At this year’s Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn, which was held under the title Tempus Fugit (Time Flees, 13-15 May), the Russian invasion in Ukraine dominated the discussions. During the conference Finland and Sweden initiated procedures to apply for full NATO membership, a step well-received in the Baltic states. In an interview with the Militaire Spectator Martin Hurt, Research Fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn, discusses the expectations the region has about the upcoming NATO Madrid Summit, deterrence more robust than the current ‘symbolically-sized NATO battlegroups’ in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and the appeal to the government in Berlin to double its effort in the alliance: ‘As it is now, Germany is a liability in NATO.’

Dr. Frans van Nijnatten

'The threat is tangible'

Although the Baltic states had been trying to persuade Finland and Sweden to join NATO for quite some time, the Russian invasion in Ukraine, which started on 24 February, made the security situation very acute. As Martin Hurt explains, Finland and Sweden, which both handed in their letters of application at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels on 18 May, are not entirely newcomers to the alliance. ‘They joined NATO's Partnership for Peace programme during the 1990s, participated in numerous exercises and are inter-operable. Since 2014 a number of mechanisms have been developed and agreed at NATO whereby in any crisis in Europe consultations with Finland and Sweden must take place. Such consultations would not necessarily focus on integrating their forces but on deconflicting and coordinating certain activities. Obviously, from the Baltic point of view, NATO membership of Finland and Sweden will eliminate the uncertainty in our region and will provide long-term stability. In wartime we would know exactly what forces and capabilities they could contribute.’

With Finland and Sweden as NATO members, the Baltic states would significantly enhance their situational awareness in the air and sea domains. Hurt clearly disagrees with certain commentators who say that Finnish and Swedish membership would worsen the security situation because of Russia's threat with repercussions. ‘Moscow doesn’t really consider Finland and Sweden as neutral or non-aligned countries anyway, but as NATO-friendly.’ A Russian military reaction, however, is not to be expected. ‘Given the war in Ukraine now, Russia doesn’t have a surplus in military capabilities in our region at the moment and any military response to Finland and Sweden joining NATO would not be helpful to Moscow either. The governments in Finland and Sweden are aware that from the moment of  their application until they actually become full members they will be more vulnerable because they cannot yet enjoy NATO’s formal security guarantees. Both countries also know that it is likely that Russia will intensify its information operations and cyber attacks against them. These attacks have been going on for years now, so Finland and Sweden know what to expect.’  

Meanwhile, the Estonian Ministry of Defence has announced a 3.8 billion Euro budget for 2023-2026. Amongst others, Estonia plans to buy Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems, medium-range air defence systems and tracked armoured vehicles. According to Martin Hurt, there is little discussion about allocating funds to defence in a time of economic downwind: ‘In NATO countries people tend to view the threat from Russia depending on their distance to its border. In member states like Norway, Finland, the Baltic states and Poland bordering Russia and others with Soviet occupation histories, such as Romania, people think security is one of the fundamental functions the government must provide. In domestic politics, it would therefore be political suicide to say, ‘let’s not tend to our defence but let’s compensate the population for inflation instead’; both need to be done because the threat is tangible. If we would face a conflict with Russia, it would be our cities that would look like Mariupol and Butcha.’

Martin Hurt RKK/ICDS

Martin Hurt: ‘According to military and political decision makers Ukraine is in need of military equipment right now and we increase our own security if we hand it over. Many countries in our region have this approach.’ Photo RKK/ICDS

Estonia has sent Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft munitions and other military aid to Ukraine worth 220 million Euros, which equals one third of its own 2022 defence budget. That decision does not weaken Estonia itself, says Hurt. ‘According to the military and political decision makers Ukraine is in need of the equipment right now and we increase our own security if we hand it over. Many countries in our region have this approach. Other countries, like Germany for example, have said that they can donate only a limited amount of materiel because they have to meet their obligations towards NATO. But the alliance has mechanisms to compensate for any gaps and other member states can step in and fill those gaps temporarily with their own national forces. So, for instance, if Germany would decide to donate one or two sets of equipment for complete armoured battalions with the most modern vehicles to Ukraine, it would be more benificial to European security than if these vehicles remained in Germany.’

