Writing for War on the Rocks, Mark Galeotti makes the case that the Baltic States need to be thinking more about “hybrid defense” as a response to possible “hybrid warfare” from their neighbor to the east.
To be fair, the Baltics are making progress in this area (and Professor Galeotti concedes as much), but he makes a persuasive case that they need to step up the pace. The Baltic countries’ main focus of late, however, has been elsewhere, on efforts to persuade NATO to station a brigade in the region to act as a tripwire. NATO should do that, but by itself it may not be deterrence enough, not least because of the nightmare scenario Galeotti sketches out in his article. As so often with such scenarios, it revolves around Narva, a Soviet-style city in eastern Estonia, where some 96 percent of the population is Russian-speaking (and roughly a third are Russian citizens) just across a fairly narrow river from Russia (FWIW I wrote about a recent visit there here).
Crimea and the Donbas should not be considered playbooks we can expect the Russians to follow directly. Estonia’s senior military commander, Lt. General Riho Terras, has an uncompromising but effective answer to the little green men: “You should shoot the first one to appear.” Fair enough, but the Russians are unlikely to make it quite so easy.
The first little green man, after all, might instead be a 15-year-old Russian-Estonian girl waving a “Russian-speakers have rights, too” placard in the border city of Narva. Shoot her? Of course not. The second might be her older brother, throwing rocks at the police coming to arrest her. Shoot him? Hopefully not, especially as you can guarantee that footage of the incident would promptly be blasted across Russian TV channels. Meanwhile the Kremlin-backed Night Wolves motorcycle gang tries to force the border into Narva, unarmed but in numbers. At the same time, a bomb explodes in Tallinn’s railway station at rush hour, creating panic and chaos, while anonymous calls warn of other bombs around the city. A tanker truck gets into an unexplained accident just past the Luhamaa border crossing to the southeast, bursting into flames. As a noxious chemical cloud drifts across the border, Russian fire and hazmat trucks, escorted by police, demand to be allowed to deal with the scene.
Estonia’s police and border guards number fewer than 6,000 uniformed officers in total. They are scattered around the country. Some will be on leave, some off sick. How quickly can they be overextended? Do you deploy the military? And if so, where, and to do what? After all, when hybrid war was regarded as the tactic of the insurgent, the response was to deploy airstrikes, artillery, and armor, hardly instruments appropriate in conditions like these.
Nor is there any clear role for NATO yet. Even if this is considered something falling within its remit, the alliance is no better prepared for such non-military operations. Besides, the optics of, Polish commandos or U.S. Marines facing off against Estonian rioters would be another propaganda coup for Moscow.
Galeotti’s suggestions include expansion and better training of local police forces, more sophisticated counter-intelligence, even greater efforts to integrate the region’s Russian-speaking minorities, improved civic governance and so on. As mentioned above, these are things that are already being done (to a greater or lesser extent), but Galeotti is right to argue that they need to be seen as different parts of one comprehensive ‘target-hardening’ package. He’s also correct to suggest that the EU can lend a helping hand (in fact it already does: EU money and insistence on relatively clean governance has been a force for good in north-eastern Europe), although I wouldn’t push that idea too far. The EU’s ‘diplomatic service’ is largely destructive piece of empire-building: it would have little sensible to contribute here.
Galeotti is, I think, wrong to suggest that some of this target-hardening should be prioritized over meeting the commitment (disregarded in most of Europe, although not Estonia) to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. That 2 percent has a value in itself (the Baltic militaries are tiny), but also has immense symbolic power, particularly here in the US, where voters have every right to ask why American personnel should be put at risk to defend countries that are not prepared to spend the minimum on their own defense.
The answer, I’m afraid, is that the Baltic countries have to spend more both on conventional military defense and the target-toughening that Galeotti suggests.