In the light of recent aggression of Russia towards Ukraine and exponential increase of tensions
between Moscow and NATO allows suggesting that Kremlin is aiming for the long-term
confrontation with the possibility of further escalation.
The most obvious targets for the future aggression are Poland and the Baltic countries. In this
the report we argue that Kremlin is very likely to launch a war in the region, most likely in the nonconventional
form, in order to achieve intersecting goals:
1) To deprive Poland of status of emerging regional power;
2) To compromise NATO in a way, that may eventually lead to weakening of the block and
its factual dissolution in the mid-term perspective.
Perspective of Poland
Developments in Poland that were taking place during the last 10 months allow thinking that
country’s ruling elites prepare for mobilization and confrontation.
New Polish PiS government is composed primarily of nationalists and Eurosceptics, who stand
for strong Poland, more independent and strong within EU and more closely aligned with the US.
We do not intend to discuss the controversial legislative changes and administrative decisions
that have taken place in Poland during last 6 months, but it should be noted that they aim at
the concentration of power in the hands of the government and strengthening of its support base.
The way that new government prefers to make important political decisions makes thinking
about “constitutional coup”, which usually precedes very active foreign policy. And that means
inevitable confrontation with Russia as the part of Kremlin’s strategy of maintaining status quo
and confronting all ways to change it.
Poland’s deepening involvement in NATO’s affairs is also one of the character traits of the new
government. Polish increase in military expenditures did take place before new nationalist PiS
government was formed, but the latter has intensified these long-term processes. But the ascend
of PiS was a clear indicator of the making of new, more independent and pro-active Poland, which
takes a confrontational stance towards Russia, opposing it in the region and beyond – recently
expressed willingness of Poland to take part in NATO’s war in the Middle East could have been
influenced by a desire to counter Moscow, that emerged as one of the power brokers in the Syrian
crisis. That would be an expansion of the role of Poland in the region, where the country already
represented US diplomatic interests in the Syrian conflict and fought as NATO member in
Afghanistan. Though this is not a primary reason for conflict between Russia and Warsaw, we
should add that in these affairs Poland acts on behalf of forces, which Kremlin perceives as
hostile or unfriendly – that might add the additional reason for confrontation.
Essentially, this turn in Polish policy was the result of revanche on behalf of country’s
nationalistic elites that have lost most of their power and influence on April 10th of 2010, when
the tops of the establishment have died in the plane crash in Russia under questionable
circumstances. The latter fact is currently used by Polish ruling party to justify nationalistic
policies. The likelihood of the crash will depend on the ability of PiS to stay in power and being
able to pursue the foreign policy goals it is aiming for at the moment.
In recent years Poland was successful in establishing itself as capable and respected regional
power of huge significance. The latter is partly due to the fact of being the leader of EU’s
«Eastern Partnership» programme which is based in Poland and which aims at integrating former
post-Soviet republics in EU sphere of influence. One of the huge foreign policy successes for
Warsaw was Belarus, with which Poland has established successful and deep relationships.
Given that Kremlin sees Belarus as strategically important borderland against real and perceived
threats, in the long-term perspective Russia will clash with Poland for the control over Belarus.
The latter, being a limit rope state, can take a bargaining position and balance between EU and
Russia for some time, very much like Ukrainian government did before the events of
Euromaidan. However, Ukrainian example shows that such position is hardly sustainable and it
could later lead to the political unrest and the subsequent conflict between pro-EU and pro-Russian
parts of governing elites. So, possible unrest in Belarus may serve as a catalyst for
Russo-Polish conflict in the future when or if Lukashenko’s regime will face major crisis, that
will threaten current status quo and have major implications for foreign policy agenda of Russian
and Polish stakeholders.
However, it should be noted that level of intensity of conflict between Moscow and Warsaw and
its further escalation depends on 2 crucial factors, which are intertwined:
1) PiS’s will continue to stay in power. As it was noted earlier this party is the primary
the driver behind Poland’s regional ambitions. Tragic death of Polish political elite in 2010
did not cause a conflict of any sort between 2 countries – new Polish administration, back
then headed by future President of the European Council Donald Tusk, have chosen not
to escalate tensions between 2 countries, signaling a shift in Polish policy towards closer
European integration and the working relationships with Russia.
