Ever since the appearance of the so-called Little Green Men and other elements of Russia’s hybrid aggression in Ukraine in 2014, experts and media have speculated on the probability that Russia may use various techniques and tactics to undermine and eventually gain control of the Baltic states.
The recently published study “Hybrid Warfare in the Baltics” by the RAND Corporation is another contribution to this debate. As the study reflects the results of extensive research conducted in 2015, it could be worthwhile to reassess its content in the context of Estonian situation now more than a year later.
The main finding of the report is that Russia will have difficulty using nonviolent or covert action to subvert the Baltic nations; accordingly, the main vulnerability in the region lies in Russia’s local conventional military superiority. In the meantime NATO leaders did adopt at the Alliance’s Warsaw Summit the decision to deploy multinational battalion-sized battlegroups to each of the Baltic states and Poland. This decision is currently being implemented; the enhanced forward presence on NATO’s north-eastern flank is scheduled to reach full operational capability this June. Although the deployment is not going to change the overall strategic balance in the Baltic region by itself, this move is still a significant step in diminishing the credibility gap of Allied Article 5 commitments. In Estonia, the fully equipped UK-led mechanised battlegroup will very significantly increase the combat power available for rapid reaction in response to military contingencies.
At the same time Russia continues to play the military card in its relations with western neighbours, as evidenced by the preparations for the upcoming Zapad 2017 strategic exercise in September. Even if there may be no concrete grounds to believe that any direct aggressive moves against the Baltic states are planned, the mere massive military grouping that Russia will gather in its immediate neighbourhood has made the countries of the region very concerned. As a precaution they will certainly have to raise their own military readiness levels; additionally, it would be opportune for the other Allies to beef up their military presence in the region for the duration of the exercise. This could involve elements of the US 3rd Armoured Brigade Combat Team already deployed to Europe as part of the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), along with the deployment of additional combat aviation, air force and naval assets.
While the presence of Allied military forces should deter open military aggression, Russia could conceivably try to play the game of deniable aggression or exercise other forms of coercion below the conventional military threshold. The Baltic countries themselves will continue to shoulder the largest burden in countering the non-conventional efforts aimed at undermining their security.
As the RAND study notes, there are grounds to believe that such tactics would not be very successful; the picture has not changed during the time elapsed since the research for the report was conducted. Russian hybrid tactics are best suited for influencing weak and politically unstable countries. In the case of Ukraine they were initially so effective because the entire country, including its top leadership, was penetrated by Russian agents—thereby undermining the effective of the state. This is not the case in Estonia; therefore, the effectiveness of hybrid methods here would be much smaller.
While in many European countries the Kremlin is presently gaining political ground by focusing on subversion—through the exploitation of different political forces promoting causes beneficial to its agenda—in Estonia the consensus regarding foreign, security and defence policies remains strong. This was reflected by the prompt recommitment of the present governing coalition—including the Center Party (which enjoys the support of a majority of Russian-speaking voters)—to these principles upon taking office in November 2016.
In Estonia’s case the presence of large numbers of Russian-speakers should be considered a convenient excuse rather than a motive for Russian involvement. The Estonian government’s efforts to provide alternative information to counter-balance the Russian propaganda narrative influencing local Russian-speakers can be considered at best a mixed success. Still, while that segment of the population, as evidenced by public opinion studies, holds views that differ from those of Estonian-speakers on many important security questions, it continues to show no signs of separatism or eagerness to undertake actions fomenting unrest.
It is true, that by the use of massive disinformation efforts, infiltration of professional saboteurs and employment of other covert means, Russia could undertake a campaign that could achieve significant levels of de-stabilization in Estonia. However, the country has been preparing for these kinds of scenarios; it is thus highly unlikely that they would enjoy real success without massive interference from Russia—interference that would immediately bring the conflict to a new and international level, forcing a reaction from Estonia’s Allies.
In sum, as reflected in the study itself, there is a continuous need to prepare for a full spectrum of different forms of Russian aggression. Here the combination of the Baltic nations’ own efforts focussing on enhancing overall societal resilience, increasing the capacities of internal security forces and improving initial military self-defence capabilities has a key role. While there is scope for other nations to contribute to many of these efforts by providing material or other support, the main focus of the Allied effort has to be centred on providing credible military capabilities for deterrence. Ultimately this would have the greatest influence on affecting the calculus of the Russian leadership.