November 22, 2019

Are the Baltic States Convincing Russia by Developing their Defence Capability?

EPA /Scanpix
Latvian soldiers take up positions during NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group training exercise in Adazi Military base, Latvia.
Latvian soldiers take up positions during NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group training exercise in Adazi Military base, Latvia.

Difficult choices lie ahead for the Baltics in defence posture.

Research projects by the US think-tank RAND Corporation have been widely discussed in Estonia due to their thoroughness and attention to detail. Its most well-known report is probably the simulation published in 2016 that found that NATO’s capability to protect its Baltic member states was close to zero, and that forces from their mutual neighbour would reach Tallinn or Riga in less than three days.1 Most of RAND’s subsequent reports have confirmed that there is a direct threat from Russia to the Baltic states, and offered solutions on how this could be deterred.

In one of the latest studies, published in the spring of 2019, the think-tank’s experts have made probably the most detailed recommendations so far on how to defend the Baltics better, from acquiring specific supportive technology, such as drones or night-vision devices, to the greater integration of analytical and synthetic intelligence capabilities both nationally and between the states.2 The value of the recommendations lies mainly in their conflict-based point of view; there is a clear perspective on which method could be used in which phase of a conflict and how it would help. However, this approach is risky, due to the possibility that attention to detail leaves a more general question unaddressed—what specifically deters Russia and how much the Baltics should concentrate on activities that would convince Russia not to enter into a military conflict with them as members of NATO. This critical debate has been more topical internationally than in the Baltics themselves.3 This article offers food for thought on whether Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are on the right track in developing their defence capability, and aspects that the Baltic states should focus on more in the future.

Russia’s Capability, Motivation and Working Pattern

In discussing what could deter Russia, there is no way round the Gerasimov Doctrine and Serdyukov’s reforms. The first is an article published in 2013 based on a presentation by Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov and the second refers to the changes made to the country’s armed forces in 2008 under the leadership of Russia’s then Minister of Defence, Anatoliy Serdyukov.

In his presentation Gerasimov stated that, in a situation in which the line between war and peace is blurred, non-military means can be more effective in achieving political and strategic goals than armed forces, and that asymmetrical actions can nullify the enemy’s success in an armed conflict.4 Therefore—as could be seen in the conflict in Ukraine—we cannot underestimate the threats posed by hybrid warfare or the importance of comprehensive national defence as a measure of deterrence. At the same time, Gerasimov’s speech gives an insight into how Russia understands hybrid warfare. The presentation lists changes in warfare, such as the increased role of mobile, mixed-type combat units; combat activity becoming more intense and dynamic; the increased use of long-distance, contactless attacks against the enemy to achieve goals; shortening or doing away with tactical and operational pauses; and reductions in the informational gaps between forces and their control organs.

Gerasimov stresses the importance of special operations forces and internal opposition in achieving goals to create a permanently operating front throughout the territory of an enemy state. The same capabilities have been carried over to Gerasimov’s new limited-action strategy published in early 2019, in the implementation of which the central forces are seen to be mobile and independently operating units. According to Gerasimov, the precondition for the successful implementation of the new strategy is sustainable combat readiness (on the management level as well as the operational), covert operation of units if necessary, and achieving and maintaining predominance in the information space.5

The changes made in Russia’s armed forces in the last decade are further proof that the improvement of military capability is considered of crucial importance for Russia. The measures that have been become known as the Serdyukov reforms are seen, due to their scale, as the most important steps in Russia’s armed forces since the 1920s, or at least since the communist period. It is thought the conflict in Georgia, which highlighted the weaknesses of the Russian armed forces, provided the motive for the reforms.

During the reorganisations, the number of active servicemen and military units was reduced, the number of military districts was brought down from six to four, and former partly unmanned and mainly “on-paper” divisions were rearranged into smaller, permanently combat-ready units capable of operating independently.6 The latter are the main substantive result of the reform, and include battalions with different and complementary capabilities, such as anti-tank forces, intelligence and communications. These changes help ensure that Russia has units almost the size of divisions ready for combat at any given moment, while Estonia would need time to put together a brigade, as this would require the help of several combat support units. To the frustration of the Western world, Russia has already demonstrated the “success” of its reformed armed forces in eastern Ukraine and Syria.

