At first, the attack unfolds silently, weaving its way through cyberspace long before bullets fly.
The drumbeat of disinformation builds in the Baltics. Russian-speaking residents hear through news outlets and social media messages that there are reasons to realign with the motherland.
Nearby, Russian troops are hunkered down with hundreds of tanks and missiles in Belarus.
Text messages, like paper leaflets in previous war propaganda falling from the sky, whisper, “America won’t help you” and “NATO is not your friend.”
Russo-defiant Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko faces a Kremlin-backed coup.
This unrest on the border will not stand, Russian President Vladimir Putin tells his countrymen. He cannot allow insecurity to grow into a threat.
That’s where this hypothetical — but very plausible — scenario leads into a more traditional conflict: Internet-connected infrastructure shuts down, rockets crash into key targets, and the treads of Russian tanks chew up Baltic roads, bringing the deafening roar of war across all spheres.
Estimates by think tank experts and career military leaders predict that a swift Russian push would claim cities in a matter of 36 to 60 hours.
And Russia could keep rolling, gobbling up territory for the first 90 days, daring the U.S. and NATO to push back.
This month, Russia is holding its military exercise in the country’s western district, which will involve one of the largest massing of Russian forces along Europe’s border since the fall of the Soviet Union.
This event promises to keep U.S. and NATO military leaders on edge as Russians move 60,000 to 100,000 troops and 4,000 train loads of equipment toward the Polish and Lithuanian borders.
Parts of the Russians exercise will be conducted on both sides of the Suwalki Gap, a key sliver of NATO territory that would likely be the focus of any initial Russian maneuver toward the Baltics.
Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, said earlier this year he will be closely watching what equipment enters Belarus, and, more importantly, what remains there afterward.
Though North Korean nuclear threats have dominated the news for months, the slow burn of Russian territory grabs in eastern Europe, coupled with NATO criticism from President Donald Trump, create a scenario that could erupt at exactly the wrong time — when the United States is distracted and unprepared.
European allies near the Russian border have ramped up military spending and re-instituted conscription as Russia rises. These exercises cast “the shadow of the Russian Bear” over a region that has memories of Russian domination, Hodges said.
Nearly every recent paper, report and think-tank analysis has focused likely future Russian aggression in the Baltics as the next logical step in an effort to recapture lost Soviet territories and antagonize NATO states.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the Army, said nearly every recent Russian military exercise has focused on the Baltics.
“They’re practicing a war against the U.S. and NATO — that’s what they’re doing,” Keane said.
Russians moved an estimated 150,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border within days of the end of the 2014 Sochi Olympics as a cover to position forces in Crimea, which they seized despite international condemnation.
Should they move on the Baltics, a buffer between Europe and Russia, they would face nearly the smallest NATO force in the organization’s history and nearly the fewest U.S. troops in modern times.
There are fewer than 65,000 soldiers stationed or forward-deployed in Europe, as compared to more than 270,000 at the height of the Cold War.
Top leaders do not mince words when speaking of Russia.
“Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford said during recent congressional testimony.
RUSSIA’S HYBRID WARFARE
While the United States has spent the past 16 years fighting terrorists and waging counterinsurgency campaigns across the world, Russia has been watching and rebuilding its military.
We have returned to the “great power competition,” Keane said.
Putin knows that Russia can’t fight a conventional war or extend far from its border. But it can push incrementally to reclaim historical Russian territory and destabilize NATO.
The United States’ current stance toward Moscow is unclear. Trump has repeatedly made comments supporting Putin and questioning the U.S. commitment to its European allies.
But many of Trump’s top advisers — his secretaries of state and defense, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the vice president — have all identified Russia as a threat and committed the United States to defending NATO.
For the past several years, the Russians have been refining a new form of aggression and “hybrid” warfare. It combines elements of conventional military power with subversion in the form of cyber-attacks, disinformation and electronic warfare.
Invasions and hybrid warfare fighting in the Republic of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine have been test beds for a new Russian military, Keane said.
“They’re intimidating our NATO allies,” Keane said. “They want them to see the United States isn’t who you think it is. That they can push us around.”