The war in Ukraine was at the heart of the NATO summit in Madrid. In response to the Russian invasion, the Atlantic Alliance decided to reinforce its eastern flank. In recent weeks, tension has risen in the Baltic countries around Kaliningrad. The heavily militarized Russian exclave, wedged between Lithuania and Poland, is at the heart of a new showdown between the Kremlin and the European Union.
Moscow has warned that the establishment by Lithuania restrictions on the supply of goods of Kaliningrad would not go unanswered. Denouncing a “ blockade ” and an “ violation of international laws “, Russian diplomacy multiplies the warnings. Russia will take very severe economic measures “Warns the former Russian president and current vice-president of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev. The head of the space agency, former ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, goes further, considering that Lithuania ” had not only shot herself in the foot, but also in the head “.
Is the risk of military confrontation in this region real, as feared by the Baltic countries? ” You should never rule anything out “, warns Thibault Fouillet, researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research, even if, in the current state, “ it seems very unlikely “. First of all, there is the question of the force and means that Russia could deploy. ” We can already see that Russia is having great difficulties, that its military apparatus is heavily consumed by operations in Ukraine. It is hard to see how she could carry out another operation in another place “.
Russia, if it decided to attack Lithuania, would also have to expand its operation to neighboring countries, “ given the integration of the various states in the region, it will also have to carry out operations in Poland and the other Baltic States “, explains Thibault Fouillet.
Unlike Ukraine, Lithuania, like its Baltic and Polish neighbours, is, in theory, protected by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. It stipulates that if a NATO country is the victim of an armed attack, each member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as directed against all members and will take the measures it deems necessary to come to the aid. to the country that is under attack.
However, fear remains great in these states. ” We can understand that they are worried notes Cindy Régnier, FNRS doctoral student in international relations at the University of Liège. ” The Baltic countries have been victims of cyberattacks and hybrid attacks for a few years. They saw Georgia attacked and now Ukraine “.
However, membership of the Atlantic bloc should work in favor of restraint. ” Russia, even in its war with Ukraine, has always been careful not to spill over into Poland, as there would be a potential war with NATO. », explains Cindy Régnier, who more certainly expects hybrid attacks from Moscow, such as cyberattacks or operations of disinformation and destabilization, through, in particular, the Russian-speaking populations of these regions.
” The risk of a military confrontation unfortunately exists ”, analyzes for his part Youri Zverev, Russian military expert of the Federal Institute Emmanuel Kant, joined in Kaliningrad. ” This is an objective reality, at a time of growing strength of the forces facing each other, of great mutual distrust and of the interruption of all military contacts. This is when accidental military incidents can occur “, he analyzes.
Feeling of insecurity
On the eve of the NATO summit in Madrid, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas publicly expressed concern about the Alliance’s plans that would leave de facto time for Russia to wipe the Baltic countries off the map before a military response. The feeling of insecurity is reinforced by an increased militarization in recent years of the Kaliningrad exclave, which hosts surface-to-surface, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles and Iskander ballistic missile systems, capable of carrying a nuclear charge.
As for the number of soldiers present on the spot, we only have estimates which vary from 9,000 to 20,000, underlines Cindy Régnier. Even if the Russian military presence in Kaliningrad is much lower than the 100,000 troops deployed during the Cold War, ” the contingent present makes it possible to ensure security and protect the interests of the country “says Yuri Zverev. If the exclave of Kaliningrad is physically separated from Russian territory, it is separated from Belarus, Moscow’s faithful ally, only by the Suwalki corridor. This strip, on either side of the border between Poland and Lithuania, remains the weak link on NATO’s eastern flank.
Various simulations have highlighted the weaknesses of NATO’s armed forces in the event of a confrontation with Russian forces in the Baltic countries. In 2016, the RAND Corporation, which advises the American army, had estimated that it would take Russia 36 to 60 hours to take the capitals of the Baltic States, recalls Cindy Régnier, “ this is also why NATO, in 2016, had sent troops in rotation in the Baltic, at the rate of three battalions in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and also in Poland “.
The researcher points out that this simulation had also been criticized for not having taken into account the question of nuclear deterrence and the fact that NATO could attack on other flanks. ” The scenario, as it had been established, was based on the Russian capacities at the end of the operations in Crimea and in the Donbass, therefore overestimated, far from what we see of the current real capacities of the Russian army in Ukraine “, also tempers Thibault Fouillet.
NATO strengthens in the East
Since 2014, the Baltic armies have increased in power. Faced with the threat from Russia, the countries of the Alliance decided, in Madrid, to reinforce the military presence on the eastern flank of NATO, which will also increase the number of its forces to a high level of readiness 40,000 to more than 300,000 soldiers. ” This is the most significant overhaul of our collective defense since the Cold War. “, underlined the secretary general of the organization Jens Stoltenberg. These decisions are extremely irritating in Moscow.
” Madrid summit cements course for aggressive bloc containment of Russia Atlantic, says Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. A feeling of a besieged citadel shared by Yuri Zubov: “ every action begets a counter action “Warns the Russian military expert. ” Russia will be forced to retaliate to strengthen its security. Moreover, the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, declared that Russia was going to reinforce its Western military district. No one will benefit from this spiral and the security of the region will be greatly reduced. Isolating Kaliningrad will not bring any good to European countries ».
From Ashkhabad, the Turkmen capital where he is traveling, the Russian president denounced the ” imperial ambitions of NATO which, according to him, seeks to affirm its hegemony » via the Ukrainian conflict. The Atlantic Alliance and above all, the United States had long needed to have an external enemy around which it could unite its allies “, according to Vladimir Putin.