How NATO Can Defend Estonia Against Russia

* This article was originally published on Seidler’s Sicherheitspolitik blog.

NATO has to adapt its way of collective defense to Russia’s salami-slicing tactic. Beside legal guarantees, in case of crisis NATO would have to defend Estonia for geopolitical and strategic reasons. Therefore, special forces are the most promising military mean to counter Putin’s way of warfare.

Putin’s way of war
Russia’s way of conquering territory starts with destabilization of the particular area. Thereafter, Putin uses a salami-slicing tactic to take full control. He is acting below the threshold of open warfare to avoid a situation where Obama has no other choice than giving a strong US response. (By the way, China is following the same approach in the South China Sea.)We saw this Russian approach in Crimea. We are witnessing it in Eastern Ukraine. We will likely see it later in Moldova and Georgia. Estonia is probably also on Putin’s target list, because his’final strategic aim is the division of NATO.Frankly, a self-paralyzed and unwilling West will not take any serious action in case of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. No Western government would be willing to give major sacrifices for Kiev, Chisinau or Tbilisi. That is because the four main Western powers, by their own fault, are in a very weak state. In Washington, we have an unwilling, poorly reliable US President with a foreign policy close to chaos. Britain and France suffer from economic and social troubles. Germany suffers from a political class, almost completely fundamentally opposed to pursue hard lines in foreign policy. In consequence, Western responses to Russian conquests will be more tiny and useless sanctions, which Moscow will keep on laughing about.

Why defending Estonia?

Source: CIA World Factbook

Estonia is a relatively small country with only 1.3 million inhabitants. Therefore, it is understandable that ordinary people in US and Europe ask why it should be in their interest to take the risks and burdens of defending Estonia. The answer is that Estonia is very different to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, because it is a member of NATO, EU and Euro-Zone.

By approving Estonian NATO and EU memberships, Western powers gave legal guarantees to defend the Estonian people. NATO’s core purpose is collective defense. In article 41.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, EU also gave a collective defense commitment to its members. However, paper is patient. Besides paper guarantees, Estonia must be defended for four real reasons.

First, any Russian annexation of Estonian territory, without any response by NATO and EU, would inevitably lead to the collapse of the European order. NATO would be politically dead, maybe the Alliance would even be dissolved, however, if it continues to exist, NATO after loosing Estonia would be nothing else than bloodless torso. In addition, EU would loose its role as European unifier and peace-bringer. Henceforth, the EU would not be attractive anymore for countries, which intend to use the Union to satisfy their security demands.

Second, the collapse of the European order could flare up frozen tensions in South Eastern Europe. Some countries might conclude that going West was not the right path and, therefore, reconsider their course.

Third and even worse, through an US and European de facto surrender to Putin, the Western liberal order would be death, too. It would become clear to all countries around the world, friendly and hostile, that US guarantees in our times are worth nothing. China and Iran would watch this with great interest. More conflicts in Asia and the Middle East would be the result, followed by a significant negative impact on the world economy.

Fourth, in a horror scenario of NATO doing nothing, Putin would use his moment of initiative and go even further than Estonia. Imagine the dramatic impact of such a crisis on the global financial markets and the world economy. The tiny growth in Europe would cease, costing jobs and increasing public debt.

Hence, the geopolitical, strategic, political and economic prices to pay for the US and Europe in case of a Russian victory in Estonia would be too high to accept. That is why NATO has to defend Estonia.

Defense by denial
Russia’s armed forces will not come with tanks, paratroopers and bombers. Even Putin does not want to start a circle of escalation, which could lead to the brink of nuclear war. Putin will use military power, but he will not immediately resort to the use of military force. Instead, in Ukraine, destabilization and covered action proved to be a much more efficient way of warfare to achieve Putin’s strategic and political aims.

German Special Forces (Army Photos)

In response, NATO has to adapt its’ understanding of collective defense. The Alliance will have to defend Estonia against an aggressor who does not fight in uniform, but rather send proxies, intelligence officers and covered action teams of Spetsnaz soldiers. Any attempts of hostile forces must be stopped the earliest as possible to prevent Russia from establishing bridgeheads. Conventional forces are not NATO’s best mean for this job, but rather defense of this kind is up to special operation forces, special police units and intelligence teams. Russia’s boots on the ground would need to be quickly identified, thereafter encircled to take away their initiative and finally captured or forced to withdraw back to Russia.

Hence, NATO has to use its Special Operations Headquarter to train and equip increased numbers of Baltic and Polish special forces. There should be contingency plans to deploy special forces from the US, Germany, Britain and France to Estonia in case of urgency. Moreover, EU has also a role to play, because police units are not within NATO’s mandate. Through EU, all Baltic States should be supported in setting up special police units, who would be able to quickly arrest Russian covered action teams.

NATO can successfully defend Estonia and the Baltic by a strategy of defense by denial. If Putin realizes that his’ new way of warfare will not work in Estonia, he most probably would not go for it.

US troops deploying to the Baltic (Army Times)

Finally, present critique on NATO’s diminished ability to defend its members reflects peacetime thinking and ignores the pressure of event. There are still US Army combat forces in Europe, which could arrive in Estonia within less than 24 hours. Moreover, given the political will exists, countries like Germany, France and Britain would still be able to send additional fighter jets and ground troops. The future issue for is NATO not, if it is able to defend Estonia. Instead, the issue is, if member states’ political elites, in a crisis, are willing to do so.

Author Biography
Felix Seidler is a security analyst who runs his own blog, Seidler’s Sicherheitspolitik, from which this article has been republished. You can read more about him here.

Cover image ‘A-10 on my Left’ by US Army Europe Images, released under Creative Commons 2.0 license

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