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There is a good deal to assess in Eastern Europe, but it is usually done in piecemeal fashion if at all  by armchair generals and lazy talk show hosts. Tucker Carlson epitomizes many of these uninformed views by claiming Russia poses “no threat.” Carlson claims that because their economy is about the same size as Italy’s, their military budget that is one tenth the size of America’s, and they have an aircraft carrier that needs to be towed, Russia is harmless. These sound like convincing numbers and tends to give isolationists seemingly strong talking points. But these numbers ignore the real threat of Russian intimidation and short quick wars. The truth is that contrary to the lazy analysis, there are still many potential sparks for war with Russia.

Russia Hides Its True Strength

There is significant evidence that Russia cooks the books to make their budget and activities look benign and feeds talking points about their military budget being one-tenth the size of the US and so on. But a Russian backed cyber-attack is relatively inexpensive and focusing on their anemic economy and military spending ignores their out-sized capabilities.

These are good reasons why we must remember that wars are not simply math contests. For example, Russian forces used cyber attacks to infect Ukrainian rocket and artillery forces with malware. On its own that sounds insignificant, but Ukraine has been fighting Russian backed separatists in the Donbas region and losing as much as 80% of some types of artillery has turned the whole region into a bleeding ulcer.

How Big a Threat Do the Baltic States Face from Russia?

Some analysts claim that the Baltic states face some of the weakest Russian units and thus shouldn’t be afraid of a quick invasion from Moscow. This is delusional. Indeed, Russia could use its massive military exercises in nearby Belarus to mask the movement of huge amounts of soldiers into the region. Assuming the minimizing analysts are correct, any single NATO member could become too afraid to wait for reinforcements from Western Europe and the often-fractious NATO members and launch a preemptive attack on Russian forces in Belarus, the Kaliningrad pocket or Russia proper.

An incident involving Russian and American aircraft in the Baltic might lead to active fighting. Russian jets sometimes buzz American planes. At high rates of speeds an accident could easily happen and trigger retaliatory strikes. This wouldn’t likely result in full scale war, but this could induce Russia to apply economic pressure on nearby regions, intensify cyber efforts above, or look like they are massing forces for a conventional war in order to provoke a lengthy and costly build up from Western forces. Russia might have a smaller military budget and economy, but it only takes one plane or one incident to lead to a dangerous escalation.

Poland and Lithuania resisting Russia’s reinterpretation of World War II had led to a series of tit-for-tat escalations. Something more significant like the Polish might try to reinforce the Suwalki Gap, push forward American backed missile defenses, or target the Kaliningrad pocket, any of which might provoke a serious Russian military response.

The Importance of Montenegro and Growing Russian Leverage

Russia could continue its pressure on Montenegro to allow Russian use of its ports. They would challenge larger NATO powers (and American isolationists) to risk war to protect its smallest member. Moscow might have an inoperable carrier as Carlson mentioned, but they can still apply local pressure by moving missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines around the Eastern Mediterranean. They can launch from their port in Syria, or directly challenge NATO powers like Italy and Turkey.  At the very least they can interdict shipping and apply pressure short of war to their advantage.

Extensive wargames by the RAND corporation show that Russia could capture these territories in as little as 72 hours. Minimizing analysts claim Russia won’t do this because they would have to then survive a massive counterattack from NATO. This could be like Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 that led to the massive coalition in Desert Storm.  But Russia might also complete its conquest so quickly that it could be a repeat of the attack on Crimea, which faced Western commendation but little action. A dictator for life in control of territory against divided allies might present NATO with a fait accompli that they are too weak to challenge.

Don’t Underestimate Russia

Its true that Russia would be unable to withstand a long war. But they can cause a great deal of trouble such as seizing the Crimea, supporting separatists, launching cyberattacks, buzzing American planes and threatening a short and quick war to seize critical objectives. These are all real threats that have happened in the past few years. Russia already exhibits threatening and destabilizing behavior that undermines its neighbors and the West. It would be a mistake to assume that because their economy and military is smaller, they pose no threat. After all, the Japanese had the same disadvantages as Russia but still launched the Pearl Harbor attack. Given that a short quick war is the best chance for a Russian victory, America and NATO should be even more sensitive to Russian provocations, not less.

It's a tough moment