Amid the roughed-up geopolitics, the Baltics’ defense still has more holes than a Swiss cheese, many independent defense experts believe. The Baltic states armies’ capacities are insufficient as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania rely too much on NATO, which is not likely to come at rescue immediately after an adversary’s intrusion. As holding ground for as long as possible may be a question of life and death for the trio, the current deterrence strategies are doubtful and need to be stepped up.
US expert: Estonia looks best defense-wise
“The Baltic states face a fundamental dilemma. Because they cannot hope to match Russia’s military power alone, and relying totally on their NATO allies is risky, they must make a choice. One option is to adopt an appeasement policy toward Moscow and hope it is sufficient. The other option is to adopt a “porcupine” strategy – creating robust military forces that would massively raise the cost of aggression to Russia, even though an eventual Russian victory would still be inevitable,” says Ted Galen Carpenter, a Senior Fellow at Cato Institute, a US-based public policy research think tank. “The Baltic States have done neither. They have taken the provocative step of joining an anti-Russian military alliance while woefully under-investing in their own defenses. Estonia has done the best job of the three countries, but even its effort is entirely insufficient,” Carpenter told ERR News.
Baltic armies need much more individual equipment
Amid the lingering standoff with Russia, despite some positive steps, the Baltics has otherwise done little to boost their military capacities and reconsider defense strategies.
“Defense spending should be raised many times (in the three countries) in order to develop military capabilities, which would withstand possible aggression by an adversary or make at least a much more serious conventional deterrence than it is now. I think 2 percent of GDP for defense is not sufficient enough,” says Olevs Nikers, Chief Expert at the Ministry of Defense of Latvia, and a Fulbright Scholar at the Texas A&M University, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, US.
He believes the Baltic states armies need much more “individual” equipment, arms and modern weapons. “Also to develop air defense capabilities, train active military service men and army reserves, produce national reserves in case of immediate mobilization. I’m not saying that preparation for a major war is only thing that Baltic states should be concerned about, but they must bring much more resources into defense and security. I would say that 5 percent of GDP would be a good starting point for Latvia, let’s say,” Nikers told ERR News.
Baltics needs air defense and anti-tank systems as soon as possible
In ramping up defense capacities immediately, Nikers believes special task units should be supported and developed to counter possible modern war situations as was experienced in Crimea 2014.
“Air defense and anti-tank systems must be brought to the Baltic armies immediately, as well as securing borders much more than they are now. All the best resources (equipment, personnel, weapons) which are possessed by the Baltic states armed forces should be brought to or easily accessed by forward defense positions near the Eastern borders. Simultaneously, much more attention should be given to improve the capacity of the army reserves by massive and regular training,” the Latvian expert says.
According to him, a very important issue is Host Nation Support capability; not only should each of the Baltic states master it, but sound cooperation between all three must be developed to ensure that Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania can cooperate and act as one, when it comes to the rapid deployment of allied forces.
“This is the best thing that the Baltic states can do, to ensure that NATO Article 5 (an armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an attack against them all) will work when necessary,” Nikers says.
Long-term, the expert believes, the Baltic states should develop “unified military strategy” and planning, at least for the Eastern sectors, and integrate much more their militaries, in terms of defense systems, procurement, armaments and command & control in case of an emergency, i.e. aggression by Russia. “Also much more attention should be given to the total warfare ability, developing sub-professional military organizations as National Guard in Latvia or the Defense League in Estonia. Massive involvement of society members should be encouraged and regularly trained, making solid backup for army reserves,” Nikers emphasized.
Former defense minister: too much reliance on partisan resistance strategy
Audrius Butkevicius, the former Lithuanian defense minister and now a security and defense consultant, who has consulted Georgia and Ukraine on a range of defense issues, asserts the defense capabilities of the three Baltic states are “devoid.”
“The states’ defense strategies are all about activating local partisan resistance capacities, but it is far from enough to ward off an aggressor without some other key elements,” says the expert. “First, there needs to be a whole lot more cooperation between the three countries.”
Especially considering that NATO, he says, with the geopolitical tensions already high, has only just recently “scrambled” to draw up a defense plan for the Baltics in case of adversary’s warfare.
