This is a summary of the military scenario that could unfold in a war between Russia and the West. A basic understanding of this scenario is necessary to understand the strategic discussions.
I will explain the development of the war by dividing it into distinct phases with clear milestones between them. Obviously such a description is painted with broad strokes, and in a real conflict it will not be as clear cut.1
The assumption is that a war between Russia and the West will play out in the Baltic region. This is the most likely conflict scenario and perhaps the only one that has the potential of developing into a nuclear war. Armed encounters elsewhere are possible, but the spillover effects could easily move the conflict to the Baltic region. Conflicts in other regions can therefore quickly turn into the scenario that is described here.
The phases of the war
The war can be divided into five distinct phases:
- Prelude to war
- Insurgency — stay below Article 5
- Quick grab and fortification
- De-escalation through overwhelming use of force
- Mutually assured destruction
There are a few things that are important to keep in mind. The first one is that on every countable measure, NATO is much stronger than Russia. If the war is fought symmetrically, Russia will lose. Their only chance of winning is to avoid a situation where it is fighter against fighter, infantry against infantry etc. That is why Russia will make the first military move in every step of escalation — they have to.
The other important point is that Russia does not want a conflict to escalate. Russia does not like war anymore than the West. There may be a somewhat larger acceptance of military power as a legitimate political tool, a higher tolerance of losses, and a more developed sense among the population that one must suffer for the greater good. But that does not mean that Russia wants war or suffering.
So the Russian strategy will be to convince NATO not to fight. The milestones between the phases — with the exception of the first one — will be NATO’s decision fight. Actions in every phase are designed to deter NATO from making the next logical move.
This leads to the third and very discomforting thing to bear in mind: Once the ball starts rolling, the conflict gains a logic of its own. Rational decisions on both sides will lead to an ever greater war. Both Russia and NATO have to escalate to avoid defeat. Whoever doesn’t move to the next level will lose.
Phase 1: Prelude to war
A war will not come out of nothing. There will be some prelude. This will not necessarily be very long, but it will be distinct.
The igniting factor will be that Russia feels that they are under attack, and that a military response against NATO countries is justified. This situation can for example occur in case of a color revolution in Russia or a country that Russia considers within its sphere of national interest like Belarus. They will also see the interests of Russia as coinciding with those of the Russian leaders, so a threat to the current Russian regime will be treated as an existential threat against Russia.
The Russian narrative is that color revolutions are a result of Western hybrid warfare. They believe that the United States is behind these revolutions where the population rebels against their leaders. Russian leaders will therefore not distinguish much between a domestic conflict and an attack by NATO because they will see it as two sides of the same coin.
In other words, if Putin feels that his power base is threatened, he could very well respond militarily against NATO in an attempt to get the situation under control. This could unite the Russian people behind a common cause, and it could function as a retaliatory move against the West for instigating a revolution in Russia or an affiliated country.
Obviously, Western leaders and NGOs are mostly unaware that their talks about democracy, human rights, personal freedom, and economic prosperity could be interpreted as hybrid warfare, but that is beside the point here. The important thing is that the Russian leaders see it that way.
Phase 2: Insurgency — stay below Article 5
Russia’s first move will be a military operation that is limited in scope. The aim will be to achieve some benefit without triggering NATO’s collective defense. It is possible that Russia could get away with this if the operation is small enough.
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one member of NATO will be considered an attack on all allies. The problem is that all allies have to agree that such an attack has taken place. Some members of the alliance may be inclined to consider a pro-Russian insurgency a domestic problem. In this case Article 5 will not be triggered. For example, a total occupation of Estonia or Latvia would obviously be an Article 5 situation, but if the situation could be interpreted as civil unrest in a few cities, some NATO countries may hesitate to declare war against Russia.
Russia could attempt to create this situation by intelligent use of media platforms to instigate social unrest. By deepening social wounds and radicalizing both pro-Russian and anti-Russian sentiments in the Baltic countries, Russia could create a climate where riots are possible. A few “green men” of inconspicuous origin could in this situation instigate an insurgency where separatists “demanded” independence or reunification with Russia.
Russia has proven that they are unwilling to let pro-Russian separatists lose. They don’t necessarily have to win either, but they cannot lose. This will especially be the case if the Russian leadership needs to show strength on the foreign scene, such as in this case where their domestic power base is threatened. If NATO or a coalition of Western countries decides to fight the insurgency, Russia will have to escalate to the next phase of the war.
Phase 3: Quick grab and fortification
A logical next step in the war will be a quick action by Russia to occupy the Baltic States and perhaps a part of Poland as well. This will probably come in the guise of a humanitarian intervention, but essentially it would be an occupation of a NATO or EU country.
NATO does have a forward presence in the Baltic States, but it is not big enough to make a decisive difference.2 Russia would probably go to great lengths to try to avoid actually killing NATO soldiers at this stage, because it could arouse a fighting spirit in the involved countries. In the end, though, they would also accept collateral damage, and definitely this concern would not keep Russia from trying to achieve their goal. The narrative in Russia at this point will be that Russians in the Baltic States are being violated and killed by Western extremists and NATO soldiers. A Russian leadership will be forced to act to protect the Russians.
An occupation of the Suwalki gap on the border between Poland and Lithuania would be an obvious move. This would connect Belarus to Kaliningrad and make it difficult for NATO to enter the Baltic states from Poland.
