March 20, 2014

On deterrence and defense: the case of Estonia

REFILE - ADDING FAMILY NAME OF ESTONIA'S PRESIDENT NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen shakes hands with Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (L) after a joint news conference at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels December 9, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
REFILE - ADDING FAMILY NAME OF ESTONIA'S PRESIDENT NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen shakes hands with Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (L) after a joint news conference at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels December 9, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)

Russian annexation of Crimea, although couched in a referendum and an appeal by the Crimean Russians for “protection”, has suddenly reinforced a reality that in the last two decades most of the Europeans have rather wanted to forget: that military force is still useable currency and Russia has a President who does not seem to shirk from using it.

Russian annexation of Crimea, although couched in a referendum and an appeal by the Crimean Russians for “protection”, has suddenly reinforced a reality that in the last two decades most of the Europeans have rather wanted to forget: that military force is still useable currency and Russia has a President who does not seem to shirk from using it.

This revelation has gotten many people, particularly in the Baltic countries and Poland, rightly worried about the next steps. What if Russia will not stop at Crimea; will eastern Ukraine be the next step? What about a small country like Estonia with a large Russian-speaking population that can perhaps be exploited by the Russians?
It seems obvious that while President Putin does not seek a military conflict with NATO, he has calculated that the West lacks sufficient resolve to impose external costs on Russia’s invasion, occupation, and annexation of Crimea that outweigh the political benefits such aggression is providing him at home in Russia.
In this context, urgent questions arise with regard to NATO. What can a defensive Alliance do to raise Putin’s perception of potential costs that will deter him from meddling in Estonia? What are NATO’s options and its ability to act? And what can Estonia do for itself, if anything?
As a stopgap measure, the United States has now sent 12 extra F-16 fighters to Poland to beef up the Polish capabilities. Six more U.S. F-15s and two refueling aircraft have been dispatched to Lithuania as part of a rotating NATO air policing mission in the Baltic airspace, and the UK has announced that it will also similarly bolster the Baltic air policing capability when Poland takes over the mission next month.
So far so good, and these are important actions in and of themselves. This short note will argue that much more could be done relatively quickly and at rather little extra cost. Here are a few specific suggestions of what could be done in Estonia by the Alliance and by the Estonians themselves.
First, the United States should seriously consider establishing a permanent military presence in Estonia. No huge formations of troops need to be established. Instead, the troops stationed in Estonia should be a mixture of various key military specialties. The unit should, for example, include experts on logistics, to be used in training and exercising Estonians who would provide crucial host-nation support for incoming Allied troops. There should also be specialists in intelligence gathering and analysis, as well as experts in electronic and cyber counter-measures. Finally, the unit should have specialists on air-to-ground fire support, who would be used to train Estonians to call for Allied fire support if hostile forces ever violated the Estonian borders.
All in all, this permanent contingent would not need to be large in size; most probably just a battalion-sized unit would suffice. For political purposes, it should be multi-national, displaying a wide commitment within the Alliance. Such a unit would act not simply as a classic trip-wire, but, if it were composed the way described here, also provide a compelling sign of visible reassurance of the U.S. commitment to uphold the collective security pledge of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. It would be difficult for the Russian President and his coterie of aggressive colleagues to ignore this powerful signal, especially if the unit is highly motivated, equipped with the state of the art military kit, and exercised regularly.
Second, NATO should take another look at their concept of pre-stocking military equipment and ammunition. It worked well during the Cold War for countries like Norway, so why wouldn’t it work now for Estonia? Pre-positioning has its own deterrent value, as well as it obviously saves crucial time in the first moments of hostilities. In Estonia, the need for pre-stocking would most probably be for a brigade-sized land forces unit, in addition to pre-stocking equipment for the incoming air force units.
Third, NATO should update its defense plans for Estonia and other Baltic countries. These plans should be exercised and fine-tuned annually. Such exercises should regularly bring to Estonia Allied troops, especially troops from the larger NATO countries. The U.S., British and German troops would be particularly strong signs of serious Allied commitment.
Finally, larger Allied countries could bolster Estonian national defense easily and quickly through donations of vital excess equipment, or through favorable conditions to purchase such equipment. Such equipment acquisitions would help Estonia develop the capabilities for the kinds of military contingencies it would most likely face, given the lessons of Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Crimea. This would mean creating a high number of small units – no more than platoon-sized – equipped with modern but simple-to-use and powerful anti-tank, anti-air and intelligence-related weaponry and other equipment, trained and deployed throughout Estonia by Kaitseliit to defend key assets that sustain the vital functions of society – airports, transportation nodes, power stations, and military facilities – whose vulnerability is high due to the inability of Estonia’s small professional units to provide adequate cover for all of them.
There is a good example of what can be done in this field in a friendly country just north of Estonia. It would be worthwhile for the Estonian defense planners to visit Helsinki and study how the Finnish local troops will in the future to be configured and equipped. It would also make good common sense for the Finns and the Estonians to join their efforts and make their materiel purchases together to enjoy the benefits of scale.
All that has been outlined here can be done relatively quickly and inexpensively. Also, all these measures discussed here are purely defensive, and if carried out, would not escalate today’s rather nervous situation. And, over time, such measures would need to be integrated into the Estonian Government’s emerging concept of comprehensive security.
I, for one, do not believe that President Putin is planning to move on the Baltic countries, but it is better to be safe than sorry. All these measures would make it exceedingly difficult to take over Estonia without a tremendous cost to the attacker, and buy precious time for the Alliance to come to the rescue. Facing these risks, the attacker would, if at all rational, stop and stay within his own borders.

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