Top NATO general: All of society must pitch in to secure eastern flank

Jürgen-Joachim von Sandrart.
Jürgen-Joachim von Sandrart. Source: ICDS

While NATO is willing to defend the Baltics from the first inch, lower level plans need to be married to reality. Units that have new tasks will need to complement their machinery and munitions stocks and exercise every aspect. This requires an effort not just from the military, but the whole of society, Lt Gen. Jürgen-Joachim von Sandrart, head of NATO Multinational Corps Northeast, tells ERR in an interview.

We've agreed on new defense plans for NATO as a whole. This reminds me of when I was a conscript in the Estonian Defense Forces and my staff sergeant said to me, plans are useless, but planning itself is indispensable. Can you explain how far along we are in this planning process, for forces to actually be implementable at a moment's notice?

First of all, the aggression and the war that started February 24 last year, and the reaction of NATO, and the fact that we have come up already with a defense plan against the remaining threat, building on the home defense forces, forces in place, clearly tells we have a plan already.

So we will not invent something new, and rather it is an iterative process where we try to improve existing plans and prepare for an increasing threat from a reconstituted Russia, which we can expect.

Secondly, it is in the nature of the military – as you referred to your conscription and tour of duty with the Estonian Defense Forces – that we permanently have to review our plans. We permanently have to adapt to developments. And that's why this iterative process of planning, training, exercising, evaluating, re-exercising, retraining, re-planning has been a part of the military art since the Cold War.

The new dimension is that it now unfortunately has developed in a way that we don't speak about a collective mission deployment in Afghanistan, Iraq or Northern Africa. Now we have a threat all along our land border with an opponent who is willing to use the tool of war to achieve political objectives. And that requires us to increase our efforts for an integrated, collective, forward defense that is ready to defend every inch of our territory.

And I'm a German general. I feel Estonia is my homeland. So when I say "our," it's Estonia, it's Latvia, it's Lithuania, it's Poland, and all the other regions, being ready to fight together in a way that whatever comes, whoever attacks us gets defeated victoriously and pushed back from the very first day.

So, the new plans are greater still in scope it seems. Can you walk us through this process, what still needs to be done, talking about maybe buying new equipment, setting up new units. Famously, the German brigade is set to go to Lithuania when it's ready. How much do we still have to do? And I understand from yesterday's speakers (at the ABCD23 conference September 26-27 – ed.) as well that we might eventually want to hold a big exercise to test ourselves.

First of all, it is relevant to note that the most important step was achieved with the Vilnius Summit, because nations, 31 nations, have agreed to the idea of a forward defense, to the idea of an effective forward defense that defends every inch of our territory. And nations have agreed that they have to allocate resources, forces, effects, capabilities, military, economically, socially to that defense in an accountable manner, so I can plan with it.

Now the trick is that this top-down approach that started on the political level and has achieved its objective in Vilnius in the signing of the regional plan has, to a certain extent, exceeded its momentum because it has achieved its objective. The frame that now boxes our defense plan is agreed.

Now we need a bottom-up approach, the tactical planning that populates this operational idea in a way that we create an executable defense posture that can react to whatever threat is coming, because we have an assessment of what the enemy can do, but he holds the initiative.

The plan is good and executable if it can respond to each and every course of action the enemy chooses. I'm quite confident that together with the home defense forces, no matter whether they are active or to be mobilized in the Baltic states and Poland, which is my area of operations, together with the nations that are willing to commit, England in Estonia, Canada, Denmark in Latvia, Germany and others in Lithuania, and Americans all across the board and a lot of other allies, will create an effective NATO posture that is integrated, collective, that prevents the war because Russia has to recognize there is no opportunity.

And only if Russia recognizes that our resoluteness, our capability, most likely is dominant can we prevent war and create deterrence. And I'm quite optimistic that we can achieve that. We have achieved it already and will continue to achieve it under the new parameters.

As a military man I'm sure you are very used to being prepared for the worst scenario. In yesterday's late night session, one of the analysts outlined what I think sounds like the worst scenario – a situation where the Americans are occupied in the Indo-Pacific. They pointed out that the Chinese are preparing systems to come into readiness in the years 2026 to 2028, and the American systems that might counter these might not fully be ready. This might create a weak spot for a worrying stretch of time. In the same time frame, Estonian officials have said that Russia will build up its offensive capability. Are we ready for such a worse-case scenario in the second half of the decade?