An occupation of the Swedish island of Gotland is also desirable for Russia. It would demand some creativity to uphold the idea of a peace keeping mission after such a move, but they might decide to go for it anyway. Gotland has a strategically important position only 150 kilometers off the Latvian coast, and Russia would want to remove the threat that this forward position poses against aircraft and ships. Instead, Russia could use Gotland as a forward post in the fortification that would be the next step in the war.
The idea would be to establish a credible deterrence that would prevent NATO from embarking on an operation to liberate the Baltic States. In technical terms this is called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD). Basically, Russia would make it clear that such an attempt would cost the lives of extremely many soldiers.
NATO could fundamentally conduct such an operation in two ways. One option is a land invasion from Poland, and the other is an amphibious operation across the Baltic Sea. Both would be really difficult, and possibly they would need to happen simultaneously. Either way, NATO would need to dominate the airspace and the sea in order to be successful.
The primary weapons in Russia’s deterrence would be the modern missile systems that Russia has. These are especially the coastal K-300P Bastion-P anti-ship missiles, ship based Kalibr surface-to-surface missiles, and the S-400 air defense missiles. These are state of the art missile systems that NATO does not have credible defenses against. The presence of submarines would slow down NATO operations in the Baltic Sea. A large army and tactical nuclear weapons would be ready as a barrier against a land invasion from Poland.
The West has enough forces to win such a fight, but it would be extremely painful. The center of gravity in this phase of the war is the determination of Western governments to sacrifice soldiers. Are the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France willing to sacrifice thousands of their own soldiers to liberate Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania? Perhaps the great powers of the West would be tempted by a diplomatic approach instead. This could save the lives of Western soldiers, and maybe after a few years it would be possible to negotiate a peaceful return of some land areas to for example Poland or Sweden. But the Baltic States would be lost, and the geopolitics of Europe would be changed forever.
If the governments of the West decide to fight amid the perspective of losing thousands of soldiers, Russia will have to escalate the war into the next phase. If they don’t, they will lose in the long run and suffer immensely in the process.
Phase 4: De-escalation through overwhelming use of force
In the next phase Russia will have a kind of terror strategy where the goal is to scare the West into surrender. The idea will be to target the willpower of the civilian populations by creating dramatic devastation. The goal is not to defeat the enemy but to force the West to a diplomatic solution.
Sometimes this strategy is referred to as “nuclear de-escalation”, because one way to achieve it is limited use of nuclear weapons. It is easy to imagine the shock that a nuclear attack would create in the Western populations. This may indeed be enough to make them wonder whether the Baltic States are truly worth the costs of nuclear war.
In fact, Russia has recently developed so powerful and precise conventional weapons that the so-called nuclear threshold has been raised. The Iskander missile is a good example of a missile that is developed for exactly this role and can be equipped with both nuclear and conventional warheads. It is likely that Russia would utilize conventional high-precision missiles in its display of overwhelming force instead of nuclear weapons. This will make it easier for Russia to control the development of events, because it is a more scalable solution.
Obviously, de-escalation through the use of overwhelming force is an extremely dangerous strategy. At this point we will be just a footstep away from a full nuclear exchange. If Russia can strike the right balance, they may demoralize the civilian populations in the Western countries and motivate to a pursuit of a diplomatic solution. But if they go too far, they risk the opposite effect of energizing the fighting spirit instead.
Phase 5: Mutually assured destruction
The last stage of the war ends with a full blown exchange of nuclear ballistic missiles. The consequences of this will be so great that it is incomprehensible. But it doesn’t start there, and the end is not inevitable.
Ultimately, once the West decides to fight despite the prospect of nuclear war, the Russian strategy will have failed. The whole idea was to convince the West not to fight.
Now the goal will be to find a negotiated solution, but both sides have to continue the military track simultaneously. The situation will be extremely complicated and dangerous. Mutual trust will be non-existing, and it will be almost impossible for the involved decision makers to predict or control the events.
Unfortunately, the world is worse off today to handle such crises than during the Cold War. The lines of communication that once existed are not there anymore, and there are no longer the institutionalized memories of the suffering from the last world wars.
The most certain thing in a war is that things don’t go as predicted. Therefore, the above mentioned military scenario is not an exact description of what will happen.
It is, however, a qualified guess. I have described the war as progressing through five phases, and the uncertainty increases with every step. The last phase is so unpredictable that I only mentioned some general considerations.
But the first phases are in fact quite well established. A color revolution in a former Soviet country — especially Russia itself — could certainly lead to an insurgency in the Baltic States and an occupation in order to protect Russian interests and the Russians in these states. The Russian leadership would be ready to take such a step which they would consider justified self-defense.
It is a misfortune that so many people in the West fail to acknowledge the reality that war could happen. The Russians don’t seem to have the same hesitation. This asymmetry of crisis awareness contributes in itself to the possibility of war, because it gives credibility to the Russian notion that the West can be convinced not to fight.
- The fog of war will ensure that indeed a real war will be chaotic, and the actors will have a hard time making sense of the events. ↩
- The Baltic States are improving their military capabilities rapidly, and the number of foreign NATO soldiers is also increasing. So with time it may become more problematic for Russia to make a quick grab. ↩