NATO’s Madrid Summit: Deterrence by denial

At the Lennart Meri Conference, the panel ‘Heroes. NATO on the Doorstep of the Madrid Summit’ discussed what response to Russia’s aggression the alliance should agree upon at its 28-30 June Summit in Madrid. The approach of deterrence by punishment seems to be outdated in the light of current Russian aggression. Martin Hurt: ‘The Estonian government and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg seem to agree that it’s time to move towards deterrence by denial, meaning that there would be a larger military presence here in the East on a more permanent basis. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has said she expects the future military presence in the Baltic states to be a division-sized unit in each country. That would also include the national forces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. That’s a different logic from the current battalion-sized tactical groups of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP).’ Some of the forces would not have to be deployed on a full-time basis, but equipment and supplies would be prepositioned and plans would be in place to bring in reinforcements. The Baltic countries realise that their expectations are quite ambitious. ‘Obviously upgrading to deterrence by denial would require much more time to implement than the eFP, because the available resources would be limited,’ says Hurt.

To convince Moscow that NATO is fully committed to the defence of the alliance’s territory member states should not waver and show resolve and resilience, experts stated at the Lennart Meri Conference. In the Baltic states view, especially Germany is seen as a country that should double its effort. The decision of the German government to allocate an extra 100 billion Euros to the armed forces was welcomed at the Lennart Meri Conference, but some doubts remain. ‘The Baltic states want a Germany that is willing and able to contribute to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area in the same way as during the Cold War, when West Germany was a significant military contributor to NATO. Until 1989 the Bundeswehr was a formidable war machine, but then it went downhill,’ says Martin Hurt. ‘The Germans have a lot of hesitations and take very late decisions which aren’t very robust either. The military ability of the Bundeswehr is very limited and after last year’s elections the new government even said they were going to decrease the defence budget. It took the Russian invasion of Ukraine to reverse that. But as it is now, Germany is a liability in NATO for sure.’ The Germans do take part in the eFP in Lithuania, but that does not impress Hurt: ‘Montenegro also does that in Latvia. If all Germany can do is deliver a brigade to the NATO Responce Force every once in a while and at the same time make phonecalls to [Russian President] Putin than that is not serious behaviour. France for example has a much stronger military with nuclear weapons, so they can afford to make use of deterrence and dialogue at the same time.’

Although friction among NATO members states may occur – Turkey has raised objections against Finland and Sweden joining the alliance – Martin Hurt warns against overemphasizing differences or even suggesting disunity. At the Lennart Meri Conference, some experts showed concern about members drifting away from democracy toward autocracy. ‘The vast majority of member states doesn’t experience serious problems concerning their democratic institutions. Democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech are important elements in being an effective member of NATO and, I would also say, of the EU. Very generally speaking it could pose challenges to NATO because when it comes to decision-making all members including those who have moved away from full democracy sit around the table and the alliance has to deal with them.’

Trident Juncture 2018 NATO Baltic Sea

With Finland and Sweden as NATO members, the Baltic states would significantly enhance their situational awareness in the air and sea domains. Photo NATO

‘Russia must not be allowed to win in Ukraine’

‘Russia is ready for war’, the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) stated in a report last January, pointing at the probability of a ‘full-scale military attack on Ukraine’ by the second half of February. In the EFIS’s assessment, the Baltic states and NATO as a whole should be prepared ‘for increasingly sustained military pressure from Russia.’ Meanwhile, members of the Estonian military pointed out that the amount of forces the Russians had concentrated along the borders with Ukraine were not sufficient to occupy the whole country and there is no doubt that the Russian military suffered setbacks and heavy losses during their operations over the last three months. ‘The Russians overestimated their own capabilities and underestimated the Ukrainians’ will to fight. They probably assumed that they would be welcomed,’ says Martin Hurt. ‘Traditionally and historically, Soviet and Russian forces were very seldom of high quality; usually, they have lots of quantity and that is how they operate. The first, second and third echelons of Russians are sent in and are killed. When the enemy runs out of ammunition, the fourth echelon comes in and does the job. Russia, however, has neither the numbers the Soviet Union had in 1945 nor the battle experience. In Syria, the Russians didn’t really gain the kind of experience needed for the war they are now fighting in Ukraine. So there is a mixture of reasons why the Russians are underperforming.’ Compared to NATO, Russia also still suffers from a technology gap: ‘They do have modern equipment, but judged by their tactical behaviour, one could ask if they are well trained enough to operate it in the field. On the other hand there are indications that the Russians are slowly reaching at least some of their objectives, like building a land bridge in Eastern Ukraine from Russia to Crimea.’

