Kaarel Kaas, the editor of Diplomaatia monthly - published by the Tallinn-based International Center for Defense Studies - gave uudised.err.ee a detailed look at the state of Russia's conventional forces near Estonia's borders.
What changes have occurred recently near the Estonian border?
Starting in 2008, when Russia launched all-encompassing army reforms, many units in Estonia's vicinity - the Pskov oblast, Leningrad oblast and Kaliningrad - have been disbanded, but many others have received significant reinforcements. Some new army bases have also been opened. Perhaps most importantly for Estonia is the concentration around Pskov, where the 76th Guards Air Assault Division is based. That's an elite paratrooper unit.
Pskov also hosts the 2nd Independent Spetsnaz Brigade. Both units have been kept fully manned, and the Spetsnaz brigade has seen major upgrades recently. The 76th Air Assault Division has received new weaponry and equipment, but the most important thing is that the unit will soon be composed only of contract soldiers and professional NCOs.
Another important development occurred in Luga, on the other side of Lake Peipus. Luga is home to the 9th Artillery Brigade and 26th Missile Brigade. Before reform it was only half-manned, now it is fully-manned. The Artillery Brigade actually has enough weaponry to form a second artillery base in the event of crisis. The relevant personnel just have to be deployed there.
The Missile Brigade is one to watch, because since 2010, Iskander-M ballistic short-range missiles have been stationed there. The minimum range of these is 500 km, but based on some public sources, it could be 700-750 kilometers. It is a precision weapon system that can hit high-value strategic targets - bridges, bunkers, ports, airports, etc.
So Estonia would be within that range?
The range extends to half of Latvia and quite easily up to northern Finland. Thus with very little warning, they can deal a major strike on strategic points in any part of Estonia or Latvia.
A new mech infantry unit - the 25th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade - has been created, too, in Vladimirsky Lager, which is between Pskov and Luga. Such a unit didn't previously exist there. It's a new formation which shows that the general staff feels this trajectory is important enough that it needs to be reinforced. The context here is also that the Pskov Amphibious Landing Division is about as big as the peacetime ranks of the Estonian Defense Forces. So actually, there has never been a imbalance of forces here for the Russians.
Moving on to the St. Petersburg area, two key developments have occurred. A key one is perhaps the fact that anti-aircraft defenses called S-300 BMU-2 were moved close to St. Petersburg and their range is up to 250 km meaning that, when placed in battle positions, it would be possible to use these systems to basically close all of Estonian airspace without leaving the Russian Federation borders, and target any plane in Estonian airspace.
It is likely that one of the regiments in this missile brigade will be re-armed with even more powerful S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile systems, which have a theoretical range of up to 450 km. No, they don't have that range yet, but it's a matter of a few years.
Also near St. Petersburg, in Levašovo, there's a key army air base, with a combination helicopter and combat helicopter regiment. This year a new type of Mi 28n, K-52 attack helicopters should arrive, Russia's newest combat helicopters. They could be called Russian Apaches, with some exaggeration.
And near St. Petersburg, there's the 138th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, which is on permanent stand-by. It took part in the recent massive exercises, which took place right before the invasion of Ukraine. There's also a Russian Air Force base - a significant site - north of the city, where fighter planes are based. There's also one mid-range AA brigade armed with a PUK anti-aircraft missile battery.
A key development last year was that a helicopter base was re-opened in Ostrov, near the Estonian-Latvian border. About a squadron's worth of assault choppers were based there as of the end of last year. This year transport copters and K-52 attack helicopters should also arrive. It's important for Estonia, because previously it had to reckon with one helicopter base when defending Estonian airspace, but now there are two of them. Double in quantity, and the new aircraft are also better in quality.
The second major troop concentration is in Kaliningrad. It's home to one motor rifle brigade, one motor rifle regiment and the Baltic Fleet Marine Brigade. Both the marines and the rifle brigade are now at full capacity after the army reform.
What is important in the strategic picture that there's a second missile brigade in Estonia's near vicinity, which is also now armed with Iskander-M missiles. Its range covers half of Poland and up to central Latvia, maybe even northern Estonia.
That's basically another place from which strategic Baltic sites can be kept under fire without needing to send bombers - after all, bombers would be spotted very easily and far away on radar.
Kaliningrad also has new S-400 SAMs; I already mentioned their range. The current anti-aircraft missiles allow much of Poland and likely Latvia to be covered. With long-range SAMs, even Gotland and much of the Baltic Sea could be covered.
And of course, Kaliningrad is the main base of the Baltic Fleet, which has been strengthened in recent years; by the end of 2014 the fleet should get its fifth Steregushchy-class corvette, which is a fully modern warship and also has surface-to-land gun support capability, previous ones had only ship-to-ship capability.
Likely a new Ivan Gren-class landing ship will be added this year, making it possible to land marines and matériel.
And naturally there's an Air Force base in Kaliningrad, where bombers are based.
How fast can the Baltic countries be grabbed, how ready are these units?
Readiness varies from one unit to the next. Most, like the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, the 2nd Independent Spetnaz Brigade and the 138th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade near Kamenka are actually at a high state of readiness. A week until combat operations.
Some units probably have even a higher level of readiness. For example, the elite paratrooper division has a rapid response battalion that has always been at 12-hour readiness. The same is true for the Pskov division.
The Marine Brigade is also at high readiness in Kaliningrad and so in all likelihood is the Motor Rifle Brigade based there.
The 25th Motor Rifle Brigade right on the other side of the Estonian border have had lower readiness, but we can presume that the situation will change in years ahead as more contract soldiers and sergeants come in.
Missile brigades are at very high readiness, and so are the anti-aircraft units. But in light of conventional forces balance, it would be possible to field a considerable conventional strike force against our region - the Baltic countries - with very little warning. It would be backed up by modern helicopter gunships in Ostrov and near St. Petersburg.
How many troops are we talking about?
The Pskov Air Assault Division has 6,000-7,000 men. That fluctuates seasonally depending on the number of conscripts. There are two call-ups a year in Russia. The 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade has 1,000 men. The 25th Motor Rifle Brigade has about 3,000, the 138th Motor Rifle Brigade in Kamenka has about 3,000 as well. The Baltic Fleet Marine Brigade in Kaliningrad has about 3,500 men, and the motor rifle brigade there has about 2,500-3,000, while the Independent Motor Rifle Brigade has about 1,600-1,800 men.