In the light of Russian aggression in Ukraine within the last year, and various statements by the Baltic and foreign leaders about a potential threat the Estonia's eastern neighbor poses, the Estonian media is constantly searching for opinions as to how dangerous Russia actually is. Jaan Murumets, a senior research fellow at the Tallinn-based International Center for Defense and Security, gave his verdict in an interview with Estonian online news portal Delfi.
The debate was fueled this week in Estonia again, after President Ilves said in an interview with the British daily The Telegraph that Russian forces are occasionally conducting massive military exercises near Estonian border - involving up to 80,000 men – and should they invade Estonia, “it would be all over in four hours”.
Swift invasion impossible
In Murumets's opinion, the number of Russian troops currently stationed in the vicinity of the Baltic states is not substantial enough for the quick invasion of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Murumets said that proper invasion needs massive forces and equipment and its movements would be spotted. Sudden strike with highly mobile and small units – or like in Crimea, with “little green men” - would be possible, but Estonia's territory would be too large for the small units to achieve a significant success.
The likelihood of moving large units undetected is higher when using transport planes – the preparations might not be interpreted as groundwork for invasion and the real objective of attacking forces will go undetected until the planes are in the sky. Whereas in case of ground troops and artillery - which are needed to sustain an attack lasting longer than three days – the establishment of back-up supply storages of fuel, ammunition and food for the troops would be detected.
“We are talking about thousands of tons of equipment here, which would have to be transported by rail to various supply stations, for the further transport on the road. These kind of preparations would not go undetected,” Murumets said to Delfi.
There are four Russian brigades near Estonia - including Spetsnaz elite military brigade and air assault division in Pskov, merely 70 km from the Estonian border. It has previously been speculated that it would take a week for these forces to react, from an order to action. Murumets confirmed that this would be a realistic time, but a smaller unit within the brigade, a battalion, could move more swiftly.
When it comes to air assault division, there is always the question whether the required transport planes are already based in the vicinity of the division, or would they need to be flown there first, in which case the preparations take longer and the increased activity will be noticed. Murumets brought an example that in the case of the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, Russia prepared the operation for months and series of military exercises took place before the political decision to invade was made.
But Murumets emphasized that should an attack by air assault division happen, it would run out of supplies within 48 hours, by which time the enemy would have to organize resupply. Murumets said that even if such a division managed to invade for example Narva, or to the extreme, Toompea Castle in Tallinn, it would account to nothing, as controlling the political centers and the total area of Estonia needs significant number of troops. “And preparations for large troop entry would not go unnoticed.”
Up to 50,000 Russian soldiers needed to control Estonian territory
Murumets said that to control Estonian territory, Russia would need at least two divisions (up to about 50,000 soldiers). To occupy the Baltic states simultaneously, Russia would also need to use Belorussian territory, as the Lithuania-Russia border is not long. “What are the chances that Belarus would agree to get involved?” he asked rhetorically. He added that Germany would be able to bolster security, and move their forces to Lithuania faster, than Russia.
Murumets said that in his opinion, Russian military professionals evaluate the prospects of military success or failure well, taking into account the reality. Therefore, they would also know that occupying the Baltic states would require massive resources and time. “The question whether the Russian political establishment would be keen to take these calculations into consideration, is another matter, however.” “Russia is unable to sustain a large military conflict in Europe with conventional methods and therefore I don't see any logic behind it. But if the political leadership is irrational, then the usual military and technical arguments don't apply,” he conceded.
Murumets also pointed out that the fears of imminent Russian threat are normally expressed by politicians or think-tanks, not by military servicemen. “I'm not quite convinced that the opinions of various think-tanks actually reflect the military reality.”
Editor: S. Tambur