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How Russia could force a nuclear war in the Baltics

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WASHINGTON – Would the United States fight a nuclear war to save Estonia? The question would probably strike most Americans as absurd. Certainly, almost no one was thinking about such a prospect when NATO expanded to include the Baltic states in 2004.

Yet a series of reports by the nonpartisan Rand Corporation shows that the possibility of nuclear escalation in a conflict between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia over the Baltic region is higher than one might imagine. The best way of averting it? Invest more in the alliance’s conventional defense.

There was a time when it seemed quite normal to risk nuclear war over the sanctity of European frontiers. During the Cold War, NATO was outnumbered by Warsaw Pact forces, and it would have had great difficulty stopping a Soviet attack with conventional weapons. From the moment it was formed, NATO relied on the threat of nuclear escalation — whether rapid and spasmodic, or gradual and controlled — to maintain deterrence. American thinkers developed elaborate models and theories of deterrence. U.S. and NATO forces regularly carried out exercises simulating the resort to nuclear weapons to make this strategy credible.

After the Cold War ended, the U.S. and its allies had the luxury of thinking less about nuclear deterrence and war-fighting. Tensions with Russia receded and nuclear strategy came to seem like a relic of a bygone era. Yet today, with Russia rising again as a military threat, the grim logic of nuclear statecraft is returning.

The spike in tensions between Russia and the West over the past half-decade has revealed a basic problem: NATO doesn’t have the capability to prevent Russian forces from quickly overrunning Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Russian invaders would be at the gates of the Baltic capitals in two to three days; existing NATO forces in the region would be destroyed or swept aside. NATO could respond by mobilizing for a longer war to liberate the Baltic countries, but this would require a bloody, dangerous military........

© The Japan Times