a council of technocrats to manage the funds. Renzi opposes this move. The political maneuvering at present runs the risk of toppling Italy’s government at a time when the country is dealing with its worst recession since the end of World War II, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Russia is the fourth nation on the list that is playing governmental musical chairs. We will talk more about Vladimir Putin’s latest domestic maneuvering later this week as more details come to light.

The political turmoil in three European democracies has arrived at a difficult time. These scandals and political self-interest only weakens the collective image of the EU as its vaccine rollout strategy suffers delays and setbacks. Add to the equation are populations tired of lockdowns and curfews, and another wave of anti-EU political change could become reality by the summer of 2021.

Germany’s Defense Woes Continue

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The combat readiness of Germany’s armed forces has deteriorated significantly in recent years, and it is safe to say the German military is on the edge of a major crisis. Berlin’s efforts to remedy the situation appear to have only worsened it in some instances. Unfortunately for Germany, the problem is no longer simply only a national one. It has become a NATO matter as the consequences of a severely weakened German military will be felt most by the alliance’s three most vulnerable members to the east. The state of Germany’s armed forces is raising doubts about NATO’s ability to defend Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania against Russian aggression.

Germany’s military readiness has become so bad that its latest annual readiness report was classified for ‘security reasons.’ This has never happened before and is leading some German politicians to conclude that the true condition of the Bundeswehr is worse than believed. Another theory put forward is that the report was classified for political reasons. Specifically, to allow Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to survive. She has been under constant fire from critics for her inability to solve the readiness issues. Keeping the German public in the dark about these matters would give von der Leyen some breathing space.

On Monday Germany’s proposed 2020 budget was made public. Military spending will increase, yet still remain below NATO’s 2% of GDP commitment for each member-state to spend on its armed forces. The Trump administration is not happy with this development, and rightfully so. Germany has been dragging its heels on reaching the 2% mark and rectifying its readiness shortfalls for quite some time now. In fact, instead of aiming for 2%, Angela Merkel’s government is just hoping to be able to reach 1.5% within three years.

Germany’s failure to live up to its NATO spending commitments, as well as its weakened military state contradict its emphatic support of the international order. Multilateralism is the cornerstone of German foreign policy, yet Berlin appears entirely comfortable not living up to the commitments it made to the NATO alliance, a multilateral institution. While this is a clear cut  geopolitical example of the pot calling the kettle back, Angela Merkel likely views it as a case of realpolitik where common sense and practicalities prevail.

The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe Part II

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Beyond Ukraine and Crimea, the most probable flashpoint for future Russian military action in Europe is the Baltic states. The eastern expansion of NATO and the European Union into areas formerly part of the Russian sphere of influence was not well-received by Russia. Most Russians view the encroachment, and presence of NATO military forces on their borders as intolerable. Vladimir Putin has used the situation as a rallying cry to whip up nationalism and help solidify his hold on power. Putin views the NATO presence there as a roadblock to his desire to increase Russia’s standing in the world, and influence events in territories once occupied by Russia. Given that Moscow has already used its military to destabilize Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine to keep them in the Russian sphere, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to assume it could happen in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the future.

The Baltics pose a different situation since all three states are full NATO members. If attacked, their NATO allies will come to their aid. After the annexation of Crimea, the United States and NATO have paid closer attention to the easternmost reaches of the Atlantic alliance. Large exercises are held, air policing missions continue, and frequent appearances by US and other allied forces offer a reassuring sight for the population. Yet if push came to shove, neither the US or NATO could move enough combat power to the Baltics to deter or defeat an overt military move by Russia. It’s  a matter of numbers and distances. Russia has its most capable land and air forces in the Western Military District (WMD) as mentioned earlier in this series. This district borders the Baltic States, and the number of available combat units exceeds what the US and NATO have in the immediate area, or what they can generate and move east at the onset of a crisis or conflict.

Despite holding a distinct military advantage over the US and NATO in Eastern Europe, don’t expect Russia to send waves of tanks, and MiGs into the Baltics one day. If the moment arrives when Moscow decides to move, it will be a subtle maneuver, similar to what took place in Crimea. Hybrid war is tailor-made for the circumstances in the Baltic states where the slightest misstep could bring about a major war. The Western Military District has numerous special operations units under its command, and inserting them into the Baltics in the leadup to a ‘crisis’ wouldn’t be terribly difficult. The sudden appearance of ‘little green men’ at key locations, coupled with a series of major cyber-attacks, and riots touched off by ethnic Russians could be enough to destabilize a small nation like Lithuania, or Estonia overnight.

Given the availability of surface-to-air missile batteries, and fighter aircraft in the WMD, Russia can also impose a no-fly zone over the Baltics on short notice. Such a move would hinder the initial US military move in a crisis or conflict, which would revolve around airpower. The US has a respectable number of combat aircraft still based in Europe. This fact has led Russia to base a number of the highly capable SA-21 Growler (S-400) SAM system within range of the Baltics to deny US and NATO warplanes access to the airspace over an area where Russian forces are operating.

With just two  combat brigades permanently based in Europe, as well as a rotating armored brigade, the US would not be able to introduce a large ground force into the Baltics at short notice. NATO is in a similar fix. Revisions, and enhancements need to be made to the US military presence in central and eastern Europe to  redress the present disadvantage. The effort currently underway is not the determined, unified effort that s needed. In the next segment, we will look at US efforts to balance the military scales in Europe and what direction they are moving in.

Upcoming Today’s DIRT Project for January 2019: The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe

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Over the last three weeks the US force level in Europe has become a widely discussed topic in defense, and geopolitical circles. There is concern in Washington, and Brussels that the current level of US military forces stationed in Europe is not sufficient to deter Russia from undertaking military action. The focus is on Eastern Europe, specifically the Baltic states and Poland. Russia enjoys a tremendous advantage in the numbers of troops, armored vehicles, and combat aircraft it has stationed in close proximity to the eastern-most NATO states. The Pentagon is worried that in the event of a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack against the Baltics, or Poland, Russian forces will make significant gains before reinforcements from the continental United States can arrive and turn the tide of battle.

The fact that this subject is receiving more scrutiny is indicative of the Pentagon’s growing concern about Russian military strength in Europe. I personally feel the time has come to examine the current military balance in Europe, and look at options for how the US can increase its military strength in Europe enough for it to be a viable deterrent against potential Russian designs on Poland and the Baltics in the coming months and years.

Towards the middle of the month, around the Martin Luther King holiday here in the US, Today’s DIRT will examine the issue at length and present the findings in a series of articles to be posted here. Last year I did not manage to complete some of the projects I had planned on this topic, and others connected to Russia, and NATO in Eastern Europe. Now in 2019, that is going to change. This will be the first of at least six projects centered on defense matters, and geopolitical flashpoints that Today’s DIRT will present in 2019.

Between now and the middle of January, other areas of interest will be discussed, and presented. However, the military balance in Europe will take precedence in most articles from the middle of the month until early February.