The Bear Looks West – Prepping for an Invasion of the Baltics and a Conflict with NATO?

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This article is a follow-up to an 18 December 2017 article written by Daniel Deyo titled “Bear in the Woods – Prepping for Invasion” for that correctly analyzed Russia’s recent creation of several operational-level command units, suggesting that Russia was preparing for an invasion of Ukraine – should a political decision be made to do so.  In that article, he outlined that Russia’s efforts to occupy Ukraine would be done in three phases, with the current war being phase three.  Daniel also predicted that if an operational-level command formation were generated near the Baltics, it would indicate Russian plans to prepare for the fourth phase, an invasion of the Baltic States, again if a political decision was made to do so.

According to the United Kingdom’s Defense Intelligence, Russia’s Ground Forces have begun a recruitment drive to staff a new operational-level command unit, the 44th Army Corps, to be garrisoned in Luga in the Leningrad Military District.

Placing the new army corps in Luga is significant because it would allow for an advance into the Baltic States from either side of Lake Peipus.  The army corps could enter Estonia from the north direction at Narva or into Northern or Western Latvia from Pskov in the South.  It is more likely that the 44th Army Corps would take the southern direction, with the St. Petersburg-based 6th Army advancing on Northern Estonia via the Narva direction.  The probable strategic goal of a southern advance into Western Latvia would be to join up with Russian Spetsnaz and airborne troops and Belarussian ground forces to liberate the largely Russian-speaking population in Western Latvia near the city of Daugavpils before advancing on to Kaunas and Vilnius.

Once these cities were captured, the combined Russian-Belarussian forces would head south to join Russia’s 11th Army Corps operating out of the Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarussian forces fighting for the strategic Suwalki Gap in Lithuania.  This gap is the only land bridge that connects the Baltic States to NATO partner Poland.  The strategic Suwalki Gap has been fought over in several wars because of its importance as a logistical and communication corridor.  Whatever side controls the Sulwaki Gap will control the strategic initiative in a conflict for the Baltics.

In 2017, the Russian General Staff probably did not calculate that any conflict in the Baltics would include Swedish and Finnish participation in defending the Baltics. This is now something they consider. As such, at least one more operational-level command formation will likely be created elsewhere in the Leningrad Military District, probably at Vyborg. Should a new operational-level command unit be created along the Finnish border, it will be a key indicator of Russian intentions.

Of course, any conflict between Russia and Belarus with NATO over the Baltic States would have disastrous consequences for international trade and business.  This includes Liquid Natural Gas, fisheries, shipbuilding, and lumber, among other commodities that would not reach the West.  Therefore, companies should keep an eye on Russian Ground Force generation in the Leningrad Military District as an early indicator of Russian intentions.  Suppose Russia forms an additional operational-level command unit and the necessary maneuver brigades and divisions. In that case, it will indicate that the Russian General Staff is preparing for war, should a political decision be made to do so.

Notwithstanding, Russia continues touting its military readiness by establishing the 44th Army Corps in Luga, signaling a firm stance on not backing down.

Russia is also likely to keep a close eye on the developments in Gaza, especially regarding managing its public image.  Considering that Israel initially had moral justification to respond to Hamas, it gradually lost support from progressive circles in the US and Europe.  Hamas has been more successful in its information campaign than Israel, which has significantly affected public opinion.  Russia might aim to mimic this approach of narrative control in any potential confrontation with Western nations.  Notwithstanding, Russia continues touting its military readiness by establishing the 44th Army Corps in Luga, signaling a firm stance on not backing down.  Leveraging this, Russia might employ “active measures” through media and social media tactics to foster a peace/intervention movement in Europe, focusing on Germany.

It appears that Russia and Belarus intend to reinstate Soviet-style governance in Eastern Europe.  A Russian victory in Ukraine might lead to negotiations that could pressure the Baltic States to remove foreign military forces, thereby consolidating Russia’s influence over the Eastern Bloc.  However, the relevance of the Baltic States’ NATO memberships has diminished for Russia following Finland’s entry into the alliance, which may deter or motivate further escalations.  This delicate balance could be further destabilized by recent statements from Sweden, Poland, and Estonia, each raising concerns over Russia’s preparation for a possible conflict with NATO.

While the possibility of Russia initiating an attack on NATO remains uncertain, it is unlikely that Russia would use tactical nuclear weapons at the outset.  Instead, Russia may deploy thermobaric weapons via hypersonic missiles, achieving nearly the same level of devastation but without the broader ramifications of deploying nuclear arms.

Daniel Deyo is a subject matter expert on the Soviet/Russian military and the author of two books. Legions of the East: A Compendium of the Russian Army of the First World War and Legions of the Tsar, Russian European Infantry Regiments on the Eve of the Great War.