Since then an up to PiS electoral victory Poland did not have in power people who would
argue fiercely for the expansion of USA/NATO military presence in Eastern Europe –
like the deceased president, Lech Kaczyński did along with other associates of his amongst
those who died in 2010 plane crash. His brother Jarosław Kaczyński is PiS’s chairman
and represents interests of more nationalistic elites.
Perspectives of party stepping down in future are not guaranteed because PiS emerged as
a winner from the long Polish internal political conflict, where the Russian factor was
2) PiS’s most radical elements will remain in power. As was noted earlier, party represents
nationalists with interests contrary to Kremlin’s. Their ongoing policies show that they
aim for political entrenchment and there are no indications that party has formidable
«moderate» part, which would be inclined to settling the disputes in foreign policy with
Russia with compromises and concessions.
Split in the ruling party is not out of question, taking into account the degree of
polarization in the Polish society, which was caused by PiS’s reforms and policies.
However, the party and governing elites so far look more united than before and interdependent.
Hence PiS’s stay in power can be associated with more «hawkish» policies. Change can
be brought only by party’s electoral defeat, but it is too early to discuss this.
It should be added that the risk of confrontation between Poland and Russia will increase in case
with the disintegration of the European Union as supranational political structure. According to some
forecasts, Poland has chances to emerge as the regional superpower in the case of the collapse of
EU. This is a well-founded point of view because PiS is heading in that direction, more often
taking opposite stance to Brussels and its Western European counterparts. In case of this, the
country will have fewer constraints in its decisions and it will be most likely supported in its
foreign policy agenda by the USA as a counter-weight, blocking Russian influence in Europe. The
discussion about forces and factors which could accelerate this scenario are too wide for the
scope of this research, though it should be noted that possibility of Brexit is among the
largest factors behind it, because it will influence the political affiliations of some of Visegrad 4
countries and would have major implications for the regional political situation:
Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka after meeting with David Cameron, with whom he
discussed reforming the EU, claimed that «Brexit» would force Czechs to leave the union
too and that this would cause the country to enter Russian sphere of influence. The
the prognosis seems viable and if it will come true – that will accelerate confrontation
between Moscow and Warsaw as Russia will get too close to Polish borders and Poland
would very likely take retaliatory steps, which would be more aggressive than traditional
diplomatic spat. In that case, Poland would lobby the US to reinstate the
In fact, this process has already started as Russia builds extensive and deep relationships
with some CEE countries – most notably Hungary, whose president Viktor Orban has a
the long record of good relationships with Putin. This most likely provoke Warsaw to act in
opposite way and confront Moscow on other issues and in other questions – for
example by deepening military cooperation with Ukraine, which already exists.
Baltic countries On the background of the Ukrainian crisis, Baltic countries started to prepare for possible war. They
increased their military budgets and number of military exercises; Lithuania even re-introduced
the military draft. They have good reasons to feel afraid of possible war – and they are just the
same as in Ukraine.
There is a sizable Russian minority in all 3 of the Baltic states, something about 1,052,520 ethnic
Russians (556,422 in Latvia, 321,198 in Estonia and 174,900 in Lithuania). All of these countries
have certain problems with Russian population: the most vulnerable would be Latvia, where
significant parts of ethnic Russians are deprived of full citizenship and where the government plans
to close down all Russian-speaking schools by 2017. This fact is an “Achilles heel” of the
region, though the presence of minority does not necessarily mean inevitable war.
NATO exercises close to Russian borders are doing more to increase the likelihood of Russian
invasion, which almost certainly would take the form of hybrid warfare. So Latvia with its
biggest number of Russians is in the least vulnerable position than Lithuania with its least number of
Russians, but the attempt to form a joint brigade with Polish and Ukrainians by 2017. Hybrid
warfare with the use of “Russian factor” will be used not to protect Russian population or annex
Baltic capitals, but rather to make a limited surgeon strike that would prevent bigger changes
from coming to place. Examining post-Soviet policy of Kremlin in Eastern Europe could give a
hint on the depth of its strategic thinking.
