Storm Clouds Gathering on the Horizon For Georgia

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With international attention presently centered on Iran and the Persian Gulf it comes as no surprise that recent events in Georgia have been overlooked. Protests broke out in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on 20 June after a Russian MP delivered a speech from the speakers chair in the Georgian parliament. This act was viewed as deeply offensive by the Georgian people, and the political opposition. Thousands of citizens took to the streets to demonstrate and the protests swiftly grew violent. The incident in parliament unleashed a torrent of anti-Russia feelings which had been festering among the people. Georgia’s current government has been viewed as being overly receptive to Russian political and business interests, much to the dismay of the Georgian people.  Clashes erupted between protesters and police, resulting in over 250 people being injured.

It is no secret that anti-Russia sentiment runs deep in Georgian society. The brief 2008 Southern Ossetia conflict, and subsequent loss of Southern Ossetia, and Abkhazia contributed greatly to the feelings. Since 2012, Georgia’s government has been led by the Georgian Dream party. GD has moved to restore economic and political relations with Russia, although many Georgians now view these moves as placing their nation back in the Russian sphere of influence.

Russia’s response to the protests has been eye-raising to say the least. State media issued warnings that Georgia is not safe for Russian tourists, and that there have been some attacks on citizens in recent days. The warnings came on the heels of Russian President Vladimir Putin placing a temporary ban on flights to Georgia effective 8 July, 2019. On the surface, Russia’s response appears proportionate to the events which took place last week.

Concern materializes with the realization that the present Russian moves are strikingly similar to what took place during the leadup to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. It began with the discovery of a somewhat obscure and veiled threat facing Russian nationals and citizens living in or visiting Crimea. From there events continued on, gaining momentum until one morning there were Russian troops on the ground ostensibly to protect Russian citizens on the peninsula.

There seems to be a possibility that Russia could be planning something similar for Georgia in the near future.

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.

The Baltics: Out On A Limb

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Notwithstanding their security arrangements, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania resemble ripe fruit fresh for the plucking. The Baltic states are NATO members and enjoy the benefits and assurances that come with alliance membership. In the event of an overt attack upon one of them, Article 5 guarantees that their NATO allies will render aid. Article 5 was a major selling point for the Baltic states when they considered joining NATO. The ‘all for one’ premise was not simply window dressing or an empty promise to Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians. With Russia in such close proximity, the former Soviet republics needed a security guarantee.

NATO membership has not dissuaded Vladimir Putin from eyeing the Baltics covetously and wanting to bring them back into the Russian sphere of influence. As 2017 approaches, the Baltics appear even more vulnerable. The conditions for Russian involvement in the Baltics are becoming favorable. Action, in this instance, would be a hybrid war campaign instead of a more conventional military offensive.

The Baltics have to contend with peculiar geography, and ethnic realities. Two of the three nations are semi-cut off from the rest of NATO. Latvia and Estonia are both bordered by Russia to the east. The third nation, Lithuania, shares a common border with Poland that could serve as a corridor for reinforcements in the event of a crisis. Unfortunately, this corridor is flanked by Kaliningrad to the northwest and Belarus, a Russian ally, to the southeast. Geographically, the positions of the Baltics are untenable at best.

All three Baltic states are home to sizeable ethnic Russian minorities. Latvia’s total population is 26 percent Russian, while Estonia’s is at 24 percent. Lithuania’s, by contrast, hovers at 6 percent. There is much official and unofficial suspicion and concern about the Russian minorities and whether their overall allegiances lay with Moscow or Riga and Tallinn.

When scrutinized, the geography and ethnic make-up of the Baltics provide favorable conditions as well as an excellent foundation for Russia to begin a hybrid war operation. Russia shares a border with Estonia and Latvia, ensuring an unfettered logistical pipeline to support the material needs of pro-Russian insurgents in the event of a local or regional uprising. The main component for such an uprising is already in place in the form of the ethnic Russian minority. It is from this group that fighters and soldiers would come from, and perhaps be aided unofficially by Russian military advisers on the other side of the border. The challenges imposed on the Baltics are not dissimilar to those faced by the Ukraine in early 2014 shortly before the annexation of Crimea and the start of fighting in the Donbas region. That is not to say that because of the similarities with Ukraine a hybrid type of conflict will certainly erupt in the Baltic states at some point in the future. However, the possibility is there and needs to be taken seriously.

