You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Though the first Supreme Allied Commander–Europe faced different circumstances, Eisenhower’s words still ring true and bear relevance to current European security. NATO’s eastern flank, specifically the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania find themselves directly opposite a revanchist Russia, whose superior military forces in the event of escalation could subdue the three NATO members in a matter of days. NATO has augmented the Baltic states with one multinational battalion battlegroup apiece, but these forces amount to a little more than 3,200 soldiers and represent a tripwire deterrent more than a force capable of matching Russian conventional capabilities in the region. In the event of a major conflict in the Baltic states, NATO would have to surge heavier military capabilities from neighboring nations with speed and efficiency. Sound logistics, especially rail, could make or break deterrence and response to Russian aggression.
The landscape of northeastern Europe has always been a significant contributing factor to the geopolitical tensions in the area. The East European Plain (sometimes referred to as Russian Plain by Russian geographers) stretches out from the Ural Mountains in the east to Black Sea in the south, and the Baltic Sea in the west. Though occasionally broken by hills and rivers, this area is largely flat. A general lack of significant natural barriers makes rail lines of communication and junctions strategically paramount.
The absence of natural borders in the eastern Baltic region has prompted drastic territorial changes over the past few hundred years. Just one century ago, the regional political landscape was defined by four imperial powers at war with each other: Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman Empire. The end of World War I saw the emergence of many smaller nation-states (including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) that were soon, during World War II, incorporated into two modern totalitarian empires: the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The end of the Cold War saw the resurgence of democratic nation-states again.
When the trains stop, that will be the end!
Railway industry in Russia never reached the dynamism nor the expansion seen in Europe or North America. Yet all Russian governments (Tsarist, Communist, and post-Communist) recognized their strategic importance and were the primary driving force behind railway expansion, to the extent that railway development would often take precedence over other priorities—even those with greater economic benefits—as Russian Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte, noted in his memoirs. Railways helped the Tsar crush Polish-Lithuanian rebellions of the mid-nineteenth century, facilitated the Bolsheviks’ defeat of other parties in the Russian Civil War, and allowed the post-Soviet Russian government to deal with Chechen insurgency in the 1990s.
Perhaps the most notable feature that showcases how important railways are for Russian armed forces are the Railway Troops. What started as an offshoot of the Imperial Army Engineer Corps (inherited by the Soviet Union) became a full-fledged military unit by the mid-twentieth century. What distinguishes the Russian (or Soviet) Railway Troops is that, while in other armed forces railway support is vested primarily in civilian hands—in other words, they are civilians associated with the military—Russian Railway Troops are soldiers with engineer training. They build, restore, and operate railways in wartime; however, they also play a role in peacetime conditions.
Railway Troops have seen use in almost every major war that Russia has taken part in, beginning with their first significant deployment in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and continuing through both World War I and World War II. They have also been used in the context of contemporary warfare as well. During both the First and Second Chechen Wars, the Railway Troops operated in a counterinsurgency setting. Rails were a popular target for Chechen insurgents and thus needed constant protection and repair. During the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, the Railway Troops repaired rail infrastructure connecting the occupied Abkhazia region with the rest of Russia under the guise of “humanitarian aid.”
Recently, Russia has also been considering renewing their rail-mobile ICBM system—though it was later canceled due to financial constraints. The “Barguzin railroad combat complex” saw deployment during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and has been regarded—at least in theory—as part of the Russian “ground-triad.”
The Russian Federation also makes extensive use of rail in mobilizing and positioning its forces, as exemplified by last September’s Zapad exercises. Russia surged conventional infantry and armored units into neighboring Belarus using railways as a primary means of rapid transportation.
Unlike the Russian Federation, NATO forces do not enjoy the same unrestricted freedom of movement for military forces across friendly territory. Currently, the Baltic states operate Russian-gauge railroad tracks, while other European NATO members utilize a standard European gauge (a single line from Poland to the Lithuanian city of Kaunas is the sole exception). This incompatibility means that trains carrying military equipment and supplies from larger NATO bases in Germany or Poland would have to transfer their cargo to Russian-gauge trains or proceed via ground convoys to their destinations. Not only are both options time-consuming, they require trained personnel and significant military resources (e.g., heavy equipment transporter systems, military police and security elements), as well as proficiency and familiarity in conducting such operations.
Baltic rail infrastructure significantly lags behind other European nation-states. A north-south axis across the three countries is currently nonexistent. Plans to correct this are already in motion in the form of Rail Baltica, the largest EU infrastructure investment project in the Baltic states. Ultimately connecting the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania via European-gauge track (along with an additional connection to Helsinki via Tallinn), Rail Baltica would allow for a standardized and uninterrupted rail link to the rest of NATO, with freight service up to 120 kilometers per hour. Though broad commitments by the EU and Baltic states have been made, the project is not expected to be completed until 2025.
If there is one thing that operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine show, it is the Russian propensity to use all available means to leverage their position. In both cases the combination of conventional military use and massive disinformation campaigns facilitated the successful achievement of Russian strategic aims. Though presently conditions in the Baltic region are not as ripe for the full extent of active measures Russia has employed in Ukraine, numerous vulnerabilities still exist and railways are at the center of them.
