This piece raises the question I have been asking for the past week in Brussels: can we credibly commit to the defense of the Baltics? Without a permanent NATO (or at least American) presence, is our Article V commitment (an attack upon one is an attack upon all) believable?
There are two ways to look at it. First, to be clear, any nuclear threat is incredible. That is--not to be believed. At any single point, it really is not that believable that country x will use nuclear weapons since they are always so disproportional and always raise the question of a global exchange and mutual destruction. So, the NATO commitment to use nuclear weapons to defend the Baltics is not to be believed.
However, if you summon the ghost of Thomas Schelling, he would remind us all that it is not so much the threat of global thermonuclear war that deters but "the threat that leaves something to chance." That is, that one does enough to create a credible possibility that if the other side escalates, it may start a process by which the two sides keep reacting to other that ultimately unleashes the nuclear weapons. Because nuclear war is so very destructive, one just needs a very, very small chance of it happening to deter. Perhaps the mere extension of Article V is sufficient to put this into play--that attacking a NATO member has a decent probability of leading to conventional war and that might lead to escalation, making that attack too costly.
This leads us to the second way to look at this. That NATO has not done enough to ties its hands to escalation. That the presentation of a fait accompli, such as Russia seizing the Baltics in a day or less, may freeze NATO into not responding, putting the onus of responding and risking the escalation that ultimately leads to nuclear war in NATO's hands. Yuck.
Which is why I have been calling for NATO, and if not NATO then the US, to forget the obligations made under the NATO Russia Founding Act of 1997. Since Russia has abrogated it, we should not feel bound by it. We should have significant numbers of troops based in Poland and especially the Baltics. These should be permanent bases and not continuous or persistent. We need to make it clear to Putin that an attack upon the Baltics would not lead to the possibility of decisions in Brussels but an automatic reaction in Washington, DC. That an attack upon the Baltics would more clearly be the start of a process that would leave something to chance. The way we used to make that most credible was by putting American bodies in the way--a trip wire that would force American decision-making.
Of course, this would make the situation seem like a new cold war. Ok and? More importantly, our NATO allies, especially those in the middle of Europe--far enough not to be directly threatened, close enough to have economic ties to Russia and a deep desire for the situation to return to normal--resist such steps. The US can and should move anyway.
Yes, this would escalate things with Russia, but it would then leave to the Russians the responsibility of not escalating further. In this game of chicken, it is best to make sure that one's threats are credible and that the responsibility of avoiding disaster is in the hands of the other side.