Defense minister: Deterrence challenges to NATO and EU can still be met

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Kalle Laanet Source: Ministry of Defense

Maintaining focus, doubling down on the concept of deterrence and promoting solidarity are all key if both NATO and the EU are to succeed in defending themselves against Estonia's eastern neighbor in any sense of the phrase, defense minister Kalle Laanet (Reform) writes. Meanwhile in concrete terms, both air and maritime defense are as important as ever.

In an opinion piece which appeared in on the website of daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL - link in Estonian), Laanet gave his brief in respect of two recently-published reports by Sweden's Defense Research Agency (FOI), which attracted plenty of attention, interest, debate and insight.

Given their size, militarizing the three Baltic States in the same way that the Russian Federation has done with the Kaliningrad exclave is not possible, a fact magnified by NATO's defense architecture in the region relying on local and allied deterrence and rapid reaction forces in the first instance, followed up by large-scale forces only where necessary, Laanet argues in his piece.

While Estonia's own goal is to defend itself via a comprehensive national defense program for the next five years, with a focus on coastal defenses, artillery and mechanized infantry being among the core elements, deterrence is still key, be it NATO or EU, Laanet went on.

In short, the Russian Federation needs to be convinced that an attack on the Baltic States would not be a replay of the 2008 invasion of Georgia – neither a NATO nor EU member.

Laanet made his comments in respect of two reports published by the FOI which highlighted the threat the Russian Federation continues to pose to NATO's eastern flank, including Estonia, at a time when many NATO states' defense expenditure increases are slowing down following the impetus given by the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Laanet noted the two reports focused on NATO's collective Defence in the Nordic and Baltic region, and on defense efforts of the countries in the region, and the contribution to the region and to NATO of three nuclear powers – France, the U.K. and the U.S.

Up to a point, it is working, Laanet noted – Russia does not conflate the Baltics with the Crimea, he writes; that no conflict has already broken out is proof of the pudding that deterrence works, though this deterrence must not lead to complacence as it can mean different things at different times.

Western defense capabilities in the Baltics and in northern Europe are so much more than the sum of their parts, Laanet writes, with strategy, planning, logistics, leadership, readiness, exercises and more being vital as well as the various dimensions of defense (i.e. land, air, sea, cyber) – at least in two of which (air and sea), the FOI report stated, NATO is strong in and needs to continue to be strong in in the Baltic region.

The big three nuclear powers cannot have all their eggs in one basket and commit too much of their capability on the frontier, however – hence in part the relatively small number of allied air force units (in the case of the Baltic States – two, one at Ämari in Estonia and on at Šiauliai in Lithuania, with the two of them between them also covering Latvia – ed.) which, together with similarly efficient naval activities, need to prove readiness rather than cover the ground with metaphorical (or real) boots.

Remaining gaps which will need addressing include an Estonian analogous to Poland and Lithuania's Patriot missiles, Laanet writes.

But what about Russia's own position? As things stand, attacking the Baltics would in economic terms be catastrophic for it, but it still has the both force sizes and geography on its side, as well as broad mindedness in military thinking (including in cyber warfare and, as is already familiar to many readers, misinformation).

While there is nothing much to be done about geography, the west too has that particular aspect on its site; significant, Laanet wrote, was that Sweden and Finland were included in this sphere, even though neither are in NATO – though Russia, too, could enlarge its purview by inserting its own troops openly into Belarus.

Overall, Laanet noted the FOI reports stressing of bilateral (a concrete example being Estonia's presence in Mali as part of the French-led Operation Barkhane - ed.) and multilateral relations and agreements between the region's allies and with the big three nuclear powers in being able respond and act immediately, in a coordinated manner in any type of rapidly evolving or escalating conflict.

The determination of the West, not to mention its unity, are the bedrock of the deterrence aspect; the economic side is important too, though strays outside many military strategists' and thinkers' fiefdoms.

The determination of the West, not to mention its unity, are the bedrock of the deterrence aspect; the economic side is important too, though strays outside many military strategists' and thinkers' fiefdoms.

NATO must keep Russia aware of its nuclear umbrella, of its defensive posture, is political messages and of its unity, Laanet adds.

After all, he notes, we have been here in the past: "When a Cold War feeling is hanging in the air, one must inadvertently speak in a Cold War language that is both understandable and compelling to the other side."

The original Kalle Laanet EPL opinion piece (in Estonian) is here, while the English-language versions of the FOI reports are available at the end of this article.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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