What do Americans think of Latvians?

A question of credibility

The security environment

In addition to the domestic political framework, the development of the European and international environment is a second important criterion for assessing the credibility of US security commitments and US reinsurance within the framework of NATO. Changes in the military balance of power play a central role in this. A historical example of this is NATO's credibility crisis in the 1960s. It was brought about by a stalemate between Washington and Moscow over strategic nuclear weapons60 as well as the perception of the European NATO states that the Soviet Union is conventionally superior.61

Even after the end of the Cold War, the military balance of power has by no means become insignificant. They allow conclusions to be drawn about the costs and risks associated with the protection commitments, the effectiveness of deterrents and how likely it is that the defense will succeed in the event of a crisis or war.

Troop presence and military balance of power

After 1991, the importance of the US military presence in Europe for the credibility of its security commitments declined. Instead, the focus was on the ability to send military forces to crisis areas or to reinforce them there.62 While more than 400,000 US soldiers were permanently stationed in 100 communities in Europe during the heyday of the Cold War, this presence shrank by 85 percent (based on the number of soldiers) and by 75 percent (based on the number of the bases).63

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question of the credibility of US reinsurance moved far into the background of European security policy. There were essentially two reasons for this: On the one hand, the military superiority of the USA appeared so great in every imaginable scenario that this question simply no longer arose. On the other hand, the collective defense of NATO fell de facto - if not on paper, that is, in the Strategic Concept of 1991 - from the agenda.

This was clearly shown in the debates and decisions that led to the eastward expansion of the alliance. They were dominated by political considerations rather than how the candidate countries could be defended militarily in the event of a conflict. This applies in particular to the 2004 round of enlargement, in the course of which the three Baltic republics, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria joined the alliance. As early as 1993, the later accession states, the "old" NATO states as well as Russia had considerably reduced their conventional military potential.64

Politically, the Western alliance undertook with the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 to refrain from stationing "additional substantial combat troops on a permanent basis" in the accession states.65 The order of magnitude that was meant was not defined in the Fundamental Act; occasionally, however, a brigade, which can comprise between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers, is mentioned as the upper limit.66 From a purely military point of view, in the first decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, the alliance considerably expanded its territory, and thus above all its north-eastern and north-south "flanks," and at the same time thinned out its conventional capabilities.

In direct comparison, it now appears that the NATO member states have a significantly greater defense potential than Russia. Together, the allies generate a gross domestic product (GDP) of 38 trillion US dollars (of which the USA 19 trillion US dollars),67 spend $ 925 billion on defense (of which the US $ 643 billion)68 and maintain armed forces (excluding reservists) to the extent of 3.2 million soldiers (1.4 million of them from the USA).69

By contrast, Russia's GDP is only $ 1.5 trillion. The country's defense spending is approximately $ 45 billion and the numerical strength of the armed forces is around 900,000. US dollar comparisons, however, should be viewed with caution as they do not take into account purchasing power parity. Because Russia essentially covers its armaments needs from national sources and pays for it in rubles.70

What is more decisive, however, is that Russia would be superior to NATO in a regionally limited conflict in Eastern Europe or the Baltic States, due to its military capabilities in the Baltic Sea, the Kaliningrad enclave, in the Crimea and in its western military district.71 Russia has invested large sums in modernizing its military over the past decade.72 Between 2011 and 2015, Russian military spending (nominally measured in rubles) doubled, while as a percentage of GDP it rose from 3.37 percent to 4.83 percent over the same period. In the following two years, however, Moscow's expenditures for the military fell again.73

A study of the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI) came to the conclusion in 2016 that the Russian armed forces had developed the ability to conduct major military operations outside of the territory of the former Soviet Union.74 Since 2016, Moscow has also begun re-strengthening its military presence along its western border, including building permanent military infrastructure on the border with Ukraine.75

Particularly significant for NATO are the improvements in Russia's military capabilities that would make it more difficult for the Alliance to provide military support to the exposed eastern member states in the event of a crisis.76 This applies above all to air defense, defense against ships, submarine warfare and the ability to target ground targets with ballistic missiles and cruise missiles (Cruise missiles) to attack.

Moscow, for example, has recently had additional state-of-the-art S-400 air defense systems77 produced and introduced into the armed forces.78 The system was also stationed in Kaliningrad in February 2012.79 Russia also announced in October 2016 IskanderMissiles relocated to Kaliningrad.80 This missile is highly mobile, difficult to fight, very accurate and can be equipped with conventional or nuclear equipment.81

The increasing equipment of the Russian Navy with Calibr-Marse missiles gave the fleet the ability to hit targets on land that are up to 2,000 km from the coast.82 NATO also accuses Russia of being based on the Calibr Having developed a ground-based cruise missile with a range of 2000 km and already stationed it in various locations in Russia. This cruise missile violates the Treaty on the Prohibition of Medium-Range Weapons (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, INF). Both sea-based and land-based weapons can be equipped with conventional and nuclear warheads.83

How can the alliance guarantee that the security of its members is indivisible?

