Russia needs just three days to conquer Estonia and Latvia, according to a new RAND study:
They found Russian forces will have “eliminated” NATO resistance and be “at the gates of or actually entering Riga, Tallinn, or both between 36 and 60 hours after the start of hostilities.”
“Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad,” Shlapak and Johnson wrote.
“A bloody counteroffensive, fraught with escalatory risk, to liberate the Baltics; to escalate itself, as it threatened to do to avert defeat during the Cold War; or to concede at least temporary defeat, with uncertain but predictably disastrous consequences for the alliance and, not incidentally, the people of the Baltics.”
Assuming NATO has a week to detect a coming invasion, the alliance could deploy an equivalent of 12 maneuver battalions in the Baltic states. This includes the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team rushed from Vicenza, Italy, but no main battle tanks. Poland — which has the largest tank force in Europe west of the Bug River — would be “assumed to be committed to defend the [Polish] national territory” and blocking Russian forces from moving south from Kaliningrad.
However, Russia could mass the equivalent of 22 maneuver battalions, including four tank battalions and large amounts of artillery from its Western Military District. Russia would also have an advantage in the air, with 27 squadrons of fighters and bombers compared to 18.5 NATO squadrons. While able to challenge Russian aircraft, the NATO planes could not quickly establish air superiority. Russian combat planes would then create “bubbles” of undefended airspace to launch “massed waves of air attacks.”
There’s an important lesson here — though Russia cannot challenge the United States or NATO globally, it can do so locally … and win.
The main problem is that geography favors Russia. In the days after an invasion, the alliance would have to first mass its own forces and conquer Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave bordering Poland which could flank any counter-attack … before facing the bulk of Russia’s Baltic combat power.
Article 5 of the Washington Treaty obligates NATO to defend its allies, including Estonia and Latvia, if they came under attack. That could plunge Russia into a wider and far more destructive war it might eventually lose, but it could also set off a chain of events ending in a nuclear exchange.
Which is why if Russia were to do it, it would want to do so quickly, presenting NATO with the option of … doing nothing.