Public threat assessment by Estonian intelligence: we cannot rule out Russia’s use of military force against Baltics (2)
Current goverment policy in Russia is, and for the near future shall remain, the only threat to military security in the Baltic Sea region. While unlikely, it is not possible to rule out Russian use of military force against the Baltic States entirely, the Estonian Information Board (EIB) reported in its first ever publicly available threat assessment.
”The Russian ruling elite is convinced that, in communication with the West, Moscow can only defend its interests from a position of strength, which includes a constant demonstration of military threats. The Russian leadership considers NATO’s security reinforcement measures and the growing number of NATO members as an existential threat, and views the European Union’s integration policy as damaging to its interests,” the document stated.
Russia’s ability to wage war using only conventional means is currently hampered, and its problems are likely to get worse in the current economic crisis, but according to EIB estmates, we cannot rule out entirely the possibility that Russia could use military force against the Baltic States.
“Russia may use military force when its armed forces fail to respond adequately to a NATO-Russia conflict in another region. By creating a conflict in the Baltics, Russia would attempt to gain a stronger position for talks following the armed conflict,” the Information Board found.
Russian misconceptions could cause biggest threat of conflict
According to Information Board estimates, “The biggest threat of a military conflict in the Baltic countries arises from the Kremlin’s misconceptions which may be based on its distorted perception of threats from the Western strategic direction (including the Baltics). Also, Russia views Europe as a single entity and takes it into consideration in relation to developments in other regions. Thus, conflicts in Ukraine or the Arctic may spill over to the Baltic States as well.”
The Board also estimates that it is worth taking into consideration that in case of conflict, Russia would regard the entire Baltic Sea region as one single entity, and that if war were to break out, Moscow would not respect any country’s neutrality in the situation. The report further explained that the Kremlin would be counting on the fact that NATO would have access to Finnish and Swedish infrastructure and, by the Information Board’s estimates, they would thus be prepared to attack strategic targets on their territory as well, regardless of the fact that neither Finland nor Sweden themselves belong to NATO.
According the report, Russia regards the Baltics as the most difficult area of NATO’s support area for the latter to protect, and where Russia estimates NATO may deploy 1-2 corps in the event of war. The former’s military planning in the Baltic region is built up on the assumption that it would have a time advantage over NATO in staging forces.
“Moscow believes that it is capable of conducting a limited military operation before any effective response by NATO could be mounted. The goal of such operations would not be to seize the entire territory of Estonia or Latvia, but rather to impose control over some towns or areas close to the border,” the board’s report stated.
Military force increased little by little in direction of Baltics
While chances of the use of military force in Estonia are low, and the country is not a primary target, Russia has nonetheless been increasing its level of military force in the region one step at a time, and according to the Information Board these noticeable smaller steps make up part of a greater long-term plan.
“Russia has substantially strengthened its military contingent on the Baltic operational direction (Estonia, Latvia), and has increased the volume and complexity of its exercises in the region. Among the most significant changes are the formation of the 15th army aviation brigade in Ostrov (Pskov oblast) and placement of SS-26 ‘Iskander’ tactical missiles (NATO reporting name – Stone) to Luga,” in Northwest Russia, just a few hundred kilometers from the Russian-Estonian border.
In addition to increases in troops in the region, additional threats to Estonia are posed by new weapons systems (including the “Iskander” system, and sea- or air-based cruise missiles) located in Kaliningrad and near the Estonian-Latvian border, which would allow Russia to be able to isolate Estonia from its allies and render it impossible for NATO support to reach the country. The Board finds it unlikely, however, that Russia would use tactical nuclear weapons against Estonian targets or NATO units located in the area.
Russia’s goals: restore sphere of influence, drive US from Europe
Regardless of Putin’s statement that the fall of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, Moscow’s goal is not to restore the Soviet Union, but rather to restore the Russian sphere of influence using modern political, economic, and military means, the report explained.
“Russia’s ambition is to strengthen its influence in the [Commonwealth of Independent States] area… While considering the Baltic States as within its area of its vital interests, the Kremlin does not regard them as it does the CIS countries. Rather, the Baltics are viewed as an insignificant part of the Western community, and Russia’s countermeasures towards these countries are often careless and imprudent compared to its relations with other Western nations.”
As for the west, the document explained that Russia’s goal in the direction of the West would be to create “...a blocfree security zone throughout continental Europe and [curb] the US military presence until its complete withdrawal of forces from Europe.”
“International Security and Estonia in 2016” is the Estonian Information Board’s first publication created specifically for the wider public, and does not contain any declassified material or disclose any state secrets.
The 48-page English-language report, which is divided into two main subjects—Russia, and other threats (including terrorism, the conflict in Syria, Lybria, the migration crisis and cyber threats)—can be read in full on the Estonian Information Board’s website (PDF).