NATO – In Need of Credibility?


The recent assisted disintegration of Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbass regions by Russian armed forces, beginning in mid-March 2014, has raised fundamental questions about NATO’s political-military posture. More specifically, these recent Russian military deployments have the potential to raise significant questions about NATO’s political-military credibility as a deterrent alliance, given the vast disparity of political will between NATO member states for confronting Russian actions in Ukraine on one hand and Russian sophistication in the deployment of armed forces on the other. These questions are especially important if Russian political goals continue to be concerned with the liberation by force of predominantly Russian-speaking territory in bordering neighbour-states. If Russian political goals continue on their current trajectory, Russian-speaking minorities in numerous states could be, as has been the case in Ukraine, used as a pretext for Russian ‘protection’ and ‘liberation’ by force of these regions – regions, which, in some cases, fall under NATO’s Article 5 provision of collective defence. Deterring such acts for NATO will rely upon successful communication of its military capabilities, and political intent with regards to these particularly vulnerable regions.

The primary question, then, is how & to what degree can NATO deter Russian uses of force against NATO member states with Russian minorities? In first answering this question, the NATO member states in question, and the severity of the potential threat posed to them by Russia, needs to be outlined. Then the constitutive parts of a credible deterrent threats; communication, capabilities, and intent, will be used as an analytical framework to assess NATO’s current posture towards the Russian threat. Finally, once that analysis has completed, it will be necessary to make policy recommendations concerning NATO’s response to this potential threat.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO expansion has been steady. Former Warsaw Pact states saw NATO as a protective shield which would allow them to, in the calm of the post-Cold War world, “free-ride” onto the security benefits of having the sole superpower on one’s side.[1] Two of the states that did so, joining in 2004, were Latvia and Estonia. Importantly, unlike other NATO member states, Estonia and Latvia share borders with Russia, these shared borders bring with them large Russian-speaking populations. These populations are arguably large and homogenous enough to warrant Russian interests over them, given the precedent set by the Russian actions in Ukraine.



Latvia has recently been the subject of vociferous Russian criticism. The Russian language referendum of 2012, (which, if successful would have made Russian the official second language) was strongly defeated. The referendum was arguably a representation of how the country was seriously divided on linguistic lines.[2] For its part, Russia has been alleged by the Latvian Defence Minister in late April that Russia has been using “specially-trained, professional provocateurs” to swing Latvian public sentiment towards the Russian viewpoints, and that Russian military activity across Latvia’s border has increased since the crisis in Ukraine.[3] While probably inflated by the Latvian Defence Minister, the threat is also probably real, given continued Russian pressure on Latvia regarding its Russian minorities.[4]




Estonia and Latvia have significant Russian-speaking populations on their eastern borders with Russia, in addition to significant Russian-speaking populations within their capital cities Tallinn and Riga.[5]


Latvia and Estonia possess the biggest Russian-speaking populations in the Baltic states[6]



The Latvian Russian-language referendum has demonstrated the level of divisiveness over language in the Baltic country.[7]


As indicated by the charts above, Estonia also has a significant Russian-speaking population, especially in the capital Tallinn and the border town of Narva, the third-biggest in the country, population 63,000.[8] While Latvia has arguably occupied more of Russian attention regarding linguistic discrimination, Estonia is not exactly exempt from criticism. Amnesty International USA pointed out in 2013 that “Stateless people [mostly Russian-speaking] continued to be denied political rights…Language requirements appear to be one of the main obstacles for Russian speakers to access citizenship and other rights.”[9] Putin has, perhaps understandably, habitually included Estonia in his criticism of ‘non-citizens’ in the Baltic states, with the most recent occurrence being in March 2014 in the UN Human Rights Council.[10] Interestingly, Western and international coverage has tended to present Estonian concerns over possible Russian intervention as mild in spite of this.[11] It is clear, however, from the precedent of the Ukraine that the threat against Estonia is rather likely if Putin’s current trajectory continues.

The Nature of Deterrence

Shifting focus to the more abstract level, the formulation of effective (and ergo, credible) deterrent threats by a strategic actor rests on the successful manipulation or demonstration of three different factors. Firstly, strategic actors must possess the capabilities to deter the enemy, secondly, they must possess the intent to use those capabilities against a potential enemy, and finally, they must communicate to the potential enemy the intent and capabilities they possess.[12] In most understandings of threat credibility, the product of these three factors constitutes the overall credibility of the threat – hence, shortcomings in one area or another cannot be overly compensated by strengths in another area. NATO, to successfully deter Russia against military operations in Latvia or Estonia, will have to demonstrate (effectively communicate to Russia) two things: the military capabilities to deal with the sophisticated, asymmetric use of force by Russia, and the intent to use these military capabilities against Russia.