 

The Role of NATO

There is no set definition for hybrid warfare. In a nutshell, it is a combination of elements combined together by an aggressor to achieve a political goal while avoiding acknowledgement or retribution. Conventional warfare, insurgency, cyberwarfare, propaganda, political coercion, and criminal activity are a handful of the more popular facets of hybrid war. They have been implemented to varying degrees of effectiveness by Russia in Ukraine, Hezbollah in its 2006 conflict with Israel, and by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Should one or more of the Baltic states find themselves in a hybrid war situation and invoke Article 5, how the rest of NATO will respond is up for debate. The Baltic states, as previously mentioned, largely view Article 5 as their firewall deterrent against future aggressive Russian action. Yet, because hybrid war can be devised to appear as an internal conflict, insurgency, or civil war, there is concern in the West that Article 5 might not be applicable. The fifth clause of the Washington Treaty of 1949 states that “an armed attack on one or more [members] shall be considered an attack on all” and that alliance members will aid the nation being attacked quickly. During the Cold War, there was little question of its meaning or of the fact that the overt attack was expected to come from the Soviet Union. Now in the 21st Century, as Russia is flexing its muscle, increasing defense spending, and threatening to expand, Article 5 has come full circle. Once again, the primary threat to the alliance is Russia.

Russian action in the Baltics would likely not be a conventional invasion, so how obligated is NATO to intervene militarily upon an Article 5 invocation by one or more of the Baltic states? The truth is that NATO is not compelled to furnish a military counter. The response may include military force but it is not mandated. In fact, NATO is only obligated to take ‘such actions as it deems necessary’ to restore and maintain security. This could mean anything from a formal diplomatic protest to sending forces into combat to assure the sovereignty and security of the Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.

The greatest challenge for NATO will be defining the parameters of what is an attack and what is not. In the Baltics a hybrid war could involve inciting ethnic tensions, a social media engineered propaganda campaign, or a justification for action by Russia in the form of a terrorist attack against ethnic Russians that was staged by the Russian government. What might seem to be an intolerable and obviously armed attack by the Baltic states is not guaranteed to be viewed the same way by Brussels, London, Berlin and Washington DC. Presently, NATO is placing much effort into being able to respond effectively to a Baltic call for help, but the alliance members have to agree when an aggressor has actually crossed the line and initiated an attack. As we have seen with the Ukraine situation, not every NATO member will view the situation with similar views. Granted, Ukraine is not a NATO member, yet it is unrealistic to assume that at least some NATO members will not have similar reservations about using military force in the Baltics. What happens when Paris and Washington favor the immediate deployment of forces to Latvia, let’s say, while London and Berlin are not so certain? Make no mistake about it, a request to invoke Article 5 in response to a hybrid war brings with it the very real potential of causing a fracture in NATO.

 

The 21st Century West Berlin?

Just like West Berlin during the Cold War, the Baltic states today are serving as the easternmost outpost of NATO influence and power. They are three democratic, sovereign nation-states with NATO membership situated on an indefensible patch of real estate and in close proximity to Russia and Belarus. The amount of Russian military power within striking distance cannot be ignored or dismissed from the equation. Should Russia choose to invade Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, or all three, the fight would be over before NATO could deploy enough reinforcements to the region. In a manner of speaking, the Baltic states are at the mercy of Vladimir Putin.

West Berlin was in a similar fix from 1945 to 1989. In some ways it was worse off, while in others the opposite was true. Berlin was a tiny dot of blue surrounded by a sea of red, situated directly in the heart of East Germany. Like the Baltics, it’s existence was at the mercy of the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin. The ground and air links to the city could have been closed at any time. Had the Cold War turned hot East German and Soviet forces would’ve pushed into West Berlin from every direction.

The city wore many hats. It was made symbol of freedom, as well as Allied unity and determination by the Berlin Blockade and Airlift through to the Berlin Crisis of 1961. The survival of the city was directly linked to the survival of the West and NATO. West Berlin was a bargaining chip too. Nikita Krushchev attempted to use the survival of the city to the Soviet Union’s benefit on more than one occasion with mixed results. Beyond everything, however, Berlin was a flashpoint. When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 it very nearly sparked an East-West confrontation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most pivotal moment of the Cold War, there was concern that if the US had launched an invasion of Cuba, the Soviet response would be to invade West Berlin.