The perception of a regional military imbalance to the detriment of NATO in north-eastern Europe has shaped the debate in the alliance on strengthening reinsurance and deterrence since 2014. In this debate, publications by leading US think tanks also play an important role, the authors of which are in favor of expanding the military presence of the USA and NATO in the eastern allies.84 Two studies by the RAND Corporation on the impact of these imbalances on the Alliance's collective defense capabilities made waves in Washington as well as in other NATO capitals.

In the first study from 2016, the authors came up based on simulations (War Games) concluded that it would take Russian forces no more than 60 hours to reach Tallinn or Riga.85 You propose to the NATO states that seven combat brigades, at least three of which are equipped with tanks, are available for the defense of the Baltic states.86 According to the authors, these forces would be sufficient to prevent Russia from creating military facts that are difficult to revise in a short period of time. The second, more recent, study from 2018 also comes to the conclusion that the Atlantic Alliance would be militarily inferior ("badly outnumbered and outgunned") in the first days of an armed conflict.87

The authors also stress that the Alliance's ability to deploy sufficient reinforcements at a later date is in question. Even the militarily most potent European NATO states - France, Great Britain and Germany - could only mobilize one armored combat brigade each, and only within a month or two.88 Finally, the RAND authors are critical of the US's ability to send sufficient troops and material across the Atlantic.89

In view of the military balance of power on the north-eastern and eastern borders of NATO - and despite its global conventional superiority - the alliance's old question arises with renewed acuteness: How can the politically postulated indivisibility of the security of its member countries be credible politically and militarily-operationally underpin?

Nuclear weapons

After 1991, both the US and NATO classified the threat from other nuclear powers as relatively low. Instead, they have focused on the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear terrorism. The US and the Soviet Union or Russia reduced the number of their non-strategic nuclear weapons to a considerable extent, in the case of the US to an estimated 500 by the early 2000s.90 In its 2010 nuclear strategy, the Obama administration also assumed that America's nuclear weapons would play a less important role in defense policy because the security environment had improved, because the US was conventionally superior to potential opponents and had made progress in missile defense would have.91

This optimistic picture has meanwhile become massively clouded - not only in the USA. Technological changes have fueled the fear of nuclear weapon states that they might lose their "secured second strike capability"92 lose, as more and more precise missiles and cruise missiles threaten their nuclear arsenals. At the same time, the boundaries between nuclear and conventional risks are blurring. Nuclear weapons are once again a symbol of strength. Nuclear arms control is in danger of collapsing, as evidenced by the uncertain future of the INF Treaty.93

Russia, like the United States, is undertaking a major program of modernization of its nuclear arsenal. In terms of strategic weapons, which have an intercontinental range thanks to their delivery systems, both states continue to maintain a numerical equilibrium, as in the New START treaty (New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) from 2010 is fixed with 1550 warheads per side. However, this contract expires in 2021 and it is questionable whether Moscow and Washington will be able to agree on its extension.

The situation is much more ambivalent with so-called non-strategic or tactical weapons, which are not mounted on ICBMs, long-range bombers or in nuclear submarines and do not fall under the existing arms control agreements for strategic weapons.

In terms of non-strategic weapons, the USA and NATO see themselves threatened by what they consider to be a clear imbalance because Russia maintains a considerably larger arsenal of these weapons than the Alliance.94 Russia has around 1,800 such weapons, which are assigned to the various branches of the armed forces.95 It sees it as a compensation for the conventional superiority of the USA and its NATO allies and as a counterweight to the increasingly capable conventional armed forces of China.96 From the perspective of the NATO states, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, the modernization of the nuclear-capable Russian short-range missiles through the introduction of the SS-26 (Iskander‑M)97 highly problematic.

In the opinion of Washington and NATO98 Russia is pursuing an increasingly aggressive defense policy that has noticeably raised the importance of nuclear weapons. The modernization and expansion of the Russian arsenal,99 the increase in military exercises with nuclear weapons-enabled systems100 as well as threats from the Russian side to possibly use nuclear weapons,101 have sparked a debate about Russian intentions and Russian nuclear strategy.102

The latter is often discussed under the term "escalation to de-escalation". According to the US nuclear planners, Russia is threatening a "limited nuclear escalation" - that is, the use of low-explosive nuclear weapons with short and medium range - in order to end a possible regional conflict on its own terms. Behind this is the calculation that neither the United States nor NATO would risk a further escalation with Russia up to a comprehensive nuclear war and instead surrendered.103 The Trump administration uses this point of view as an argument to encourage the development of nuclear weapons with lower explosive power (low yield) to justify to the American Congress as well as the allies.