The Russian use of force in Ukraine has heretofore been characterized by the use of small Russian Spetznaz units, carrying out operations that the U.S. military describes as ‘deniable’ – i.e. waged without formal association to the force carrying them out.[13] The tactics of these Russian units include paying off of locals to protest against the government, the instigation of street brawls and violence to foster instability, and attacking government buildings and ministries to gain control of the apparatuses of power.[14] These tactics have proved remarkably effective at undermining Ukrainian government control of the east of the country and offer a strong set of challenges for NATO forces attempting to deter Russian military aggression. Firstly, due to the deniability of the operations, many of these Spetsnaz personnel are difficult to distinguish from the local population – they operate without uniforms.[15] Secondly, they are small in number, and relatively difficult to locate and destroy for Baltic NATO forces accustomed to reliance upon airpower to do their heavy lifting in combat. Thirdly, because of the difficulty of countering Russian offensives with air & naval power, credible deterrent capability is founded on strong ground forces. Because of the weakness of Baltic ground forces,[16] the ground forces of the stronger NATO coalition members, particularly the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, will be essential to constructing a credible threat.


NATO’s demonstration of intent may also be a difficult enterprise, even if Russian attempts to annex Baltic territory are particularly overt. The reason for this is twofold; popular opinion in the West is heavily biased against military intervention, and that the collective defence mechanisms of NATO are designed to deal with an entirely different threat; the threat of direct and unambiguous invasion.

Popular opinion within NATO countries on military intervention has arguably always been low; the lack of public support for airstrikes in Bosnia and Kosovo, in Europe for US intervention in Iraq in 2003, and in both the US and Europe, especially countries like Italy and Germany over intervention in Libya.[17] However, the level of public support regarding the possibility of military action is extremely low regarding Ukraine: in Britain, only 10% of adults supported “Western” military intervention in Ukraine with a full 65% of adults opposing such an act in mid-March 2014.[18] In Germany, the level of support was only at 18%.for military support of Ukraine in early May 2014.[19] US support was reportedly at 30% in May, but this support is still insufficient.[20]

Additionally, NATO’s collective defence mechanisms (outlined in NATO Article 5) are arguably insufficient to deal with Russia’s tactics regarding the use of force. Article 5 stipulates that an attack on one NATO member is to be regarded by all members as an attack upon themselves, and that each of them will assist the attacked parties by taking “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”[21] This, crucially, is NATO’s fundamental flaw with regards to less-than-overt attacks on its member states: it leaves the decision for national contributions of military force largely to the individual nations themselves. This dynamic has been clearly demonstrated during the only time Article 5 has ever been invoked, in the aftermath of 9/11 by the US against the threat posed by Al-Qaeda. As the primary theatre for deployment of regular military forces against Al-Qaeda was Afghanistan, NATO states’ deployments there were Article 5 deployments. The sizes of NATO nations’ deployments in Afghanistan are arguably a useful indicator of the level of military support unpopular wars can muster from these nations. With the exception of Britain and perhaps Germany, the commitments were brigade-sized or smaller, indicating that a reliance on Article 5 to provide effective deployments of ground forces, especially from European nations, is not necessarily well-placed.[22]

Prudent Policy

Given these weaknesses in NATO’s position, how will NATO effectively deter Russian territorial ambitions?

Firstly, in the short-term, NATO has to deploy sufficient numbers of land forces to support the extremely weak land forces of the Baltic states that would be expected to carry out an operation against Latvian or Estonian territory. NATO has currently deployed 600 infantrymen – this number needs to increase significantly. This does not mean to say that NATO needs to deploy a corps-sized force in the region; but two brigades, deployed defensively, would seem to be a start – not threatening enough to warrant extreme Russian reaction, but capable enough to carry out the mission at hand.[23] NATO’s Rapid Response Force is possibly a good example in this regard, although it may be the case that even this force, modelled off of Exercise Steadfast Jazz 2013, is too mobile to act as a truly “defensive” force.[24]

Secondly, air and naval forces will also need to be present to deter a more overt conventional attack. However, they cannot be relied upon as compensation for weaknesses in land forces; if deployed in such a manner they will plainly threaten Russia rather than deter it. Using tactical aviation, short-range helicopters (perhaps even relying solely on remotely deployed naval air assets) will send a clear deterrent message to Russia rather than an aggressive threatening one.

