NATO defense plans will add little in terms of troop presence in Estonia

Allied Troops at Tapa Military Base.
Allied Troops at Tapa Military Base. Source: Oliver Turp

NATO is looking to approve new defense plans in the conditions of war in Europe and new members bordering Russia as the alliance adjusts to a tenser international situation. The Baltics have high hopes for the plans, especially concerning Finland and Sweden's accession, while they are unlikely to see allied presence ramped up considerably in the region.

Talking about new NATO defense plans, three aspects should be kept in mind –recent allied agreements, the effects of the Ukraine war in the West and East, as well as NATO's expansion to include Finland and Sweden.

The accession of Finland, and in the future also Sweden, is the most significant change in terms of military strength in our region. It will first and foremost add more military equipment and logistics possibilities, while changes go beyond those aspects.

"Talking primarily of Finland, cooperation will be centered around maritime surveillance, as well as agreeing how to conduct ourselves in the air. The Swedes have shown interest in joining the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) initiative. We will see, as we expect a visit from the Swedish [defense] minister in the coming weeks," Estonia's Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur said.

The strongest effect the war in Ukraine is having in the region is reflected in Poland's improved defensive capacity. Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway recently decided to manage their air forces jointly.

Pevkur suggested that the Nordic and Baltic Sea area forms a single theater of operations.

The level of allied readiness started changing after Russia invaded Ukraine. Major European powers had been reluctant to admit the possibility of war in Europe and were not making preparations. Georgia lied too far away and Crimea was not a big enough shock.

"The lesson arrived a little over ten years ago for us. For many other NATO members, the alarm clock only went off last year," EDF division commander Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm said.

While this awakening is happening slowly, it is evident in Ukraine aid, a probably more realistic view of Russia and the necessity of [military] strength.

"You need to wield considerable military power before your enemy's window of opportunity arrives. It constitutes a fundamental change in these so-called new NATO plans," Palm said.

"Nothing can be ruled out, which is why NATO must maintain resilient. However, I believe that the war [in Ukraine] has demonstrated that Russia wants to avoid a conflict with NATO. Every time the West has ramped up military aid for Ukraine, Russia has protested and threatened to attack supply routes, while it has refrained from doing so," said Tony Lawrence, research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS).

The outcome of the Ukraine war will affect the global balance of powers. As the largest NATO ally, the United States' confrontation with China during the Ukraine war is not helping the alliance.

"The nightmare scenario would see the Americans pulled into a conflict with China and with the Russians in Europe and forced to fight on two fronts," Lawrence suggested.

"Everyone I've met in the U.S. Congress or Senate understands the importance of the Ukraine conflict. The latter also has an effect on the China-Taiwan conflict. Should the world see Putin emerge victorious in Ukraine, it will affect not just the conduct of China, but also Iran," Hanno Pevkur said.

As concerns allied agreements, the U.K. has tasked a brigade with defending Estonia, while it is still based in Great Britain. The Brits also promised to help create a division headquarters in Estonia. A U.K. brigadier general should arrive in Estonia in April to run the NATO battle group headquarters, while they will likely also help start the division headquarters.

But it is probable that NATO's new plans will not considerably ramp up troop and equipment presence in Estonia.

"There are debates over how best to execute the decisions of the Madrid summit. The upcoming summit [in Vilnius] will likely also see these topics discussed. Bit it seems to me that most existing agreements will remain in place also for the coming years," Lawrence said.

"Simply bringing more troops to the area is seen as one possible solution. Some of Estonia's neighbors will likely see more allied troops. While this effect will be less here. It will not be considerable. Prepositioning equipment is seen as another option, mainly of ammunition," Palm remarked.

Now that Finland has joined NATO and Sweden is about to do the same, Russia is bound to pay more attention to the region. NATO must also know what is happening on the frontier.

"Allied reconnaissance is increasingly focusing on our area. More surveillance aircraft are in the air with each passing day, collecting information on what the Russian Federation is doing on the other side of the border without those NATO assets being based directly in Estonia," Palm explained.

Steps taken by the Baltics still form the basis of security. These include ramping up defense spending and procuring indirect fire and air defense systems, which was previously postponed, as well as having more wartime military personnel. Latvia's decision to reinstate conscription can also be added to this list. These steps should demonstrate that we are not just sitting around and holding out our arms for aid.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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