Foreign Intelligence Service: Russia threat not diminished by Ukraine war

Russian leader Vladimir Putin observing military exercises, together with Airborne Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Anatoly Kontsevoi (to Putin’s left) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (first from left).
Russian leader Vladimir Putin observing military exercises, together with Airborne Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Anatoly Kontsevoi (to Putin’s left) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (first from left). Source: SCANPIX /

Despite heavy losses incurred in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Russia still has enough clout left at its disposal to exert military pressure in the Baltic region, the Foreign Intelligence Service (Välisluureamet) says.

The Foreign Intelligence Service published its yearbook, "International Security and Estonia 2023," on Wednesday.

"Russia's belligerence has significantly increased the security risks for Estonia, and the large-scale exercise 'Zapad 23' may further strain the situation in the Baltic Sea region," the yearbook states in its summary.

Zapad ("West") is a large-scale Russian military exercise held every few years, one which has always attracted plenty of attention even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, nearly a year ago.

"Russia still has enough strength to exert credible military pressure in our region," the Foreign Intelligence Service continues.

Any military attack of any kind on Estonia is unlikely in 2023, the yearbook states, due to so much of Russia's military capabilities being tied up with the war in Ukraine.

However, in the longer term, Estonia's security risks have heightened significantly, as a result of Russian belligerence and foreign policy ambitions, the yearbook goes on. "If Russia were diplomatically or militarily successful in Ukraine, it would increase the risk of the Kremlin's political and military pressure on the Baltic states in the mid-2020s."

Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service building in Tallinn. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Foreign Intelligence Service's analysis adds that Russia considers all three Baltic States as the most vulnerable spot within NATO member states, hence their being one viable point where military pressure could be exerted, in the event of a conflict between the alliance and the Russian Federation. 

For this reason alone, Russia most likely regards the restoration of its currently weakened military capabilities in the immediate vicinity of the Estonian border, in other words the very theater Zapad focuses on, as priority, the Foreign Intelligence Service says.

Russian military personnel who had been based close to Estonian border deployed in Ukraine

Since day one of the war, components of the 6th Combined Arms Army, covering the operational approaches towards Estonia, plus the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, normally based in Pskov, less than 50km from the Estonian border, have been involved in actions in Ukraine, where they have suffered heavy losses, the yearbook reports.

The large-scale Russian mobilization launched in September last year has also had an impact on the Pskov, and also Leningrad (St. Petersburg) regions. In both cases, reservists have been mobilized and deployed with units operating in Ukraine, in order to compensate for losses. 

Foreign Intelligence Service (Välisluureamet). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Newly-formed units made up of these reservists have also trained at military facilities in both regions, the Foreign Intelligence Service adds.

While Russia's mobilization reserves contain sufficient resources to form up new units, how the required competence to staff remains an issue, the Foreign Intelligence Service notes. Large numbers of training instructors have been sent to combat units in Ukraine, which has served to cause a decline in the quality of training centers and the logistics of aggregating mobilized personnel into coherent units, the intelligence service goes on.

Exercise 'Zapad 23' may raise tensions

The Foreign Intelligence Service also states, based on its own information, that Russia plans to hold "Zapad 23."

Since Zapad was held last held in September 2021, it means the exercise is going ahead earlier than the norm (the preceding full-scale Zapad maneuvers were held in 2017).

"A departure from the expected training cycle with a large-scale joint strategic exercise in the western strategic direction at the same time as the military action in Ukraine can be seen as a deterrent and threat to the West and as an incitement to patriotism among the Russian population," the yearbook states.

Mobilization and large-scale exercises of these kinds may further strain the security situation in the Baltic Sea region this year, the agency continues.

As a result, from Estonia's point of view, demonstrating NATO's real military readiness is key in heading off any temptations Russia may hold to test the validity of the NATO's own security guarantees.

The likelihood of a military standoff between NATO and Russia would also rise, were Russia to achieve its strategic goals in Ukraine.

This makes a Ukrainian victory in the war with Russia vital to repairing the overall regional security situation, the Foreign Intelligence Service adds.

Foreign Intelligence Service director Kaupo Rosin, at the press conference announcing publication of the agency's 2023 Yearbook, Wednesday, February 8, 2023. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Unfortunately, it is not seen that the Russian leadership will give up its goals in Ukraine, despite the inappropriate resistance encountered there and the losses received, the agency noted.

Although the Ukrainians' will to defend themselves, the fighting ability of the country's armed forces, and the unity of Western countries in supporting Ukraine surprised the Kremlin, Russia's strategic goal has not changed, and subjugating Ukraine and changing the European security architecture is still Russia's goal, the report states.

The Kremlin also believes that time is on its side in the current war, which only adds to its willingness to raise the stakes in the interests of keeping the war machine running, the yearbook adds.

Kaupo Rosin, Foreign Intelligence Service Director General, also notes in his foreword that the agency's 2022 yearbook, issued this time last year, had forecast the start of the current conflict for the second half of February, which indeed transpired.

"In last year's report, we wrote that Russia would create the conditions and capabilities necessary to launch a large-scale military offensive against Ukraine in the second half of February 2022. Unfortunately, that is what happened," Rosin, who took office last October, said.

The Foreign Intelligence Service 2023 Yearbook in English is here.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots

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