I think we will be ready. Of course, everything that now has been kicked off requires more than just turning the switch from left to right because it needs some time to develop. So even if I have a plan, we have developed that plan, the resources must be in place.

We need to have the appropriate stocks available, pre-positioned in a way that we can sustain the fight /.../ because you all know that the production lines have to become better to meet the needs we have. But I'm very much convinced that the dynamics that the Western world can create will always dominate the dynamics that Russia can create, or a multiple dilemma scenario that includes the Pacific.

Secondly, I think the European nations are strong enough to, if they unite, if they merge their capacities, to be in the front line and relieve a little bit the burden of the Americans who may then have, as you described, a second focus in the Pacific.

And so I'm quite confident that we will be ready in the second half of this decade and even further down the road, because which system is more agile? Of course, we look at all the threat developments, but the agility we have shown over the last 50 years is more convincing than the agility of Russia, because Russia should have decided not to go to war in Ukraine. They should have decided to diversify their economy and their society to survive. And in the end, I believe that Russia is going to lose. They already have.

I'm worried about public perceptions when it comes to this important message that NATO will defend every inch, that this might give people the idea that we will not lose an inch, but you cannot fight a war on an inch of ground. Should we have to defend ourselves, where will this war actually be fought?

We are a defensive alliance, which is great. The disadvantage of that, which we Germans have experienced during the Cold War, is that the fight will take place on our territory at first. And that is a real disadvantage. We need to turn that into an advantage, because it is our ground. We need to prepare our ground in a way to make the best use of the fact that we know every inch of what we have to defend. /.../ Secondly, I think we need to understand that this dilemma cannot be outsourced just to the military.

So, at the end, the question is not how many tanks do you have, how many rounds of artillery do you have, how many sea mines do you have, how many air defenses do you have. Eventually, the center of gravity has to be the entire society's involvement in defense. We need to understand that the preparation of our defense is not just a military endeavor, it's the endeavor of the whole society, because the infrastructure that needs to be prepared, the mindset in the population that we need, the resilience of the society, the hospitals, the logistics installations, that we need to be prepared for the worst, and the fact that our societies are accepting that if we must go to war, it will take some time.

It will be very painful. So it's worth investing now to either prevent the war by an effective deterrence, and if we fail with the deterrence, [make sure] the war is favorable for us because we, at the end, will defeat the enemy. And I think this needs to be better understood.

As far as I have talked to military commanders, from the platoon or even lower level up, everyone maintains that for a successful defense, you need a plan to counterattack at some point. You can't just sit there on the border. Some analysts say we have problems with out capacity to destroy enemy air defenses, capabilities in Russia that can strike at us. Do we have the capability to also take the fight to the enemy if it's necessary?

Yes, we have this capability, and we don't, speaking about defense, look at the First World War or the defense line that the Russians now set up against the offensive of the Ukrainians [where you] dig in and receive the enemy. We speak about a mobile defense that blocks, hits, defeats. /.../

A lot of these plans and processes are obviously behind a wall of secrecy. The general public finds it difficult to understand them because it's hard for you to explain them sometimes as you can't tell them everything. Can you bring examples of what might the general public look at to be sure that these plans behind this wall of secrecy are actually in place, competent, ready?

I think that the backbone for the conviction all across society that we will be successful is a trusted environment, a transparent and trusted environment. Of course, we cannot betray the plan, but we can train and exercise close to the plan. The exercises that I try to set up, for example, to enable the Estonian division to exercise, to train as close as possible to the plan without betraying the reality you will see already next year, and in 25, because you will see exercises, and that we don't hide for those exercises.

We need to involve the civilian authorities to make sure they are trusting, that we are first of all using the means of military power in a responsible manner, that we are really able to defeat the enemy and to defend our people, our territory, and that we don't hide and keep it in a way secret like the Russians do. If you apply the Russian methodology, you are not creating a trusted environment. It's rather the environment of being afraid, of being suspicious. We overcame that 30 years ago, and we will not do that.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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