September 25, 2008

The Need for an Early Warning System: What Could Estonia Learn from Georgia?

Both Estonia and NATO as a whole need constantly updated and reliable intelligence information to make adequate decisions.

25.09.2008, Indrek Elling
Both Estonia and NATO as a whole need constantly updated and reliable intelligence information to make adequate decisions.
After Russia’s recent aggression against Georgia nobody can claim that a Russian military attack on Estonia can be completely ruled out. In Estonia and elsewhere, there is almost unanimous agreement that a new security policy situation has emerged in the world. The question is rather from whose perspective should this situation be viewed or interpreted. The conclusions drawn from the attack against Georgia are most important for us. Estonia’s NATO and EU membership and the good relationship with the United States will continue to provide a foundation for our security, but the problematic issues are associated with the maintenance of a credible initial defence capability. When the security environment around us is changing, we should consider whether and how to respond to these changes.
The topic of Estonia’s initial defence capability in these changed circumstances is being discussed both in public and behind closed doors; I am sure that we will continue with the identification and analysis of the lessons learned. We have started to reconsider various military and political arguments that have so far dominated these discussions and led to the adoption of certain policy decisions. For example, the political leadership of Estonia has already expressed its wish to launch NATO consultations on the preparation of a contingency plan for Estonia and the other Baltic states. Obviously, a corresponding plan for Estonia is ready and waiting in the Kremlin or the FSB headquarters at 2 Lubyanka Square. It is possible that the final rehearsal of this plan was held last April. Of course, it is not the same plan that was recently implemented in Georgia. Moscow is playing a geostrategic game, in which the Baltic and South Caucasian states are small pieces of a mosaic and which aims to create a new world order that is more suitable for Russia.
An operational early warning system plays a vital role in every contingency plan. It is our duty to do everything possible to gain time to prevent a potential military aggression or to create better conditions for a response to such an act of aggression. The sooner we know the intentions of the adversary, the more time and options we would have at our disposal to react. Intelligence information is critical for the success of every contingency plan. If NATO has not gathered reliable information and analysed intelligence on a possible crisis zone – as Georgia must have been – it will only be able to react to a crisis situation, while it should actually be shaping the situation according to its own needs. We are NATO’s intelligence assets on the eastern frontier and NATO relies on our intelligence competence to provide it with up-to-date and credible information on the potential threats related to the East. NATO has an early warning system based on intelligence information (NATO Intelligence Warning System) and Estonia as a member state should also contribute to this system. The ominous example of Georgia makes it graphically clear that an early warning system based on certain indicators must become a key priority for Estonia’s national defence.
The intelligence breakdown in Georgia
The events in Georgia may be viewed from various perspectives, but even a very cursory analysis of the conflict shows that it was an intelligence failure for both Georgia and the West, including Estonia. Despite clear signs, it was believed up to the last moment that Russia would not opt for full-scale military aggression. The early warning system based on intelligence analysis did not deliver the necessary results. The Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) in Georgia was either inadequate or misguided. The IPB process, however, forms the foundation of military planning. President Saakashvili has admitted that the Georgians were instead expecting Abkhazia to launch an attack. Only after August 7 did the Georgians start to relocate their forces from western regions – from Senaki and Zugdidi – to South Ossetia. By that time it was already too late. Georgia was not ready to confront the Russian aggression. This was further proved by the fact that Tbilisi did not have enough time to bring back the two thousand experienced soldiers serving in Iraq.
The Georgian President has also criticised western intelligence agencies for not having noticed in time that Russian forces – in particular units of the Russian military intelligence (GRU), but also irregular troops – had earlier infiltrated into South Ossetia. Georgia claims to have submitted a retrospective request to its partners in the West, but their answer is said to have been that their ‘satellites were directed mainly on Iraq’. President Saakashvili is convinced that Georgia’s partners ‘would not have hidden this information from us, if they had known it’. It is probable that the signs were visible, but that they were simply ignored. The resources of all NATO member states are limited and their intelligence assets are frequently deployed elsewhere. This leads to intelligence gaps, people lose touch with the situation on the ground and as a result the early warning capability is reduced. The absence of an ‘Early Warning’ (in NATO’s lingo) often means that all we can do is to deal with the consequences of events, while an operational early warning system based on adequate intelligence analysis would give us an opportunity to prevent certain events or, at least, to be better prepared for them.
The Alliance itself has no mandate or capability to gather intelligence, except if NATO or a NATO-led coalition gathers and analyses information in an operational area for the purposes of military intelligence. In all other cases, NATO is dependent on the intelligence information provided by its member states. If NATO as a whole and every member state individually need certain intelligence, it is the duty of every member state to gather such information and to share it with its Allies.
Estonia as a part of NATO’s early warning system
The Estonian government reacted to the events in Georgia by deciding not to slash the internal security and national defence budgets. It is clear that the possibility of a military attack by Russia cannot be eliminated with one hundred percent certainty. If a military conflict – a conflict that puts Estonia’s independence and sovereignty under threat – emerges, our possible actions will be determined by the information we have. Since the end of the Cold War, the West has ceased to put much effort into the analysis of the Russian armed forces. In addition, it became harder to analyse these issues because during the Cold War everything was done by the book – ‘po ustavu’ – but now there are no clear rules and it is hence much more difficult to monitor the activities of our adversary. Since 2004, when Estonia and the other Baltic states acceded to NATO, it has also been our duty to be the eyes and ears of NATO directed towards the East, as Estonia’s military intelligence (and in certain areas other agencies dealing with national security) became an essential part of the intelligence system of NATO.
It is only natural that Estonia has an information analysis role in NATO and that we specialise in our eastern neighbours. If Estonia does not know what is happening in ‘our zone’, NATO is often without any information too. This is inevitable because at present NATO’s intelligence resources are concentrated mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the USA is also active in Iraq. Estonia and our eastern Allies either knew, or should have known, what was going to happen in Georgia. All the signs were there; only Russia’s intentions were unknown. Tbilisi warned the West repeatedly of an imminent attack by Russia, but nobody took those warnings seriously. If NATO member states had thought that Russia was likely to launch an attack against Georgia, they would have probably done something to prevent it or at least to mitigate its consequences.
If we do not want to wage war, we must prevent it. Both Estonia and NATO as a whole need constantly updated and reliable intelligence information to make adequate decisions. Every state develops a framework for its intelligence and security agencies; every state must be ready to transform this framework in a changed security environment. In today’s world, information plays an ever bigger role in military and political decision-making processes. So the majority of forward-looking countries in the world – unlike Estonia – put great effort into strengthening their intelligence agencies. In addition to our domestic needs, Estonia as a NATO and EU member state should take the interests of our Allies and partners more seriously. The events in Georgia should prompt a critical evaluation of Estonian legislation as to whether it facilitates or hinders the fulfilment of our needs. Information gathering and analysis are carried out according to the needs of our state; these activities must be supported by our legislation and by very effective information distribution and coordination mechanisms. Otherwise we are like the blind men of the well-known parable trying to determine the appearance of an elephant – or rather, a bear.

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