Even though the most important factor in the context of hybrid warfare is usually seen as the development of cyber-capabilities or comprehensive national defence, in light of Gerasimov’s statements and the reforms in the Russian armed forces, the focus should clearly also be on the professionalism, mobility and combat-readiness of the armed forces.

It is entirely possible that, if Russia targeted a Baltic state, the conflict would still be planned in Russia according to the so-called limited action strategy, which is focused on highly mobile and independent units. Standing up to the threat would require the Baltic states to have similarly mobile and permanently combat-ready units available as well. This statement is also supported by the fact that, although the NATO defence framework focuses on strategic deterrence of Russia, it is often more complicated in reality. The Russian political elite, as well as local military and academic circles, stress Russia’s role as the main security guarantor in the world: “Russia’s policy … is to remain tactically flexible, prepared for every eventuality, but also to be more strategic than ever in building a world order that is stable, peaceful, and comfortable for Russia”, to quote the Russian (military) research scientists Sergei Karaganov and Dmitry Suslov.7 This stance does not show Putin’s Russia to be a state ready to be strategically deterred on the international stage. It can therefore be assumed that Russia is still interested in putting its capabilities into action in some country or region, and that it will do so somewhere in the future. From the standpoint of the security of the Baltic states, it is therefore more reasonable to talk about deterring a realistic, aggressive operation following the limited action strategy in the Baltic region. Our clear interest is for Russia to refrain from realising its capabilities in this region in the future.

Developments in the Baltic States’ Deterrence and National Defence

Given that Russia’s current strategy revolves around constant combat readiness and independently operating units, it is reasonable to concentrate on whether (and which) Baltic states have an equivalent capability to counter them. In this context, two aspects matter to Russia: the size of the similarly equipped contingent of active servicemen in the Baltic states and how well Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can realise the potential of their reservist forces in the early hours of the conflict.

In analysing the defence capability of the Baltic states, Estonia is usually mentioned as an examplar of success, as its defence forces are a combination of professional servicemen, reservists who have completed the mandatory conscript service, and members of the Defence League. But given their readiness to counter an attack by professional, mobile and independently operating units, the Estonian military forces might not be able to realise their size advantage in a possible conflict. In this comparison, the odds might favour Latvia, where the military forces have relied on professional servicemen for more than ten years and there is no mandatory conscription as there is in Estonia. Lithuania has implemented a combination of both systems by first abolishing mandatory conscript service and later, in 2015, partially reinstating it.

Latvia has the highest number of active servicemen in the Baltic states; in 2018 its defence forces had almost 6,000 professional members;8 Estonia had close to 3,400 active servicemen.9 One can, of course, argue that in wartime the number of servicemen in Estonia would be many times higher following mobilisation, including reservists and units manned by the Defence League.

Nevertheless, both the Russo-Georgian war and the conflict in Ukraine have demonstrated that reaction speed and mobility, not the size of the forces, provide a competitive edge. The active phase of the conflict in Georgia lasted no more than two or three days, and although a lot of armed forces had been focused in the area, the majority of the fighting took place between two Russian motorised battalions and two Georgian brigades. The active confrontational phase of the Ukraine conflict did not include many combat forces, either. It may therefore be assumed that, in planning an aggression, Russia focuses on achieving its goal as fast as possible. If this was counteracted (i.e. if Russia believed that in the first 24 hours the Baltic states could stop or turn back the battalions coming from the east), Russia would certainly have significantly lower motivation to start a conflict. In this light, the role of active servicemen in the Baltics (and especially the Scouts Battalion in Estonia) is especially important. Active servicemen are the initial shield that supports Estonian defence capability and deterrence.

As security threats become more imminent, the logical strategic choice would be to increase the role of active servicemen in developing the country’s defence capability. Overall, Estonia’s current model based on reservist forces is similar to the Russian military before the reforms, while the Latvian model resembles the Russian approach after them. Although problems related to the model based on reservist forces have already been recognised in Estonia and several important steps to improve realistic defence capability have been taken, it could be that the current tempo is not sufficient to deter Russia from putting its capabilities into action in the Baltics—and more specifically in Estonia—in the near future. At the current level of defence expenditure, Estonia’s independent defence capability would reach its peak by 2026.10

The strategic choice for Estonia would be to focus on improving its independent defence capability to shorten the period in which the country is more vulnerable. Due to the technical decline in Russia, we might reach the critical limit in the next five years. Before this, Russia would still have at least some technical capability to launch aggression in the Baltic states.