“Let’s face it: some deem the Baltics as “undefendable”, but the defense has to start off from a plan. However, it is not the planning that matters most, but the trio’s willingness to be continuously focused on defense issues. The Baltic countries, except Estonia perhaps, have been too complacent. That Lithuania has just recently re-introduced conscription is the best proof of my words,” the former minister told ERR News.
Total defense system is needed
According to Butkevicius, the Baltics’ defense is “unimaginable” without two key elements: the swift deployment of NATO’s available capacities upon aggression and, importantly, the Baltic states’ total defense system, which is about having a critical mass of civilians “willing and ready” to deter an intruder.
“As there’s a big reliance on NATO, the idea of civil resistance has not found much support until recently, alas. And this is a mistake,” the expert says.
Of the three, he believes Estonia looks better than the other two.
“As a NATO member state, it has been dutiful. Estonia has not only met the 2 percent threshold of national GDP for defense, but has been way better among the rest in communicating defense issues for the last 25 years,” Butkevicius emphasized. “Therefore, from the prospect of a NATO response in an emergency, it has better defense arguments than Latvia and Lithuania.”
Baltic reservists: immediate NATO help should be excluded
Taking part in the NATO Baltic Sea reserve troops annual conference in Palanga, Bronius Zaronskis, vice-president of Lithuania’s Army Reserve Troops Association, shared the concern of fellow Baltic reserve soldiers that in case of an adversary’s hostility, the Baltics “could not expect immediate help.”
“This was the prevalent thought in all the speeches in the conference. Obviously, there are NATO commitments, but we should be relying more on our own smartly used military capacities to fend off adversary. Russia, certainly, knows very well the deployment sites of NATO and our military bases, which effectively replaced the Soviet military bases. Like many people, I believe we should be creating very mobile military troops which would not be adhered to one or another military base,” Zaronskis told ERR News.
Raimonds Nitiss, a representative of Latvian Army Reserve, believes that only Estonian reserve troops are sizeable and efficient.
“The Estonian Army Reserve is used in a targeted way and provides tangible assistance for the regular army forces. In Latvia, the army reserve system is underdeveloped and, unlike in Estonia or Denmark, is lacking cooperation with the state and active army forces,” Nitiss told ERR News.
Asked which Baltic State possesses the best defense capacities, Nitiss did not hesitate: Estonia.
“Estonians approach defense issues in a very practical way. Therefore, they have a conscript army and a very well developed National Guard. Besides, their educational system is very pro-defense,” Nitiss noted. “But as far as the NATO presence in the region is concerned, I think all the three states receive a fair share of it.”
Danish army major praises Estonia
Tomas Legarth, a Danish Army major, whom I met in the Palanga NATO reserve troops conference, also praises Estonia: “Estonians have done quite a lot in ramping up their army reserve and defense on the whole. Having re-introduced conscription in Lithuania, you are acknowledging Estonia, which has conscription for a while despite the calls to abandon it and rely on professional troops.”
He says most Danish experts share the opinion that Estonia is better on defense issues that Latvia and Lithuania.
“I perhaps could not say why it is so, but all agree about it. Estonia, more than the other two Baltic countries, involves their international staff (in defense) to a higher degree and the corroboration (in the field of defense) is heavier,” Legarth told ERR News.
Ex-defense minister: Estonia is good, but Lithuania is catching up
Rasa Jukneviciene, the former Lithuanian Conservative defense minister, concurs too that Estonia has been more consistent with the defense commitments.
“As far as I know, this year, Estonia has called around 10,000 troops from the reserve for re-training. Besides, Estonia has invested much into human resources, as far as the preparation of the Estonian defense system, is concerned,” she told ERR News.
Nevertheless, she notes, it is not Estonia but Lithuania which has the largest army and, therefore, the biggest defense capabilities as well the best-developed Special Forces in the Baltics.
“Lithuania has taken the biggest stride among the NATO member states in bolstering financing for defense. Coupled with the reintroduced conscription and commitment to allot 2 percent of GDP for defense, Lithuania is not that far behind Estonia now,” she emphasized.
Editor: S. Tambur