By Lukas Milevsk
(FPRI) — Throughout Russia’s current, renewed invasion of Ukraine, the three Baltic states have been continually working to improve their defense, even as they send military aid to Ukraine (the scale of which—compared to the Baltics’ own defense budgets—is staggering).
The Lithuanian Army is aiming to establish an entire light infantry division by 2030, a unified force with enablers that would be more potent than its constituent brigades as independent formations. Although this division would admittedly be light, Lithuania is also seeking to transform one mechanized infantry battalion into a tank battalion, though there appears to be no target date for this to be accomplished. Latvia and Estonia are seeking to jointly procure a German Iris-T medium-range air defense system, a number of which have been pledged—and a handful already delivered—to Ukraine.
The aim is for these systems to be operational by 2025. With the reintroduction of conscription in Latvia, the government intends to develop a combat-ready population of 50,000 by 2027, the same year Latvia also intends to reach 3 percent of GDP spent on defense. Estonia, too, is aiming to expand—by outright doubling—the size of its combat-ready population, albeit with no target year given.
Baltic defense is in ferment, for obvious reasons. Key deadlines range from two to seven years distant, 2025 to 2030. Yet defense policy, planning, and procurement are not done in a vacuum, but relative to the prospective threat—Russia. The military threat Russia poses to the Baltic states has reached an all-time low point in modern history. Prior to Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine, Kaliningrad was home to, and defended by, the 11th Army Corps with some 12,000 troops and hundreds of armored vehicles, including over 100 T-72 tanks. The corps, thrown into Ukraine to fuel Russia’s aggression early in the war, was roughly handled over the ensuing months, including a battering during Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive. Whether the formation even survived its trials is questionable and at least would need many months to reconstitute itself. By mid-autumn 2022, the overall presence of Russian forces along NATO’s (pre-Finnish accession) eastern border had dropped from 30,000 to perhaps as low as 6,000. Even while the much-hyped Ukrainian counteroffensive was still looming, Russia continued to take a beating as its own winter offensive failed to achieve much other than getting Russians killed in large numbers.
All this has prompted reflections from independent and governmental observers about how long it might take Russia to recover militarily from the war, a necessarily dynamic judgment as the war has yet to end. Baltic governmental officials have been consistently pessimistic about the time it might take Russia to bounce back. The previous Latvian minister of defense, Artis Pabriks, suggested in July 2022 that Russia could be ready to launch a new conflict again within only two years. The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service’s February 2023 report suggested that Russian capabilities in the vicinity of the Russo-Estonian border could be quantitatively reconstituted in up to four years, although the Service appears to admit implicitly that it will take Russia much longer to recover qualitatively. More optimistic is the independent military analyst Konrad Muzyka, who suggested as early as May 2022 that Russia might plausibly require 15 to 20 years to rebuild its armed forces, especially in adverse economic conditions.
There are various potential reasons for this divergence of expectations. Each is answering a different question: Muzyka is thinking about the Russian military in holistic terms whereas the Baltic perspectives are explicitly or implicitly principally focused on more limited, regional (i.e. Baltic) Russian recoveries. With prioritization from Moscow, it seems reasonable that Russia could only require a few short years to restore Russian military quantitative strength along the Baltic borders. However, the soldiers are likely to be ill-trained and their vehicles and equipment poor and primarily drawn from existing stocks stored in Siberia rather than newly manufactured by the Russian defense industry. Yet as long as the war continues, it appears unlikely that Russia’s western frontier will receive such prioritization, given how militarily denuded this border became while helping sustain the invasion of Ukraine. There is no indication that the war will end any time soon, and in the meantime Russia’s losses will only worsen.
Baltic defense planning horizons, like all others, experience discrepancies between addressing a threat and the expected window of opportunity before that threat becomes substantial. Measured against the pessimistically short Russian recoveries anticipated by Balts, some of these projected Baltic defense improvements will not be ready in two years (or, to be strictly accurate, one year left) and a smaller number not even in four. Some of this discrepancy may stem from Baltic pessimism about Russia’s perceived rapid ability to recover plus an unproven willingness to prioritize a peaceful frontier in wartime.
Such pessimism may also be deliberate, to provide some additional impetus for Baltic defense reinforcement from the Baltic states themselves, as well as from allies. Yet even were Russia to be militarily reconstituted in four or even two years, if only in a purely quantitative sense, this does not imply that Russia will have the political will to make trouble in the Baltic region. After all, Russia was militarily ready to do so for much of the past thirty years, but rarely did after the invasion scare of the early 1990s. Crucially for this question, the Baltic states are part of NATO, presumably requiring quite a surfeit of political will for Russia to attack.
Ultimately, every day the war continues is another day for the Baltic states and NATO’s eastern front in general to prepare for the unwanted contingency. Every loss Russia suffers in Ukraine is one which it will have to replace after the war. Although from a Baltic-specific perspective, Muzyka’s 15 to 20 years seems overly optimistic, the better part of a decade for Russian recovery does not seem unwarranted — and for a reasonably robust, albeit still small state, defense can be planned and procured in that time, with sufficient political will and allied support.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
About the author: Lukas Milevski is an an assistant professor at Leiden University and Baltic Sea Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Source: This article was published by FPRI