Thirdly, and moving to the long-term, the Baltic nations need to build up their military capacity, especially with regards to land forces. Air and naval forces are very expensive to procure and the size that the Baltic states would be able (let alone willing) to procure would be too small to achieve a real deterrent effect. Rather, Baltic states should continue to do as they are doing now – rely upon stronger NATO nations regarding air and naval support, because these forces are so rapidly deployable in the event of a crisis. Given NATO’s distaste for military operations which result in friendly casualties, it is, and will probably continue to be, loath to deploy land forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. The building up of Baltic forces could be greatly assisted by provision of moderate amounts of military aid,[25] further ensuring NATO’s feasibility as an alliance.

In the short term, the deployment of forces into the Baltics will be unpopular, but if it is not done, then European security could come under real threat from a Putin who will increasingly find himself with nowhere to go but up – or outwards.[26]


[1] Poland joined in 1999, with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia joining in 2004. “NATO History: Timeline” accessed here:

[2] Al-Jazeera ‘Moscow critical of Latvia language vote’ 19 February 2012, accessed here:

[3] Reuters, “Latvia says Russia trying to use ‘provocateurs’ in Baltic state” 25 April 2014, accessed here:

[4] Apparently, Russia has also been sending in pollsters into the east of Latvia to understand Latvian public opinion better: Wall Street Journal ‘In Latvia, Tensions Mount Under Russia’s Gaze’ 5 May 2014, accessed here:

[5] Business Insider, 21 March 2014 “These Countries With Large Russian Populations Should Fear What Putin Might Do Next” accessed here:

[6] The Economist ‘Echoes of the Sudentenland: The Baltics look to NATO for protection’ 29 March 2014, accessed here:

[7] Electoral Accessed here:

[8] ‘The tiny Estonian town that could spell the end of NATO’ 27 March 2014 accessed here:

[9] Amnesty International USA “Annual Report Estonia” 23 May 2013 accessed here:

[10] The Baltic Times “Putin: Status of non-citizens in Latvia and Estonia is ‘shameful’” 27 February 2012 accessed here: , ‘Language inquisition: Estonia gets tough on Russian speakers’ 1 December 2011, accessed here:

[11] Financial Times ‘Spotlight shifts to Estonia town if Russia tests Nato’s mettle’ 11 April 2014 accessed here:

[12] Stone (2012) Pg.110-112, 116

[13] The Daily Beast ‘U.S. Eyes Russian Spies Infiltrating Ukraine’ 21 March 2014, accessed here:

[14] Phantom Ops ‘Russian Spetsnaz GRU Arrested in Eastern Ukraine’ 17 March 2014 accessed here:

[15] Though admittedly, quite a few of them are dressed exactly like GRU Spetsnaz personnel. The New York Times ‘Photos Link Masked Men in Eastern Ukraine to Russia’ 20 April 2014 accessed here:

[16] Baltic armies combined have less than 30,000 regular personnel; overall, combined defence spending totals €800 million EUR. European Defence Agency (2012) Pg.2

[17] Gallup “U.S. Support For Action in Syria is Low Compared to Past Conflicts’ 6 September 2013 accessed here: ; German Marshall Fund of the US “Transatlantic Trends: Public Opinion and NATO”16 May 2012 accessed here:

[18] “Ukraine Crisis: No Good Options” 19 March 2014, accessed here:

[19] Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten, “Umfrage: Deutsche lehnen Militär-Aktion in der Ukraine ab” 5 May 2014, accessed here: (Google Translate used)

[20] Pew Research ‘In U.S., Germany, polls find little support for military aid to Ukraine’ 1 May 2014 accessed here:

[21] NATO “Official Text: The North Atlantic Treaty” 9 December 2008 accessed here:

[22] NATO Placemat 9 September 2011 (2011) Pg.2

[23] Two brigades (using US Army Brigade Combat Teams as the basic unit) means roughly 6,000 troops. The area of Latgale, the Latvian province home to the majority of the country’s non-citizen Russian speakers, is roughly 5,700 mi2 and with a population of 292,000 based on Latvian government statistics. Contemporary COIN doctrine, which would arguably be relied upon in the event that uniform-less Russians invaded eastern Baltic regions, has, as a rough rule of thumb, the force ratio of 20 troops per 1,000 inhabitants for a successful mission. For a region of 300,000 people, 6,000 troops meets exactly that ratio. Kozelkag (2009) Pg.12-14, “Latgale: Statistical Region” Accessed here:, and here:

[24] NATO “Exercise Steadfast Jazz 2013” 31 October 2013, Accessed here:

[25] $1 billion USD, 2/3rds of the aid given to Egypt, would double the current level of defence expenditure in the Baltics

[26] Huffington Post “Vladimir Putin’s Approval Rating Has Reached ‘Six Year High’ During Ukraine Crisis” 17 May 2014 accessed here: