Staunton, May 31 – It is always risky to derive intentions from capacities, but Moscow’s moves to create new military units opposite the Baltic states suggests that the Kremlin now has the capacity to invade Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, something that seems absurd to the West but may not to those who live in Vladimir Putin’s “alternate reality.”
In a commentary in today’s “Postimees,” Vadim Shtepa, a Karelian regionalist now living in exile in Estonia, says that 20 years ago it would have appeared ridiculous to talk about any Russian invasion of the Baltic countries. Russia accepted their independence and sought to develop good relations (rus.postimees.ee/3715273/ugrozhajut-li-rossijskie-tanki-stranam-baltii).
But today, he says, it appears “history is repeating itself. Putin’s Russia ever more conceives of itself as the literal continuation of the USSR with that state’s attempts to dictate its will to other countries. And if these countries conduct an independent policy, they aren’t protected from suffering Russian military invasions,” be in Prague in 1968 or Ukraine now.
And this Soviet restorationism is not just at the level of rhetoric but also at the level of institutional practice. In 2015, Moscow recreated the First Guards Tank Army, which had existed in the USSR between 1943 and 1991 and in the Russian forces until 1999. That force is clearly available for use against the Baltic countries.
On May 11, Shtepa notes, Moscow’s Zvezda television channel reported that “the new unit is capable of levelling the threat from the side of the Balti countries,” adding that “the new Russian divisions will become the hammer which will crush any defense” they might think to offer.
This army includes, according to Russian officials, “no fewer than 500 to 600 tanks, 600 to 800 armored personal carriers, 300 to 400 pieces of field artillery, and 35,000 to 50,000 soldiers.” More, these officials say that it is being equipped with the most modern versions of all weapons Moscow now has.
Russian writers like Viktor Murakhovsky have sought to reassure the Baltic people that they have nothing to fear from this division as it is primarily located near Moscow (rus.postimees.ee/3690987/voennyj-jekspert-rossijskaja-tankovaja-armija-ne-ugrozhaet-jestonii). But another Russian expert has pointed out that it could be moved forward to the Baltic borders very quickly if the Kremlin decided to act (expert.ru/2016/05/4/tri-novyih-divizii-protiv-nato/).
And as Aleksandr Golts of “Yezhednevny zhurnal” has put it: Moscow has “really approached to a turning point in its relations with the surrounding world. Now, no one in the West discusses whether Russia has aggressive intentions; instead, all discuss how it will realize these plans.”
And Golts adds: many Russian commanders say that as soon as it is organized, “the first guards tank army will take the Baltics.” Other experts based in the West concur and point to some the special units that have been created within that army which would be of use only in an aggressive campaign (svoboda.org/content/article/27585524.html, citing mk.ru/politics/2016/02/23/v-rossiyskoy-armii-poyavilsya-novyy-specnaz-shturmovye-sapery.html).
And the creation of that Russian army is not the only such institutional change in Russian military forces: Earlier this month, Russian commanders announced the formation of a new army corps in Kaliningrad. It is under the command of Maj.Gen.Yury Yarovitsky who earlier was deputy chief of staff of the first guards tank army (lenta.ru/news/2016/05/12/corps/).
Those who dismiss the possibility of a Russian move against the Baltic countries often cite the fact that the three are members of NATO. For them, such an invasion is as impossible as was the Anschluss of Crimea three years ago. And they forget the conclusion of some that the West is not “prepared to die for Narva” (svoboda.org/content/article/26717745.html).
“From a rational point of view,” Shtepa says, any Russian invasion would be ridiculous, especially now that there is a trip wire of NATO forces in the three Baltic countries. But rationality may not be in play here. As Angela Merkel has pointed out, Putin lives in “a different reality” and apparently a majority of Russians do as well.
And thus tragedies are possible, he suggests. Years ago, Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked in a poem “Do the Russians want war?” Then, no one did, but today, Shtepa points out, “the Russian hurrah patriotic publicists answer this question in the affirmative: ‘Russia is ready for the coming cataclysms, for a Major War.’”
Given such attitudes, one can only assume that the Kremlin is prepared to launch one, even if when and where remain unclear – and the only reasonable approach is to keep track of Russia’s development of its capacities as an indication of what it is thinking about now and may very well do, however “absurd” that may be.