One potential source of conflict is Kaliningrad, or more specifically, the railway linking Kaliningrad to mainland Russia via Lithuanian territory. Kaliningrad transit was a political issue back in 2003 when Lithuania was preparing to enter EU. Moscow and Vilnius then reached an agreement that would allow Russian citizens to travel to and from Kaliningrad with a “facilitated transit document” instead of a visa. This document is easier to acquire than a visa, as it requires only twenty-four hours’ notice and far less scrutiny.
As a 2015 report from Center for European Policy Analysis argues, this might be a way to transport irregular militias to Lithuanian territory—similar to the “little green men” in Crimea or the Donbass. In August 2014 a Kaliningrad transit train halted midway near Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, and its hydroelectric power station. Seeking to prevent any unauthorized exits, the authorities scrambled to establish a perimeter around the train and to identify and address the causes of the interruption. Although the reason for the train’s halt ultimately turned out to be mechanical, the response to the incident underscores the concern that authorities have held regarding any irregularities.
Russia could also exploit Kaliningrad transit by staging a sabotage or “terrorist” attack on a railway, accusing Lithuania of deliberately failing to deal with the issue, and then pursuing an armed invasion masquerading as a humanitarian mission, thus cutting off Lithuania from Poland. Such scenarios may seem alarmist but are not without precedent: in 2014, the Russian government pushed a convoy of over one hundred trucks (ostensibly carrying humanitarian aid) into eastern Ukraine without Ukrainian or international permission.
Another tool of current statecraft in Russia’s arsenal is corruption. This means of influence works not just as a web in which the Kremlin seeks to entrap the institutions and officials of countries it considers its periphery and beyond. It is also employed in tandem with information operation campaigns to discredit the Baltic states as “failed” in the eyes of their inhabitants, as well as Western and Russian audiences. Unfortunately, the Baltic transportation sector has for a long time been infamously rife with corruption, especially the national railways in both Latvia and Lithuania (although Estonia has not escaped scandals either). In 2015, former CEO of Latvian Railways Ugis Magonis was apprehended by Latvian anti-corruption officials in a too-cliché-for-cinema scene involving a high-speed car chase and half a million euros in a trunk. Magonis was himself close to the head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin. (Yakunin was placed on a US blacklist after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, although he avoided EU blacklist due to Latvian lobbying.) Russian Railways has also increased its holdings over the Latvian rail carrier LNT. The deal itself was not transparent and reportedly involved multiple offshore dealings. All these cases indicate that the Baltic railway system may remain vulnerable to Russian influence.
Baltic railway infrastructure continues to be a liability for NATO security on its eastern flank. However, rail is one component of a larger issue dogging NATO forces in Europe: rapid troop deployment across NATO and EU member states. Customs and regulatory issues compound that problem. As a former commanding general of United States Army Europe, retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, shrewdly described the problem, “I wish we could move across Europe as quickly as migrants do.” Russia on the other hand encounters none of these issues as it is able to move its troops across all of its military districts, as well as neighboring Belarus.
A rapid surge capability using improved railway networks in the Baltic states would create immediate benefits for the alliance. Prepositioned stocks and increased permanent or rotational troops in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania could easily be perceived as an escalating measure to Russia (a nation already preoccupied with the notion of NATO enlargement as tantamount to aggressive encroachment). Improved rail capabilities gives NATO a third option: moving heavy forces rapidly in advance of major Russian provocations or exercises (such as Zapad), while retaining the ability to remove them once a situation has defused.
The increasing calls for a “military Schengen zone” show that this topic might be returning to European policymakers’ agenda. The Netherlands has been among the most vocal advocates of improving interoperability between allied countries. In March 2018 the European Commission presented an action plan for improving military mobility in the EU. The plan suggests improving the dual-use capabilities for civilian railway networks as well as tackling regulatory issues on taxes, dangerous goods, and cross-border troop movement. This is all a step in the right direction; however, as ambitious as the European Commission may be, the final say will depend on the individual states, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe.
Ultimately, addressing shortfalls regarding rail transport and infrastructure in the Baltic states is aimed at just one aspect of NATO’s vulnerabilities on its eastern flank. The ability for Russian forces to rapidly airlift men and materiel within its borders (and its “near abroad”), the increasing force projection capabilities of the Russian garrison in Kaliningrad, and the proposed network of prepositioned munitions and weapons stockpiles will require a major review of how NATO intends to execute contingency plans from Tallinn to Varna. A serious discussion on the matter would be welcome at the upcoming NATO Summit this July, though NATO military commanders can begin to address these shortfalls in logistics before bureaucrats put pen to paper.
Adam Maisel is a military intelligence officer in the Army Reserve and veteran of Operations Enduring Freedom and Freedom’s Sentinel and a former civilian military intelligence adviser to US, NATO, and allied forces. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in National Security Studies at King’s College London, Department of War Studies. Adam is also the co-founder of Dägr Group, a transatlantic initiative bridging the gap between national security practitioners and academia.
Laurynas Keturakis is an associate analyst at the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis. He is currently completing his bachelor’s degree in International Studies at Leiden University, The Hague.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.
Image credit: 2nd Lt. Benton Conque, US Army