Our eastern neighbour has developed the capability to use military force so rapidly that the attacked country only has minimal time to implement countermeasures.
The annexation of Crimea in late February 2014 raises a number of questions about whether Estonia’s national defence system is adequate. The military part of the national defence development plan approved last year states that Estonia can benefit only from units that consist of trained personnel and that possess the specific equipment and weaponry they require. Given events in Crimea, we can of course only concur with the planners—but do the core elements of Estonia’s military national defence system meet current needs?
Rapid action by Russian forces
It took very little time for the forces of the Russian Federation to occupy strategic sites in Crimea. On 26 February at midday, President Putin announced an exercise alert involving around 150,000 men. At 4 am on 27 February, the president gave the order to launch an exercise on the Black Sea involving 36 ships and 7,000 troops, including personnel from the country’s rapid response forces, airborne units, marines, and GRU special forces units. In the hour that followed about 30–50 special forces troops entered and occupied the parliament and government buildings of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
Although Russia had suspended compliance with the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in 2007, it provided timely notice of the land exercise to other OSCE members as required under the 2011 Vienna Document on confidence- and security-building measures. However, in the case of the Black Sea exercise, Russia invoked a provision of the Vienna Document that does not require the notification of other countries of exercises in which troops are not given advance notice and that last for no more than 72 hours. This meant that Russia had achieved a situation where the countries most concerned by its potential military activity were focused mainly on the major exercise on Ukraine’s eastern border, while developments on land and at sea in and around Crimea most likely went unnoticed.
By doing so, Russia evidently also tried to divert the attention of the Ukrainian military leadership, already distracted by internal problems, to the east. There should have been a swift response to developments in Crimea. Had the Ukrainian leadership acted rapidly and forcefully, utilising the forces at the disposal of its ministries of interior and defence, the advances made by Russian special forces could have been hindered and possibly halted. Unfortunately, such orders never even reached the military and internal security units.
In the 20 hours following the order to launch the Black Sea exercises, Russia was able to seize three of the most strategic sites on Crimea’s Black Sea coast, using approximately 150 special forces personnel. After 40 hours, about 2,200 special forces and airborne troops had been deployed. The Ukrainian leadership and the rest of the world had been presented with a fait accompli.
How would Estonia have fared in a similar situation?
If we put Estonia in Ukraine’s position, what would have been Estonia’s chances of an adequate response? What sites could be targeted by the adversary? Above all, an attack would, as in Crimea, focus on airports and harbours—sites that would make it possible rapidly to introduce additional forces to Estonia—as well as on local government institutions, which would have more of a political role. Unlike in Crimea, forces could be deployed and fanned out across the country relatively easily by using the road network in south-eastern Estonia.
Today the mobilisable reserve forces form the bulk of Estonia’s military defence. The primary role of the Defence Forces in peacetime is to prepare and, if necessary, form reserve units. Most of the everyday activity of the Defence Forces concerns training conscripts. Less emphasis is laid on training professional Defence Forces units (the largest being the Scouts Battalion) and subunits manned by members of the Defence League (Kaitseliit) voluntary defence organisation.
Usability of conscripts
In Estonia, conscription is currently organised as a training cycle, repeated at regular intervals, at the end of which new reserve units are created. Unlike in the former Soviet army, units manned by conscripts who have completed their training cycle do not remain on active duty. Conscripts are assigned to the reserves and sent home.
Based on the goal of holding a major field exercise at the end of the cycle, most call-up selectees begin training either in July ( or October, depending on the length of their term of service. A positive aspect of such a system is the fact that conscripts train together; however, trained conscript-based subunits are not available for immediate use year-round. Up to now this has been considered a sound practice because, since the 1990s, the Russian armed forces have been considered to have had their hands full dealing with internal problems. Hence, Estonian defence planners assumed that the security situation would deteriorate only gradually, allowing the country’s political and military leaders time to prepare calmly and to procure more ammunition, mobilise reserve units, and carry out additional training.
But today it can already be said that the general security situation has grown significantly worse. Russia has publicly expressed the will to use military force and has proven itself capable of massing its forces rapidly—and unnoticed by our allies. Should a Crimea-style scenario arise, the Estonian Defence Forces would not have time to mobilise reserve units. Moreover, there would be no point in pitting untrained conscripts against Russian special forces, who would already have seized and established defensive positions at strategically important assets. If we analyse the dates when conscripts are called up for compulsory military service in 2014 and the number of conscripts, we see that only in the first five months of the year is there a significant number of conscripts who would be capable of operating at least at a platoon level. From early June to the end of the year, from be 150–450 conscripts who have completed platoon-level training will be constantly available.
Units manned by active duty personnel
In addition to the reservists who can be mobilised, the Defence Forces have a smaller contingent consisting of rapid-response units (above all, the Scouts Battalion and also a special operations unit) that are able to operate throughout the country and take part in operations outside Estonia. These units are manned by active duty personnel.
The Estonian Defence League
In recent years, the Estonian Defence League—a voluntary military defence organisation—has continuously increased its membership and at the end of 2012 had around 13,200 active members. However, caution should be exercised in using these numbers because not all active members belong to units that have trained together. Nevertheless, their commitment to defend their country can be assumed to be significantly higher than that of ordinary citizens and active members can thus be expected to act quickly in any situation of danger. But the level of training and equipment in the Defence League is inferior to that of the Russian special forces, as a result of which their numerical superiority against a well-trained and well-equipped adversary would not necessarily confer sufficient advantage.