Panelists at the Lennart Meri Conference agreed that the outcome of the war in Ukraine should not be a situation in which the international community allows the Russian regime to win and forces the government in Kiev to concessions. Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons, raised the question whether the West should have formed a coalition of the willing and sent military units to Ukraine as a deterrent a while ago. Although such reasoning is understandable, ‘there was no political leader willing to be so forward and aggressive. Had we had Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher around today probably we would have seen such a decision’, says Hurt. ‘The UK has been forward-leaning in this respect, hoping that the United States would lead and a number of other nations would also join. If we look at what nations went into Iraq, it would be a more or less similar coalition going into Ukraine. Maybe the current situation is similar  to that in the Balkans during the 90s, when large-scale atrocities comparable to what we have recently seen in Bucha were taking place; Western political leaders at one point said, ‘Enough is enough’ and subsequently NATO started bombing. But with US elections coming up I’m not sure if US President Biden would be interested in leading such an operation in Ukraine.’

SIIL 2022 Estonia

During the national exercise Hedgehog (SIIL 2022), which began in the week after the Lennart Meri Conference, Estonia brought in the yearly cohort of conscripts. Photo Ministry of Defence Estonia

Zapad 2017 and 2021: ‘Rehearsals for an invasion’

‘Clearly, Russia’s 2017 and 2021 Zapad exercises have been rehearsals for an invasion’, Colonel Andrus Merilo, Commander of Estonia’s 1st Infantry Brigade, said during a May 12 presentation at the military base in Tapa, which also hosts a British-led eFP unit. Merilo stressed that the eFP ‘is not a training exercise; it’s a mission, because Estonia and NATO can’t afford to lose any territory.’ In any case, the mission of the Estonian Defence Forces in Tapa and elsewhere remains to ‘prepare for military defence by training reserve units and managing their readiness.’

In the national exercise Hedgehog (SIIL 2022), which began in the week after the Lennart Meri Conference and lasted until the end of May, in which a Finnish infantry company and a group of combat engineers took part, Estonia brought in the yearly levy of conscripts, who had been training since last summer. After Hedgehog the conscripts transferred to the national reserve forces. As Martin Hurt sees it, Hedgehog and the continuation of international exercises like Defender Europe (reinforcement), Swift Response and Cold Response show the resolve of the Baltic states and NATO: ‘You plan, prepare, and do it, otherwise you will send the absolutely wrong signal to Russia. In the Baltic states and Poland we have the limited forward presence of symbolically-sized battlegroups and we know that 99 percent of the posture is going to rely on reinforcement that moves rapidly.’ As far as Hurt is concerned, a more powerful deterrent effect would only be achieved ‘if Russia saw trainloads of tanks always on the move somewhere. In times of crisis, when we would have to deploy even more, that wouldn’t be a change of the normal picture.’

Like Andrus Merilo, Hurt warns against overemphasizing the strategic importance of the Suwalki Gap or Kaliningrad: ‘I would assume that in case of a military attack against the whole region, the Suwalki Gap would be just one of many areas Russia would try to take control over. But obviously it serves as a prime example to explain very easily to politicians and non-experts to illustrate the challenges of reinforcing the Baltic states in the land domain.’

Over de auteur(s)

Dr. Frans van Nijnatten

Frans van Nijnatten is eindredacteur van de Militaire Spectator.