There is a great chance that Putin will order an attack on the Baltic states, because now is a perfect opportunity for Russia to neutralize NATO for good.
Why is that?
1. America’s isolationist policy
With Donald Trump being next president of the United States, the Kremlin’s favorite candidate will be in the White House from beginning of next year. Trump is considered to do a isolationist policy with less or no interest for military involvement in foreign countries. Trump has earlier criticized NATO as “obsolete”. No wonder that politicians of other NATO states are asking Trump about his intentions regarding NATO.
Also Obama had decreasing interest in military engagements abroad. Drawing a red line in Syria which has been crossed several times, but the trespassing stayed without any real consequences for anyone.
2. Psychological preparation for war
Russia’s state media is creating an enemy stereotype of the West and Europe which is described as gay, hostile towards Russia and despicable. Also quite recently there was a nuclear war drill in Russia allegedly involving 40 Million people. This was accompanied by state news suggesting that the West might attack Russia with nuclear weapons. At the same time Russian nationalism appears to be on an all time peak. It seems as if the Russian people are mentally prepared for war.
3. Physical preparation for war
Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria can also be seen as preparation for war. Besides all geostrategic aspects, these involvements give Russian military the chance to test weapon systems and tactics. It’s pretty much the same what Nazi-Germany did during the Spanish Civil War.
4. The West’s (mental) weakness
The conflicts in Ukraine and Syria have shown Russia that the West is too weak to seriously prevent the implementation of Russian interests. All cease-fire and humanitarian agreements are not worth the paper they are written on. The West has replied with sanctions on Russia, but Russia has learned to live with that.
Additionally Russian propaganda campaign in the West with its constant policy of denying and blaming someone else (the West) is successful among an apparently growing number of people, including politicians. Russia actively seeks to influence public opinion on everything related to Russia.
A growing number of people in the West seem unhappy with their governments and even with the political system. This explains also the rise of populist (preferably from the right wing) parties and movements. Some of these admire Russia as role model (traditionalism) and Putin as a strong leader. The Kremlin on the other hand supports such parties (like the National Front in France) and movements also with money. Putin supports groups and ideas that destabilize the West from within and also create division for example within the European Union.
5. NATO is not capable to defend the Baltics
Militarily NATO is not able to defend the small Baltic states. According to several scenarios Russia could invade and conquer the Baltic states within a few days even with some NATO personnel stationed there. NATO takes several months to mobilize its troops, by then it would be rather a counter-offensive than a defense.
Considering that the USA might not want or are incapable to intervene militarily anywhere in the next time in a larger scale, the European NATO members would be de facto left alone with the “Baltic problem”. Assuming that Russia would invade the Baltic states, does anyone honestly think that the other NATO members would risk the lives of their soldiers or a nuclear war merely for the Baltic states – even if some NATO personnel were killed during a Russian invasion?
Consider the following: War – especially with Russia – is totally unpopular for Western, let’s rather say European people. They don’t want it, they are not used to it, they are afraid of it. When a growing number of people distrust their governments and institutions (fueled by Russian propaganda), why should politicians risk their career for three small states by sending troops there? Even if the West would plan an intervention or rather counter-attack, it would definitely mean a full-scale confrontation with Russia. Putin would in an early stage threaten with the use of nuclear weapons and this might just be enough to scare the West off, because everybody believes Putin is capable of using nuclear weapons. The people in the West are too soft for Putin’s tough game – that’s just a fact.
If this scenario happens as described here, NATO is practically finished. A military alliance where the allies don’t help each other although it has been agreed, is technically worthless and thus really obsolete.
In that way Putin would reach his goal of not only weakening NATO, but neutralizing it. Even if NATO would continue to exist, it would be much less attractive to all other Russian neighbors that are currently seeking to join NATO. For them such a NATO would mean no safety. They would accept their fate and that they are within the Russian hemisphere of power.
So right now, there is an unique opportunity for Russia to end NATO with a relatively small stake.
Timing of a possible Russian attack is still open, but this winter could be an opportunity as Russia’s “gas weapon” as a reaction to more sanctions by the West would be more effective.
To express all this a bit shorter:
Question: Why should Russia invade the Baltic states?
Answer: Why does a dog lick his balls? – Because he can.