Mobilisable reserve units
According to the National Defence Development Plan (NDDP) approved in 2013, Estonia’s military defence capacity will grow significantly in the coming decade. The rapid-response structure of the Defence Forces will include over 21,000 members as opposed to the 18,000 set out in the previous development plan—among them some 3,600 active duty personnel compared to the current 3,100. All trained reservists will be included in the Estonian active and support reserve units, including a total of 60,000 people.
These large numbers, however, do not necessarily ensure adequate security in a situation where the enemy is acting in a rapid, well-thought-out manner. As illustrated by events in Crimea, an attacker may intentionally sow doubt as to whether the country has fallen victim to external aggression or whether a criminal group has managed to occupy a strategic building. This “fog” may cause mobilisation to be delayed long enough for the adversary to occupy key sites, thereby making mobilisation difficult, if not impossible.
Unlike the decentralised mobilisation stockpile networks seen in Scandinavian countries during the Cold War, the Estonian Defence Forces’ stockpiles are more concentrated and often in locations that were already in use in Soviet times. It can be presumed that the adversary is aware of these locations and will utilise this intelligence.
The deployment of Allied forces to Estonia before or during a possible military attack is one of the most important aspects of the country’s NATO membership. The main value of belonging to the Alliance lies in its military deterrence, which should lead potential adversaries to abandon the idea of any kind of military aggression. But if a Crimea-like “creeping” invasion scenario involving special forces should come to pass, Estonia’s biggest support would be from the Allied units already positioned in Estonia or another Baltic country. More important than the NATO Air Policing Mission would be the NATO ground troops who are participating in exercises in Estonia or are deployed here permanently. Deploying additional ground troops to Estonia during an aggression would be complicated and time-consuming.
A possible measure that has been discussed is the pre-positioning of equipment for the use of NATO Allies in the Baltic States, allowing the units’ personnel to be deployed relatively quickly if a crisis escalates. However, this cannot be considered ideal because, during the events in Crimea, questions about the escalation of the situation arose in the internal political debate of a major allied state. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was sharply criticised by several members of the Bundestag for calling on NATO to support the Baltic States, as they claimed that such steps could lead to an “escalation of the situation”. But the collective defence of NATO is no stronger than its weakest link.
Estonia’s current national defence model has developed over two relatively calm decades in which Russia gradually increased its capability and willingness to use military force by exploiting domestic problems in neighbouring countries. A new aspect of Russian policy is its ability rapidly to deploy military forces while inciting revolts and unrest on foreign soil. This creates confusion in determining what countermeasures should be taken, leaving the country under attack with minimal time to implement them.
National level decision-making arrangements
When the situation escalates, the transition from peacetime to a war footing at the national level must be seamless and ensure the continuity of leadership. Command exercises must be regularly held for Estonia’s political and military leaders, based on realistic threat scenarios. As a crisis deepens, the responsibility of every government agency should change as little as possible, without complex and risky transitions. The simplest and most logical move is to base all activities across all agencies on a uniform set of principles instead of continuing to use two parallel and mutually distinct systems (one for peacetime crisis management, led by the Ministry of the Interior, and another for wartime, led by the Ministry of Defence).
The Estonian national defence model
When it comes to military national defence, the main question is about where the emphasis should be placed—the Defence Forces’ reaction time or their numbers. Russia has both, but it cannot implement both at the same time. Estonia would be unable to win a war against its eastern neighbour with sheer numbers alone, so it must focus on quality. This will require units in a high state of readiness, fully manned, well-trained and well-equipped so that they are able to defeat their opponent. In addition, reserves are obviously needed. The question is whether the Defence Forces’ activity in the future should also focus on reserves or on ensuring the existence of highly capable units that can be used immediately. Events in Crimea show that the latter should be a priority.
According to the 2013 NDDP, Estonia has shortcomings in its rapid-response capability, but the planned solutions will not eliminate the main problem—if aggression does break out, the Defence Forces may not be capable of responding rapidly enough and to the extent required, since an important part of its everyday activity has been aimed at developing reserve forces, and mobilising these is time-consuming.
There are a number of possibilities for increasing rapid-response capability. To some extent, the situation could be improved by distributing the number of conscripts more evenly over the year, so that they can be used at any time. Undoubtedly, more radical measures should also be considered, such as increasing the number of units manned with active-duty personnel, with a corresponding decrease in the number of mobilisable reserve units. Would it be realistic to create another unit similar to the Scouts Battalion?
Another option would be to extend the duration of conscription so that the units trained during compulsory military service are not immediately assigned to the reserves but instead left on active duty for some time. This option is being explored in Norway, where an 18-month term of service is currently being tested. The main argument in favour of such a change is that the current system does not allow conscripts to be placed on active duty after the training period ends. An 18-month service period, on the other hand, would allow conscripts to serve within professional units for up to six months. Of course, the longer period of service would have to be rewarded with greater monetary incentives. Implementing similar principles in Estonia could result in a greater rapid-response capability and better-trained units but, in such a case, the total number of conscripts would probably have to be reduced.
The Defence League should be able to responding rapidly, but not all its members are immediately available or capable. It should also include subunits in a high state of readiness, with a level of training and equipment that enables them to be used efficiently to ensure national security, even against the opponent’s elite units.
There are certainly other alternatives that could be considered. And there is always the option of declaring that in fact nothing needs to be changed.
In parallel with Estonia’s efforts, its NATO allies should be asked to maintain a more visible and concrete presence in the Baltic states, one that goes beyond the Alliance’s current Air Policing Mission. The aircraft and ground units that have initially been deployed to Estonia until the end of this year should remain for a longer period. The permanent stationing of NATO ground units and/or establishing stockpiles of equipment in some of the Baltic states could be of critical importance for stabilising this new situation and deterring potential aggressors and provocateurs in the coming months and years.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.