Editorial Board

Russia's Latest Game: Challenging NATO at Sea

The Zapad military exercise showed that NATO and its Nordic neighbors need to coordinate more closely.

Enemy ahoy.

Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images

Russia just conquered a fictional country, and it's scaring the heck out of some real ones. The Kremlin's recent Zapad war game shows the need for NATO to do more to deter Russian aggression not just on land, but also on the Baltic Sea.

In the exercise, Russia sent an estimated 100,000 troops to defend against a mock attack from the state of "Veyshnoria." For the most part, it took place in the former Soviet republic of Belarus and in Kaliningrad, a tiny, well-armed Russian territory between Lithuania and Poland. But Russians also dispatched their Baltic fleet, which includes destroyers and several attack submarines, as well as a major naval force into the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Norway, a NATO member.

Much has been made in the last few years of the threat Russia's massing of men and machines poses to the easternmost members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. But Russian forces have been increasingly active at sea, especially in the Baltic, with submarines and warships repeatedly entering sovereign waters of other coastal nations and fighters buzzing U.S. ships.

The Baltic states -- which were integral to the old Soviet and czarist empires that President Vladimir Putin and many of his countrymen feel great nostalgia for -- are understandably concerned. An outright Russian invasion is extremely unlikely, thank goodness, but there are realistic fears of the Kremlin repeating the "hybrid warfare" techniques that worked so well in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

There are many ways in which sea power could be a part of a covert or overt Russian strategy to destabilize the Baltics: Submarines could cut undersea communications lines and cause power disruptions; surface ships can be bases for cyber-attacks; naval blockades could keep out vital energy imports; marine forces could land on isolated but strategically important islands such as Sweden's Gotland and Finland's Aland chain. 

Russia also has some advantages here: The Baltic is a relatively shallow and narrow body of water, and Russia's small diesel-electric powered subs are very maneuverable in tight spaces. Also, Moscow has complete command and control over its navy, while any NATO operation has to deal with the organization's formidable bureaucracy.

There are steps NATO can take to improve its position. Given Russia's aggressive stance in the Baltic, NATO should establish more high-level institutions in those eastern states, along the lines of its NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence in Estonia.

Likewise, the U.S.'s typical show of strength is to have a couple of casual visits a year by destroyers to Baltic ports. This should be increased into so-called regular presence operations like those the Navy is now carrying out in the South China Sea. The alliance also needs to cut red tape and give its supreme allied commander more authority and flexibility to act quickly in a crisis.

The bottom line is that NATO needs to better coordinate with members -- and non-members who have most to fear from Russian aggression, namely Finland and Sweden. The eventual goal should be to bring these Nordic states, whose ground and naval forces are well suited for combat in the region, into the alliance itself. For now, NATO should negotiate binding agreements with them on responding quickly to crises. It will take a while for the West to fully analyze the implications of Zapad. It's already clear, however, that more formal cooperation is necessary to deter Russian aggression at sea.

    --Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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