In the last 8 years, Russia dramatically improved the state of its armed forces, making them
second only to the US in terms of effectiveness and operational capabilities. The Syrian campaign
has shown that country is capable of performing large-scale operations far away from home
with the low monetary and human costs, achieving intended political results without application
of massive forces. Ukrainian war have shown that Kremlin is also capable of effectively
performing «hybrid warfare», that ties the targeted country and complicates implication of
Russia as an aggressor nation, because there is no official war. These lessons are important when
assessing Russia’s strategy and possible tactics on the new fronts.
Assessment of war games, that took place in 2014 and 2015, let us think that in case of full-scale
war, Russian military forces will be able to reach the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga in the period
of 60 hours the longest. Recently US government decided to spend more on troops and
equipment on NATO’s forces on the most eastern flanks of the block. But unless US will decide
to deploy forces size of an army, the biggest pressure will be on the local countries and they
understand that as well.
Understanding this, Baltic countries have increased their military budgets and number of military
exercises; Lithuania even re-introduced the military draft.
The tools applied by Kremlin in its aggressive foreign policy are various, as they represent
a combination of not only military force, but political decisions, economic sanctions and even the
use of criminals. Taking into account that we are speaking about aggression against EU member
states, Russian military involvement will be even more clandestine than in Ukraine and will bear
traits more of the subversion rather than more or less open confrontation in the field. This
operation would require limited number of qualified military professionals, though the most will
be outsourced to the officially independent performers and entities, all of which, of course,
would have links to Russian top. There is no need in deployment of huge ground forces in such
operations, but the present members of Russian military will be officially labeled as «volunteers»
or mercenaries. In Ukraine and Syria Kremlin extensively used the latter type of ground troops.
The core difference from contractors working in US and EU private military companies (PMC)
is that they were not official employees of any registered entity, which makes it extremely hard
to establish legal connection between them and Russian government, relieving Kremlin of
liabilities and obligations, resulting from the use of official contractors or military personnel.
Given that war in Ukraine has created large pool of such people, it could be expected that they
will comprise the bulk of the ground force in future conflict.
Aggression in Baltic countries will differ from the one in Ukraine in relation that the ratio of
military to local insurgents will be lower, because resources of all Baltic countries combined
does not allow them to carry out anti-insurgency operations on the scale Ukrainian army
performs in Donbass.
It should be noted that in this campaign Kremlin is very likely to implement cyber-warfare.
Russia has vast cyber-crime industry, where all major players are employed by Kremlin from
time to time and which is accountable to Russian security apparatus in non-official way. Estonia
would be very vulnerable target – its electronic government system would be desirable goal, but
conventional disruption attacks on institutions should be expected – as well as infrastructural
ones, which Russian government-employed hackers have already proved of being capable of
performing. In fact, use of this weapon is very likely because it is even more difficult to
implicate Russian government even in the case of successful big cyber-attack: Russian hacker
groups are officially independent faces with no direct links to Russian government – unlike their
Chinese counterparts. That is why this kind of warfare is very likely to be used in new war – it
allows to conceal involvement of Kremlin more effectively than with the physical presence,
while potentially allowing to inflict major damage.
Despite very recent annexation of Crimea, Russian government will not seek new territorial
concessions. Instead it will aim for limited warfare, that would help it to achieve its strategic
goals of discriminating NATO. The good look at Russian strategy can be found in the case of
All of GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development members (which are
Gerogia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) are effectively restricted from their initial aim of
joining both NATO and EU. This was achieved by Russia with a very limited use of force in the
secessionist regions. Nagorno-Karabakh did not have direct or considerable unofficial
participation of Russian military in its separatist war, but Russian bases in Armenia are de-facto
the only guarantee of existence of this unrecognized enclave – otherwise Azerbaijan would have
retaken it long time ago as its military budget alone is bigger than the whole budget of Armenia.
All of GUAM countries have to recognize their territorial losses in order to become eligible for
EU and NATO membership – and that is unlikely, as the breakaway regions were important for
them in territorial and economic ways. Exploitation of the tensions, arising from the existence of
these regions gives Russia effective leverage to influence their foreign policy agenda.
