A small state must use all legitimate options to protect itself.
The United States’ deterrence has faded, but it is completely wrong to claim that the Baltic States cannot be defended, says A. Wess Mitchell, a security policy analyst and President of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), who recently visited Estonia.
Q: A few months ago, a British think tank expressed the opinion that Estonia should develop a guerrilla warfare capability and forget about spending money on conventional capabilities since it could not cope if Russia attacked, anyway. What do you think?
A: We live in restless times and if we think about these issues from the point of view of a state that is in a geopolitically vulnerable position, we see that it is time to consider that state’s resilience in the worst-case scenario.
For a long time, the popular opinion about the Baltic States has been that they cannot be defended since they are so small. I would argue otherwise and say that efficient deterrence involves not only the NATO level—states with nuclear weapons—but also has to encompass other, smaller states. There are several capabilities that a small state can manage perfectly well.
A recent news report said that Estonia was to buy self-propelled artillery from South Korea. Is such an investment even feasible?
I think it is, since Estonia is also a NATO member state, and wants to maintain interoperability with NATO partners and must be able to participate in joint operations. We should worry, rather, about focusing too much on niche capabilities, as this would only leave you with unconventional warfare capabilities and limit to a very narrow range the activities available to you. That way, you could only protect yourself in certain scenarios. At the same time, you would not be able to operate jointly within NATO and that would harm your political influence among NATO states.
When Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defence, niche capabilities were all the rage. Don’t you agree with that position?
I think they went too far with it and, truth be told, Rumsfeld’s time was rather different from a geopolitical point of view. But, actually, I wouldn’t worry too much about a state like Estonia, which already has strong unconventional capabilities. I would worry about small states that have not developed their unconventional warfare capabilities sufficiently and are only trying to develop conventional capabilities.
Can you give an example?
There are some states in the wider Baltic region that fit into this category and should boost their unconventional warfare capabilities. The geopolitical change in this area has occurred quite quickly and one must adjust to it.
You have mentioned the change in the security-political environment several times. Has Donald Trump’s inauguration made things better or worse?
President Trump’s personality seems rather unusual to many people, but it is not yet absolutely clear what course his government will take. For now, I see consistency rather than change in his NATO policy. I believe that the US will stay true to its obligations as an ally under Article 5. The president has rightly drawn attention to concerns that arise from NATO’s readiness to deal with the most serious issues in 21st-century security.
From several statements, one gets the impression that US security guarantees and the country’s participation in joint operations are conditional. We know from history that even statements can set off events sometimes.
Many statements are made during a campaign; policymaking is a completely different matter. If we look at what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis have been saying, we see that they confirmed their dedication to NATO’s Article 5 in front of the Senate. I did not see any reference to conditionality there. When President Trump said that NATO was obsolete, he expressed in so many words what his predecessor Barack Obama and former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates had said. This atmosphere is not new. But the statement that NATO is obsolete in its current form naturally does not take into account the important changes it has made in recent years to counter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. NATO does need reform in many areas, and everyone knows it. Primarily, what makes it obsolete is the fact that most of its power structures are in Western Europe and that member states should spend more on defence. There are no longer permanent bases in the eastern member states. This goes hand in hand with the knowledge that NATO states do not do enough against ISIS. So there are plenty of reasons to start reform and, although Trump has an unusual personality and behaviour, he may be the best person for NATO if the current criticism is redirected into undertaking reform instead.
Various think tanks and armed forces figures have estimated that Russian forces could reach Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius in 60 hours, 48 hours—any number of hours. What do you think of these estimates?
The danger is real and very serious. This can be understood from the fact that Russia has been focusing forces on the western military district, Kaliningrad and elsewhere. We are talking about huge amounts of military equipment and personnel. The idea that the Baltic States are indefensible and would quickly fall to the enemy is unrealistic, for several reasons. Firstly, NATO has acted to maintain a security presence. Although the forces are not large, they symbolise its willingness to protect allies. Secondly, on a national level, all Baltic States have learnt their lessons from the war in Ukraine; we see that defence expenditure has doubled since the beginning of the war, we see that the membership of voluntary defence organisations has increased dramatically, and conscription has been established in Lithuania. The situation isn’t as it should be to strengthen deterrence in the region. However, an invasion would not be a piece of cake, either. If Vladimir Putin were to make the stupid decision to initiate military activity in the Baltic States, he would get a bloody nose, especially in Estonia.
You mentioned the establishment of conscription in Lithuania as a positive thing. Should Latvia follow suit? It just completed ten years without compulsory conscription.
Every country should make the decision based on its own political situation. Latvia has notably increased defence expenditure and set quite impressive security-political objectives. I think all the Baltic States should adopt views similar to those of Estonia, which understands that it is in a tough environment where the country has an active and determined rival, already engaged in information warfare and capable of going beyond it. Latvia is doing quite a lot but I would like it to do more. Conscription, which would work for that country’s defence model, would be reasonable.
How would you assess Lithuania’s developments in that field—they reintroduced conscription, but that surely takes a lot of effort?
It definitely takes effort and I would like to praise the Lithuanians for the political energy and resources they have dedicated to that decision. They have their own traditions in resisting external aggressors and are proud of those. I see clear signs that lessons from Ukraine have been learnt in Lithuania’s military planning: a decent number of volunteers join both irregular and regular forces; the armed forces are growing as conscription has been restored; and military priorities have been thoroughly thought through. It would quite difficult to break Lithuania.
Estonia depends on reserve forces but some analysts say that, if a conflict began, things would move so fast that we wouldn’t even have time to declare a mobilisation.