Right now the Baltics do not serve as a symbol of freedom or determination for NATO leaders or to their people.  In truth, they are painful reminder of the grim realities of geopolitics and the attached dangers. A sliver of sovereignty that holds the potential of being a spark for a continent-wide conflict or worse. To NATO military planners Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are nations that are nearly indefensible but require a concerted NATO effort to defend them if the time comes. If the times comes when the Baltics find themselves to be threatened, NATO will find itself at a critical juncture and be forced to make a decision which could shape the future of Europe for better or worse.

 

Defending Poland: Could Hybrid War Work In Poland?

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Poland has a long history of conflict. Since the 13th Century, the territory that now encompasses Poland has been stage to countless engagements between armies. From minor Tartar raids in the 17th Century to the German Blitzkrieg in the 20th Century, the landscape of Poland has been soaked with the blood of soldiers from many armies. Now, with storm clouds building in the east, Poles are facing the possibility that another war is coming and that Poland will once again be forced to fight for her survival.

If there is one guarantee in the realm of military planning it is the inability to accurately foresee the shape and direction that a potential future conflict will take. From the moment that forces cross the line of departure and the shooting begins, all of the intricate plans, timetables, and schedules that form a respective side’s war plan become obsolete. War is an event that takes place on a stage of fluctuation. The flow of a conflict never plays out precisely as one predicts it will. The most effective war plans are the ones with enough flexibility to allow a commander to effectively adapt to an ever changing situation.  History provides countless examples of armies that were defeated in large part because they were attached to rigid, inflexible pre-war plans and doctrine.

With this in mind, constructing a picture of what a future NATO-Russia conflict in Poland might look like is no small endeavor. Most of the wars fought thus far in the early 21st Century have been low intensity conflicts far removed from the traditionally conventional conflicts that more or less marked the 20th. Aside from the initial US invasion of Iraq there has not been a true conventional military campaign with frontlines, well defined objectives and political goals. Post-invasion Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, for examples, were or still are insurgency/counter-insurgency types of war where a conventional army has to adapt to fight an irregular, but very capable non-conventional foe. Then there is Hybrid War which has been used by Russia in the Ukraine and to a lesser degree by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Hybrid Warfare (HW) is a concept that is much talked about in recent months. On the surface it appears to be a flexible, low-cost method to wage war and achieve a stated political goal for a nation-state or non-sovereign player. A more precise definition of HW is the mixture of conventional military, irregular, criminal, economic, and disinformation efforts brought together to achieve a political objective. There are a number of other definitions for HW in circulation too. Unfortunately, most of them are put forward by journalists who have a limited knowledge of all things military. In their eyes, HW appears to be a revolutionary combination of conventional and unconventional warfighting measures. The war in eastern Ukraine has popularized the idea and led many in the media to label it as a revolution in military strategy. This is not the case.

Russia has yet to achieve success through the use of HW in the Ukraine. The arming and supplying of pro-Russian separatists, a massive propaganda blitz, and even the obscure addition of a limited number of Russian troops has not brought a decisive victory. The war in eastern Ukraine is mired in stalemate. The Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republic are still unrecognized states and Kiev has not backed down or sought negotiations. As a stand-alone doctrine, Hybrid War has failed.

So, can Russia use the same strategy in Poland and succeed without attaching it to a conventional military campaign? The chances are slim. Poland does not have a large number of ethnic Russians as the Ukraine does. There is no core group for Russia to use to incite internal strife as in eastern Ukraine. Even in the north, around the periphery of Kaliningrad, the number of ethnic Russians on the Polish side is relatively small. Any attempt to bring about an insurrection will have to come from the outside and the chances of success are low. Russia could implement other elements of HW like cyber attacks, terrorist tactics and propaganda against Poland, but again, the chances of them succeeding without conventional military forces in support are slim. Poland is not the Ukraine. The ethnic divides that threatened to tear Ukraine into pieces does not exist in Poland. Russia is a threat in the eyes of most Poles and the government in Warsaw recognize the dangers posed by Moscow and their responses have been very proactive. Last but not least, Poland is a member of NATO. In the event of Russian meddling, Poland’s allies will come to her aid in one form or another.

Soviet Army literature throughout the later years of the Cold War called for sabotage, political assassinations, deep strikes and acts of terror as the lead up to a Soviet invasion of West Germany. In the event of a Russian invasion of Poland, expect the same tactics to be implemented in the days and hours leading up to an invasion. However, these tactics and others in similarity will not bring about a Polish defeat and capitulation on their own. For that to happen, the Russian Army is going to have to cross the border in force.

The next installment in the Defending Poland series will be published on Monday, 26 June, 2015. In this article we will take a look at what a conventional attack against Poland could look like.