Russia and NATO in the Baltics (NSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Set in July 2016. Since Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, the United States has debated how to best support the Baltic States, three small countries wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea. Those states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—are fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which the United States is bound by treaty to help defend. Given Russia’s willingness to openly flout the sovereignty of its neighbors and its increasingly aggressive military presence in the Baltic region, the United States worries that Russia could continue an expansionist policy. 

Before the biennial NATO summit, the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) will convene to determine a policy to address Baltic security that the United States will articulate at the gathering. As the NSC deliberates, it needs to consider the possibility that Russian actions in Ukraine could be replayed in the Baltics. 

Decision Point

American policymakers need to decide how to support the Baltic states now that Russia has annexed Crimea. Russia’s willingness to openly flout the sovereignty of its neighbors leaves the United States worried Russia could continue an expansionist policy. 

Underscoring that fear was Russia’s increasingly aggressive military presence in the Baltic region. In the years before the annexation of Crimea, the territory around the Baltics had seen Russian military buildup, including increased submarine patrols around NATO territory, military drills, and air patrols. In April 2016, tensions flared after the White House reported that a Russian plane had flown “dangerously close” to a U.S. ship and a Polish plane in the Baltic Sea. In a separate incident later that month, a Russian fighter jet came within one hundred feet of an American reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea. During the following months, Latvia several times identified Russian military ships and aircraft near its waters and airspace.

The biennial NATO summit is scheduled to convene in Warsaw, Poland, in July of this year (2016). Because tensions with Russia in the Baltic region have been mounting, discussing the alliance’s eastern flank will occupy much of the summit’s agenda. In advance of the meeting, the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) will convene to determine a policy to address Baltic security that it will articulate at the summit. As the United States deliberates, it needs to consider that Russian actions in Ukraine—including the exploitation of a neighbor’s internal divisions, the infiltration of special operations forces, a buildup of regular units on the border, and a potential Russian seizure of neighboring territory—could be replayed in the Baltics. The stakes for the United States and its allies would be considerably higher should such moves occur in a country that, unlike Ukraine, is a member of NATO. As NSC members meet to choose a response, they should consider four different variables:

  • How to send Moscow a strong signal of Western determination without provoking Russian escalation
  • How to balance diplomatic initiatives with military measures that would make it possible to defend the Baltic states if deterrence fails
  • How to manage discourse between the U.S. Congress and friendly foreign governments (especially those of NATO allies) while avoiding adding so many voices to the debate that decisions are delayed and policy loses focus
  • Finally, how to develop effective public explanations of policy at a time when Russian propaganda—and not a few Western commentators—are blaming the Baltic states and NATO for the tensions 

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the National Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the concept of collective security by considering the role of NATO in defending the Baltics.
  • Students will consider the severity of the threat posed by the Russian military build up near the Baltics against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing action in Ukraine.
  • Students will evaluate how the United States, along with its NATO allies, should assist Baltic leaders in countering the Russian threat.

Concepts and Issues



  • Collective defense obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5
  • Post–Cold War expansion of the European Union and NATO and Russia’s relations with those institutions
  • Russia’s political evolution and the legacy and effects of its action in Ukraine

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case that you may find helpful as you guide the role-play and assess students.

General Considerations

Because NATO is both a central institution of U.S. foreign policy and a major strategic asset, the United States sees any Russian military activity near the Baltic states as a challenge it needs to—in some fashion—meet. The United States has a strong interest in maintaining the security of its European allies and in sending a firm signal to Russia that it cannot threaten them without consequence. Yet no decision on supporting an ally in trouble is a simple one, especially when the opposing power is a nuclear-armed state with considerable military and economic might. Any escalation in the conflict could have high costs for both U.S. and NATO military personnel.

As a first step, the United States, along with its NATO allies, had to consider how severe the threat from Russia’s actions was. Russian buildup near the Baltics had yet to constitute an armed attack that would justify invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. However, against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing activity in Ukraine, the Baltic states sought strong signals of U.S. resolve.

Second, the United States will need to carefully consider how to most effectively assist without unnecessarily escalating the conflict. If, on the other hand, NATO members hold off invoking Article 5, Western policymakers could have more flexibility. In either case, Baltic leaders and other NATO allies will seek strong signals of U.S. resolve, and any U.S. action seen as half-hearted under these circumstances could cause allies in Europe and beyond to question U.S. commitment to collective security.

Apart from the question of whether Article 5 applies, the United States has a variety of policy tools available in supporting the Baltic states. NSC members will need to examine the costs and benefits of those tools as well as ways to combine them. They could also advise taking none of the steps if they conclude U.S. interests are best served by staying out of the crisis.

Military measures

If the United States believes the Baltic states’ status as treaty allies calls for a strong show of support, it has a range of military options, such as immediately deploying U.S. rapid-reaction troops, mobilizing a larger multinational NATO contingent, and positioning naval forces off the coasts of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. If NSC members choose to pursue military action, they will need to consider how U.S. and NATO forces can most effectively respond while avoiding unnecessary escalation. NATO forces could be deployed to reinforce the Baltic states’ defenses unobtrusively, so as to not inflame Russia, or take a more visible approach that would signal firmness. An immediate deployment of rapid-reaction troops could quickly reinforce critical defenses, whereas a larger response would take longer to assemble but could send a more visible message of NATO solidarity. Additionally, deployments close to the Russian border could risk escalation, but stationing troops at a greater distance could both limit NATO’s ability to react quickly and convey uncertain resolve.

A military response would send a strong message of resolve to Russia and potentially deter further escalation if the Kremlin decides the risk of open conflict with NATO is too great. Moreover, it would position troops to respond quickly and effectively if the situation escalated into open conflict. However, a military response is not a guaranteed deterrent: Moscow could respond by bolstering its own military presence, increasing the risk of a miscalculation or miscommunication that could ignite a large-scale conflict.

Diplomatic initiatives

Interest in solving this crisis peacefully is strong. To pursue a diplomatic resolution, NSC members could consider consultations between the United States and the Baltic states. The United States could also call for a meeting of NATO foreign or defense ministers, or even a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, which was created to address security issues between NATO and Russia but has met only intermittently since the 2014 Crimea crisis. The United States could also take a more direct approach, dispatching a high-level U.S. representative to Moscow—perhaps preceded by a U.S.-Russia presidential phone call. NSC members will need to decide whether diplomatic steps should be tried before military steps are taken or whether pursuing both steps in parallel would be more effective. They will also need to consider whether to seek concessions and what sort of concessions to seek: assurances of security in the Baltics, trust-building measures, or merely beginning talks.

Economic measures

NSC members could also choose to impose economic sanctions on Russia to signal Western opposition to Russia’s actions. Sanctions would reduce the risk of direct military confrontation but could be interpreted by NATO allies as a weak show of support. Moreover, sanctions would not necessarily compel Moscow to act. Sanctions played a large role in Western strategy during the confrontation over the Crimean Peninsula but ultimately have had no effect on Russia’s involvement in that country. Moscow has also used the sanctions as a tool to inflame anti-Western sentiment. However, combined with a fall in oil prices, sanctions significantly weakened Russia’s economy in 2014. Although Russia has largely recovered from that downturn, new and more severe sanctions could have a stronger effect on its actions. As they were during the annexation of Crimea, sanctions can be applied in many forms: against individual leaders, particular companies, or entire sectors of the economy.