For me, this is not an argument against reserve forces. Rather, it proves that reserves must be in a high state of readiness. The Finns have large reserve forces maintained at high combat readiness. Your population is your greatest asset and, if they are properly organised and motivated, they may be the factor that decides whether you survive or are destroyed in a war.
You have written that danger may appear in a different form to what we have been preparing for. About a decade ago, “Article 5” seemed to be the magic word that offered solutions to all the problems we could ever have. Today, we are in a different era where invoking it is mentioned even in the context of joint defence. You mentioned the “grab and kick” tactic that could somewhat confuse the officials who decide on invoking Article 5. Can you elaborate on this?
Deterrence is an ambiguous term and we do not know if it is working right now. However, we will know if it has failed. It depends on the conviction that, right now, the US is capable of and willing to punish an aggressor. I think it’s fair to say that the broad US deterrence in East Asia and Eastern Europe has been fading for some time now, partly because of the signals the US has been sending. The Obama administration’s signals raised questions about our will as well as our capabilities. However, the actions of our rivals, e.g. the Russian Federation, must also be considered.
When we followed events in Ukraine we saw that the methods used there were perfect for abusing the shortcomings of broad deterrence. To apply deterrence, you need a factor that harms the aggressor; however, in the Crimea, the aggressor occupied the territory and everyone had to face the facts. From that moment on, the defending party could no longer use deterrence but had to apply coercive measures instead. In the context of the Baltic States, where relatively small forces are present, it would mean that the little green men could sneak past the defensive forces and the defender would have to repel the aggressor. This would call for coercive military measures, which are difficult to apply, especially in an alliance that consists of many states. This is the chink in the armour—the techniques of a limited war. An opponent who thinks creatively can force NATO member states to do something that the Alliance was not intended to do. This is one of the reasons the Baltic States are so important.
It is very important that your leaders have such national military forces at their disposal as to be able to prevent limited military incursions in the early stages of a crisis. If this should happen in the Baltic States, unfortunately NATO’s defence structure is such that most of the forces are not near this region. Incursions must be treated like active warfare, and appropriate action must be taken so that the enemy is not able to launch a limited war. You may need to survive and hang on until sufficiently large reinforcements arrive. Yes, I think that fading deterrence is a serious concern in this area. The most important level in reacting to this issue is the state, not NATO.
We saw all manner of new urban self-defence units in the Crimea that did not even openly carry guns and consisted of locals. It is rather difficult to organise military intervention against such groups.
This is why you need unconventional capabilities and home defence organisations on a national level. You know your neighbours best. Organisations that are based on a connection between friends and a sense of unity, active citizens, are especially important in such moments.
So, whether we spend 2.2% or 2.4% of our GDP on defence is not as important as the state of our national defence organisations?
I don’t think you have to choose only one factor. You need both. You live in an ominously complicated neighbourhood and your objective is to survive as a state. Although your country is small, history is full of nations that have decisively withstood much larger aggressors and survived. I believe that, at this moment in history, you have to spend much more on the development of both conventional and unconventional capabilities but you also need active citizens who are organised to cope with all kinds of scenarios. That is essential for the survival of your state. I would not stop at 2%. I would not stop at 2.4%. I would make myself as difficult a prey for the opponent as possible.
Your proposals include specific steps, such as flooding certain areas to hinder the movement of an opponent in a crisis. What specific measures do you have in mind?
A small state that faces a determined opponent must search for any and all opportunities available to it so that it can hinder the assailant’s activity as much as possible and the enemy knows its objectives will be difficult to achieve. This also means taking advantage of the landscape. The skilful use of the landscape could make a huge difference. From the point of view of the Baltic States, you need to make it very clear that all attempts to occupy you will be countered and the enemy will be subjected to pain that is greater than their political leaders are willing to bear. One thing we know about Russia in the military sense is that guerrilla wars are not something they are enthusiastic about. The Russians hate getting bogged down, as they did in Chechnya; their political leaders, Putin, would consider it very bad, and the Russian armed forces are not very well prepared to deal with such a war. You need to advertise clearly that an attack will not bring swift and easy victory; they need to face facts. The Finns and Israelis have done this.
You mentioned the landscape—does this need to be prepared in some way? Is there a place for fortifications like the Mannerheim Line in today’s world?
I would let country specialists evaluate this, but you do have a line of topographical advantages here in the Baltic region, which would not work as static lines of defence but would be good for creating zones and focusing the opponent’s movements into “bottlenecks”. We saw in Ukraine how large Russian army contingents were defeated by small Ukrainian units in flooded regions of eastern Ukraine. Units with anti-tank equipment were also able to harass, stop and destroy much larger convoys there during World War II.
You have also mentioned the use of landmines—however, Estonia signed the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention a decade ago and is no longer able to use that option. Do you think we should change course on this?
The moral advantage is one of your country’s assets. So I won’t encourage you to breach treaties or do anything of that sort right now. The treaties Estonia has joined do not restrict the use of all landmines, just certain types. Let us simply say that I would develop all possible measures in light of your capabilities. I would purchase the nastiest weapons that can be procured consistent with international law—some anti-tank and anti-personnel mines are considered more humane in international law. You should look into those opportunities. In a broader sense, the modern development of military equipment favours small states and methods of unconventional warfare.
The main thing is that we are entering a new era, in which we can no longer assume that big aggressors won’t go and conquer small states with large, old-fashioned, conventional forces. Widely available weapon systems, e.g. anti-tank equipment, offer small states the opportunity to force larger ones to stop and think before launching an offensive.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.