January 21, 2014

Longing for tanks

An increased NATO and American presence in the Baltic Sea region would strengthen our deterrence, increase defence capability and have a stabilising effect.

An increased NATO and American presence in the Baltic Sea region would strengthen our deterrence, increase defence capability and have a stabilising effect.

In recent days, Estonian media outlets have addressed the issue of a permanent American military presence in the country. The issue came into the spotlight after Defence Minister Urmas Reinsalu, speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called for American tanks to be brought back to Europe and for a greater American presence in Estonia. Some Estonian politicians and experts later reacted to the defence minister’s statements by saying that establishing US military bases and equipment in Estonia is not realistic in the current international security situation, especially considering the growing violence in the Middle East and North Africa. From the US perspective, prioritising acute crisis areas over a relatively stable and peaceful Baltic Sea region may be understandable, but we must nevertheless stand for our interests in this region, especially since we ought to know our eastern neighbour better than do our more geographically distant allies.

The defence minister’s “longing for tanks” has prompted Estonian national defence experts to weigh in on Estonian military security. As a NATO member, we have come to largely take our security for granted; we are protected by NATO’s collective defence clause, i.e., Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. But an agreement as such is not worth anything by itself; what is important is that the allies trust the agreement will be honoured (security guarantee) and that outside parties believe it will be honoured (deterrence). Conditions making possible the implementation of the agreement must also be fulfilled (capabilities, tested defence plans, quick decision-making processes, etc.) and – last but not least – there must be sufficient political will to carry out the agreement.

The desire for a greater NATO presence in Europe, the Baltic Sea region, and Estonia is nothing new in our political security discourse. It is well known that’ defence capacity of European NATO members has been in decline. Meanwhile, the US has the greatest military capabilities and quickest deployment capacity of the allies. It is therefore logical that a US presence in our region is beneficial and necessary for our security. For one, a US presence in Estonia would support deterrence. Whereas NATO fighter jets are based in Lithuania, there are no permanent alliance capabilities in Estonia. Second, in addition to defence plans, implementing NATO’s collective defence also requires military units and resources. In the event of a military crisis, it is easier to fulfil plans if the necessary resources are available at the location; that way, the only thing that must be transported is manpower. Thus since in a crisis situation, military armaments become part of defence capacity, d the presence of such resources itself indirectly bolsters our security. Moreover, if allies’ resources located here are valuable, there is more motivation to protect them, further enhancing our security. This standpoint is shared by retired Estonian Gen. Ants Laaneots, who believes that the US should establish pre-positioning storage units in the Baltic countries (while also stressing the fulfilment of defence plans through military units and regular training).

Third, a US military presence in Estonia would have a stabilising influence on relations with Russia, which have been somewhat strained in the Baltic countries and to a lesser extent in Finland and Sweden by the Kremlin’s use of threatening rhetoric, military manoeuvres and political-economic pressure tactics (most recently against Ukraine).

There are plenty of examples of Russia’s imperialistic rhetoric and forceful methods: threats to set up Iskander missiles, with a range of 400-500 kilometres, in Kaliningrad (which would be in addition to the existing Iskander base in Luga, some 160 km from the Estonian border in Leningrad Oblast; warning Finland of the negative consequences of joining NATO; and vowing to resort to force in protecting the interests of its “compatriots” abroad. It has not helped that there have been provocations in the form of major military exercises simulating offensives against the West (Zapad and Ladoga in 2009 and Zapad in 2013), long-range bomber aircraft training flights, and an increased military presence in Russia’s western military districts. Russia’s refusal to invite NATO observers to its military exercises or to fulfil the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe has also not been constructive.

Indeed, we must agree with the conventional wisdom that it doesn’t pay to wave a red flag in front of a bull. Despite encountering difficulties in its attempts to modernise, the Russian military is capable of responding to mid-sized local and regional conflicts. We saw this in Georgia in 2008. As recently as in 2009, a NATO intelligence document concluded that “Russia will continue to test the credibility and cohesion of the Alliance, including the joint defence clause”, according to a Norwegian newspaper.

Russian rhetoric shows that the Cold War mentality and the desire to deter a geographical approach by NATO (which the West is said to have pledged not to do after the collapse of the Soviet Union), continues to be a leitmotif in the country. But the reality is different – this year we celebrate 10 years of NATO membership. It would not suffice for Russia if Estonia refrained from elementary national defence planning in the name of friendly relations. Russia’s political security decisions are made based on its national interest to preserve strategic superiority in its region (which its leadership does not tire of reiterating); Russia is hypersensitive to perceived losses for both domestic and foreign policy reasons.

Finland has adopted a milder foreign policy line towards Russia, but that has not stopped Russia’s political and military leadership from dictating political security choices to Finland. It would be naive to hope that, by following in the footsteps of Finland, the eastern neighbour would make concessions to us in other areas, such as the import bans on EU livestock, the signing of the Estonian-Russian border treaty, etc.

Increasing the presence of America – NATO’s politically and militarily most powerful ally – in Estonia would benefit us both symbolically and with regard to strengthening national defence. Foreign Minister Urmas Paet has said that NATO aircraft, including from the United States, should permanently be based at Ämari Air Base as part of the NATO’s Air Policing mission in the Baltic States. Mati Raidma, chairman of the Riigikogu’s National Defence Committee, says the aircraft should rotate between the three Baltic countries. NATO and US military exercises that bring military forces and equipment to Estonian soil are another possibility of increasing this presence. An increased US presence in Estonia is a key element in one of Estonia’s most important long-term security goals – increasing NATO visibility in the Baltic Sea region.

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