In case of Poland and Baltic republics the intermediate goal will be different, because the
targeted countries are already members of respective blocks, hence creating separatist entity
there would be of limited use. Instead Kremlin will create the points of instability, where
insurgency will provoke these countries to confront Russia in indirect way. The risks of making
such flashpoint in Baltic states are significant due to ethnic differences the region has, but in
Poland it will be highly unlikely. Poland can be drawn in a war against Russian «counter-agents»
on the Baltic front or in proxy-warfare elsewhere. However, military aggression against Poland
would be limited as the primary goal would be to change the Polish PiS leadership, which could
be achieved more with political and economic tools, with war being an additional argument. For
example, Kremlin may lure Poland to intervene into peripheral conflict and provoke political
crisis and desired change of leadership by inflicting major human and monetary losses to Poland.
Though the use of force in Baltic region will be not that massive as in Ukraine, created threat
will have to be considerable by these countries standards and pose major disruption to their
normal functioning – enough to provoke request for NATO’s help. It is very important that the
Russian involvement in these affairs would remain concealed and hard to prove as it is crucial
for the successful implementation of this strategy. The potential assault will be considerable
enough to be perceived as threat – and it would require Russian participation as power broker.
Ceasefires in Donbass were implemented and violated many times, which reflects Kremlin’s
approach to negotiations – the achieved agreements can be violated, changed and redrawn in
case of need.
In this strategy Kremlin hopes that NATO will fail to respond in adequate way, because it is the
block that aims at conventional warfare – which is hardly what happens now in Ukraine and will
not take place on the territory of EU, because Russian elites are very dependent on the economic
ties with Western Europe and will not risk to attack the block directly.
The expected outcome is the lack of adequate response that would effectively eliminate threat
posed by Russia to the member states, attacked in this way. For sure, there will be sanctions and
increased isolation of Russia, which may go to extreme like in Iran’s case – but it will be
impossible not only to engage in open war with Russia, but to declare it: the ground action and
subversions will be committed by the actors with no clear state affiliations, which makes it
impossible to attack the country. If there will be such an attempt, Russia, as a member of UN
Security Council could effectively block the ultimate diplomatic condemnation – depriving its
opponents of legal grounds. If that won’t be enough, the possession of huge nuclear arsenal is the
most effective argument against direct military confrontation with Russia.
In case if NATO will fail to deliver symmetrical answer to Russia, the most lasting and
important effect will be felt in Western Europe, where the dissolution of NATO will start.
NATO and European allies
Recent developments show that willingness of Western European allies to contribute to NATO
efforts did not really increase even in the wake of Ukrainian crisis – their military expenditures
are below NATO’s requirements of 2% of GDP, they did not implement major sanctions against
Aggression against member-states could provoke much more active response, however that is no
guaranteed, because as we argued before, Russian strategy implies the use of clandestine tactics
of «hybrid warfare», which complicates conventional face-off confrontation, thus confusing
allies and neighbors of the targeted country and creating division in the ranks of allies.