There is another general point that should now be discussed more widely in Estonia. In building national defence, Estonia has to make a fundamental decision between an operationally large but non-professional armed force, which would be completely dependent on successful mobilisation, and a tactically small but instantly combat-ready professional force.

On the one hand, armed forces consisting of active servicemen create an illusion in society of the country being protected “until the bitter end” even though, in reality, sooner or later the numbers will run out. On the other, a military built on reservist forces can be dangerous for society by legitimising the perception of a large non-professional military being as effective and professional in a conflict situation as defence forces based on active servicemen. This is a risk if Estonia continues to prefer quantity (large reservist forces) in its approach, while Russia could be better deterred by highly motivated, strategically well-placed smaller units with rapid reaction, high mobility and wide experience.

Paradoxically, the ability to mobilise massive forces in a conflict situation also carries a serious threat of automatically becoming a valuable target for Russia, both symbolically and quantitatively. In a conflict, large forces would probably be drawn together to a relatively small area, where there wouldn’t be much room for manoeuvre; this large force would thereby lose much of its kinetic or surprise-based advantage, while being an easy target for Russia due to the terrain. What is more, even if this force was able to hold its positions and block the Russian advance, their ability to win back lost territory and seriously damage the enemy forces would still be minuscule and certainly insufficient to force Russia to withdraw from its operation.

There is also, of course, the question of scale; if the Baltic states think that brigade-sized units might deter the opponent, this is certainly not true in Russian military circles. At the same time, in a position where Russia’s aim is not to attack the Baltic states per se but, rather, to threaten and harm the legitimacy of NATO in general, it can be presumed that professional highly combat-ready battalions are useful for manoeuvring and first contact, but brigades dependent on mobilisation would be appropriate in the next phase of the conflict, when the enemy might have lost the initiative or the defending forces need to win time until the Allies arrive.

It is a common mantra in the Baltic states that improvements in defence and deterrence capability in the region are mainly held back by the shortage of resources (chiefly financial). People are convinced that there is a need for strategic sustainability, mainly in the sense of long-term sustainability, but it doesn’t need to be like that. It can, however, bring about a situation in which the product of this process does not deter the opponent at all, being sustainable in terms of resources and structure but useless in all other senses. The choices made already and in the future in improving the Baltic states’ armed forces are thus extremely complex.


1 D.A. Shlapak and M.W. Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics”, RAND Corporation, 2016.

2 S.J. Flanagan, J. Osburg, A. Binnendijk, M. Kepe and A. Radin, “Deterring Russian Aggression in the Baltic States Through Resilience and Resistance”, RAND Corporation, 2019.

3 In addition to the research projects by RAND, an article by T.-D. Young is of interest: “What are Governments in Central and Eastern Europe not Buying with their Defence Budgets? The Readiness Clue”, RUSI Journal 164(2), 31 May 2019.

4 V. Gerasimov, “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations”, Military-Industrial Kurier, 27 February 2013. English translation in Military Review, January–February 2016, available at

5 “В РФ разработана стратегия ограниченных действий по защите ее интересов за пределами национальной территории” (Russia has developed a strategy of limited actions to protect its interests outside the national territory), Interfax, 2 March 2019.

6 See L.W. Grau and C.K. Bartles, “The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces”, US Department of Defense Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016. A good overview of the measures taken is provided by Kaarel Kaas in an ICDS blog post of 16 February 2011, available at

7 S. Karaganov and D. Suslov, “A new world order: A view from Russia”, Russia in Global Affairs, 4 October 2018.–19782.

8 “More than 700 Latvian soldiers to be recruited in 2019”, LSM.LV (news portal of Latvia’s public broadcasting services), 27 December 2018.

9 Estonian Defence Resources Agency, “Aruanne kaitseväekohustuse täitmisest ja kaitseväeteenistuse korraldamisest 2018. Aastal” (A report on the performance of national defence obligation and the organisation of conscription service in 2018), 2019.

10 J. Vseviov, “Challenges of Real National Defence”, ICDS, November 2018.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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