Would the U.S. fight a nuclear war to save Estonia? The question would probably strike most Americans as absurd.

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.

After the Cold War ended, the U.S. and its allies had the luxury of thinking less about nuclear deterrence and war-fighting. 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 campaign. Critically, that campaign would require striking targets located within Russia itself, as well as suppressing Russian artillery, short-range missiles and other capabilities within the Kaliningrad enclave, which is situated behind NATO’s front lines.

Moreover, this sort of NATO counteroffensive is precisely the situation Russian nuclear doctrine seems meant to avert. Russian officials understand that their country would lose a long war against NATO. So the Kremlin has signaled that it might carry out limited nuclear strikes — perhaps a “demonstration strike” somewhere in the Atlantic, or against NATO forces in the theater — to force the alliance to make peace on Moscow’s terms. This concept is known as “escalate to de-escalate,” and there is a growing body of evidence that the Russians are serious about it.

A NATO-Russia war could thus go nuclear if Russia “escalates” to preserve the gains it has won early in the conflict. It could also go nuclear in a second, if somewhat less likely, way: If the U.S. and NATO initiate their own limited nuclear strikes against Russian forces to prevent Moscow from overrunning the Baltic allies in the first place. And even the limited use of nuclear weapons raises the question of further escalation: Would crossing the nuclear threshold lead to a general nuclear war?

So what to do? One option would be for the West to pull back. The logic here is superficially compelling. After all, the U.S. could survive and thrive in a world where Russia dominated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, just as it survived and thrived during the Cold War, when those countries were part of the Soviet Union.

A second option, emphasized by the Pentagon’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, would be to devise new limited nuclear options as a way of strengthening deterrence. For example, the U.S. might develop low-yield nuclear weapons that could be used, in a relatively limited fashion, against a Russian invasion force or the units supporting it.

The dangers here are, well, obvious and drastic. There is always some possibility that Russia might mistake a limited strike against military targets in the Baltics for part of a larger or more dangerous nuclear strike against Russia itself.

A third, and best, option is to strengthen the weak conventional posture that threatens to bring nuclear options into play. The U.S. and its allies could make a Russian campaign far harder and costlier — with a much-diminished chance of rapid success — by deploying an enhanced NATO force of seven to eight brigade combat teams, some 30,000 troops. That force would include three or four armored brigade combat teams, along with enhanced mobile air defenses and other critical capabilities.

Russia couldn’t claim credibly that such troops posed any real offensive threat to its territory. But the force would be large and robust enough that Russian troops couldn’t destroy it in a flash.

Developing this stronger conventional deterrent in the Baltics would not be cheap: Estimates run from $8 billion to $14 billion in initial costs, plus $3 billion to $5 billion in annual operating expenses. Yet neither would it be prohibitive for the richest alliance in the world. The best way of reducing the danger of a nuclear war in the Baltics is to ensure that NATO won’t immediately lose a conventional one.

— Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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