The very fact that Western Europe did not use economic leverage on Russia already after Crimea
and did not use the fact of Russian elites keeping their cash and property in EU as the bargaining
tool, shows that they are less likely to associate their own interests with NATO’s than their
membership implies. Even UK, the country with the most distinguished record of contribution to
NATO and US military efforts worldwide, have chosen not to use its deep economic ties with
Russian rich and powerful as a way to pressure them to change their policies
Though, it might be seen as controversial conclusion, we should note that Western European
NATO members are not known for using the block to advance their agenda. France could be the
best example. Except for Afghanistan, the country’s largest military operations in the last 5 years
(«Harmattan.», «Serval» and« Sangaris») were done outside of NATO’s framework. But after
ISIS attacks in Paris in November 2015, France did not use the Article 5 of the 1949 NATO
treaty which allows targeted country to call for collective armed help in case of attack. This
article was used by US in the wake of very similar 9/11 terrorist attack – but France abstained
from it, choosing to act on the Middle East unilaterally or even in coordination with anti-NATO
powers like Russia. There are other indirect signs of disinterest of Western Europe in NATO’s
activities: thought Europe gives virtually all but two member-countries – 70% of expenses are
carried out by USA; rules of engagement for European contingencies are so strict that it made
them, in general, dramatically decreased their contribution to NATO; the biggest EU contributor
to the block, Britain, left relatively modest impact in Afghan – thought the human and monetary
costs of that intervention were high by British standards; block has a history of severe
disagreement, paralyzing the effective efforts of the block – in 2003 France, Germany and
Belgium vetoed NATO intervention in Iraq, aligning back then with Russian president Putin –
and countering their allies, including Turkey, Poland and Spain. All these issues could and
probably would be taken into consideration by Kremlin in planning military aggression against
Poland Baltic countries, as it expects Western European countries not to perceive Russia as great
and immediate threat. Though we are predicting attack on the EU member, which may provoke
different kind of answer, this way of thinking have some grounds: if Russia was to be perceived
as threat, then NATO members in Western Europe would assist Ukrainian war efforts much
more active instead of engaging in wars in Africa and Middle East, with which it does not share
extensive land border. Moreover, cancelled part of US missile defense system in Central and
Eastern Europe (CEE), which has annoyed Moscow for a very long time, was welcomed by
leaders of Western Europe – as well as earlier abandonment of expansion of US missile system
in CEE was welcomed by the leaders of France and Germany in 2009 on the grounds of
maintaining good relationships with Russia. The mentioned events took place after Russia’s war
with Georgia, which has demonstrated Kremlin’s intentions.
There are other considerations that Kremlin would take in mind when planning its assault – the
most important one will be provoking the structural and apparatus competition among allies.
Development of EU armed forces as threat to NATO
It will be easier than it could be imagined, to seed discontent and complicate NATO’s
coordinated response in the block by indirectly leading to the competition between Western
European and NATO respective military forces.
While Western Europeans have shown unwillingness to contribute to NATO’s efforts, they have
intensified integration in the latest years – the fact, which is at the core of European economic
and political crisis. The integration also relates to the security sphere. Since 2004 EU creates
«battlegroups» (EU-BG) , joint international military units, comprised of army personnel from
EU member-countries – up to the date there are over 20 of them. This and efforts of the countries
participating in The Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) creates foundations for the
common European military structure. In 12 years after inception, in the structures of CSDP 8
military operations were committed, altogether using 10 thousand of military personnel. It is an
often overlooked fact that creation of pan-European army structure was opposed by many NATO
functionaries, including Dean Acheson, Madeleine Albright and Nicholas Burns. The reasons for
that are understandable – Europe is the central element in NATO’s security structure and
duplication of the block’s functions by European supranational structures would lead to the slow,
but unstoppable decrease of NATO’s importance. Russian hybrid warfare will have its main aim
in demonstrating supposed NATO’s ineffectiveness and incapability to protect the membercountries
in the face of non-conventional aggression. This would trigger further development and
integration of all-European armed forces, which would be parallel to NATO and will, in
corporate terms, «cannibalize» the block and replace it with new European armed forces.
This plan carries some risks for Russia, because it replaces existing adversary at the costs of
creating new one. But there are several reasons why Kremlin could welcome it, thought with
1) Russia never explicitly opposed EU enlargement and integration – unlike NATO’s;
2) Common European defence policy poses less threat from Kremlin perspective: CSDP and
EU-BGs, judging from their operational experience and major exercises (for example, in
2008 and 2014) indicate that their focus will be not major warfare, but peacekeeping and
policing. NATO, on the contrary, is a block aimed at conventional warfare with the huge
experience in big offensive operations – it is logically perceived by Russian elites as
3) EU military industry suffers from the lack of consolidation. By McKisney’s estimates,
there are 157 different weapon standards in EU – much more than US’s 27. Though, 87%
of military production is in 6 EU countries, there are still 28 different national military
budgets. NATO, despite its weak points is more standardized – not least because US is
the largest contributor.
The use of warfare will be limited and will have a huge element of proxy-warfare – it is not
difficult to instigate uprising of Russian population in Baltic countries, taking into account that
they are predominantly Russia-oriented and that they have their own complicated history of
relationships with the respective governments in the region. These are the natural weaknesses
which are yet to be exploited and they present huge opportunities for Russian war planners.
University College London, UK