Most officials, officers, diplomats and analysts in Estonia and other countries neighboring Russia who have a connection to security topics would today like nothing better than to shout, "I told you so!" However, the realization does little to take us forward.
There can be no doubt that the entire world was tired of almost half a century of bipolar confrontation after the Soviet Union collapsed and, therefore, ready to cooperate with the "new" Russia. Kremlinologists were left unemployed or labeled Russophobic. Russia looked like a big fat opportunity and source of wealth seen through pink peace glasses.
It was convenient to close one's eyes to the fact that Russia's domestic situation had morphed into anarchy rather than democracy. The KGB terror regime continued under the moniker of FSB, while the West was greatly tempted not to notice. All the more reason to commend Central and Eastern European states that made purposeful efforts to seize the window of opportunity and joined NATO.
The power in the Kremlin, usurped by the former KGB elite under Vladimir Putin, could not take the humiliation and started gearing up for a counterstrike. The West failed to pay enough attention to the squashing of the beginnings of Chechen independence and the Beslan massacre. It was more convenient to treat them as domestic issues.
The first alarm clocks went off after the attack on Georgia in 2008, following NATO turning down Ukraine and Georgia at the Bucharest summit that spring.
Delusory contentment and a long awakening
What had happened to NATO in the meantime? The overnight disappearance of its great adversary gave rise to euphoria and a hope that all wars had ended. But the crest of that wave of euphoria saw war and genocide in the heart of Europe. Military intervention in the West Balkans took time and for the political world to change. The attack on Belgrade marked the start of a new era – wars outside NATO territory on so-called humanitarian grounds.
These wars – whether in the Balkans, Iraq or Africa – considerably changed the nature of conflicts, equipment, art of war and training. This paradigm shift worked to decrease the need for considerable military strength. It was enough to have small, well-equipped but inefficient multinational (to demonstrate unity) units that could solve most conflicts against underdeveloped and poorly armed adversaries. The West was scrambling to reverse the arms race.
After the conflict in Georgia, I tried to convince NATO planning officers of the very real threat of war. I quickly understood that the only attitude was to give us, new and tiny member states, something to soothe our tempers – like sugar water to a kid who has had a bad dream. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Bantz J. Craddock's prudent planning was just that. A lot of effort went into deciphering the phrase that had since then been absent from NATO vocabulary as everyone had their own idea of what it meant.
Russia's growing aggression, the attack on Ukraine in 2014, rapid Russian military buildup west of the Urals and constant anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric gradually brought the alliance back to addressing its main task. And still, no one really believed, until February 24 of this year, that Russia could pose a realistic threat to allied territory.
Because of this, every new escalation was followed by another dose of sedatives: making the Baltic Air Policing mission termless, creation of the NATO Force Integration Unit, prepositioned units in the most concerned countries and contingency plans.
While these are undoubtedly important steps, there were only a few members who took the threat seriously – credit goes to the United Kingdom here. For the rest, it was still primarily a show of solidarity and appeasement of "Russophobes."
Expectations for NATO Madrid summit
Evolution has been visible, while we have only now arrived at a situation where no one doubts the threat that is Russia. It is also finally understood that temporarily surrendering NATO territory and then reclaiming it using superior forces is not an option – it never has been.
Estonia has perhaps seen it this way the longest in the conviction that investment is in order in one's own military capacity and allied relations. The faith in the Estonian soldier's ability to defend their country and fight Russia has hardly been greater than faith in Ukrainian troops before the war. Both among allies and in certain circles inside Estonia. I'm not entirely sure these doubts have dissipated even now.
Therefore, it is time to update NATO's long-term defense plan as a result of analyzing the Ukraine war: designate military headquarters on the levels of joint allied command, corps and division; designate land, sea and air commanders and those responsible for preparations; attach to every plan units with actual capacity that are armed, supported by supply lines and capable of moving to operational areas inside a designated time period, irrespective of their country of origin.
These units need to practice in their operational regions, with equipment prepositioned if necessary. Some capabilities, such as airspace patrols and strategic abilities provided by the U.S. need to remain in the area permanently.
I understand that some of these elements are still in development or no longer exist. It is to be hoped that the brave fighters of Ukraine will buy us enough time to do our homework. They can no longer be halfhearted – the gaps need to be filled at home and in cooperation with allies.
That is what the NATO summit in Madrid needs to provide a clear mandate for. The Estonian government and agencies still have a lot to do to achieve that, as we have found initial NATO proposals do not go far enough. We need to keep pressing, there are no alternatives.
Editor: Marcus Turovski