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Foreign Intelligence Service: Russia's offensive capabilities near Estonia to increase

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

Army reforms initiated by Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu would significantly increase the number of Russian troops stationed near Estonia. It would also make Russia's command and control better suited to operate successfully in the event of a conflict with the West, according to the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Agency's (Välisluureamet/VLA) annual yearbook, which was published on Tuesday.

"For Estonia, Russia's military reform entails a significant increase in Russian forces near the Estonian border in the coming years," the VLA reported in its annual yearbook. The yearbook notes that the objectives behind the Russian military reforms reflect the Russian leadership's view of the resources they need for the war against Ukraine and for confronting the West.

"The Kremlin is probably anticipating a possible conflict with NATO within the next decade," it said.

According to the VLA, Russia's goal is military dominance in the Baltic Sea region, pointing to the changes underway in relation to the Russian army reform process, which is centered on restructuring the chain of command and control.

Leadership changes will bring back mass army

The VLA yearbook states that "the reform will dissolve joint strategic commands and revert to a structure based on military branches and services. The Pacific, Black Sea and Baltic Fleets, which were previously part of joint strategic commands, have been brought back under the direct command of the Russian Navy. The joint strategic command formed around the Northern Fleet during past reforms has been dissolved, returning it to a regular structure. The air and air defense forces have been reorganized, no longer subordinated to the military districts. Instead, they now operate under the command of the Russian Aerospace Forces. The military districts will retain only a limited role as territorial commands. The planning and execution of Russian joint operations will likely occur at the level of the General Staff or dedicated joint task force staffs."

"Another major change is the establishment of the Leningrad and Moscow Military Districts in early 2024, replacing the Western Joint Strategic Command. This shift likely aims to bolster Russia's military posture towards Finland after its accession to NATO," the VLA noted.

"A third significant change is the addition of corps-level command to the structure of land forces involving a transition to a four-level command scheme: military district – army – corps – division.

"Army corps already existed in the Russian military organization before Shoigu's reforms, but they were established solely for operations in geographically isolated regions (such as the 11th Army Corps of the Baltic Fleet in Kaliningrad enclave, the 68th Army Corps of the Eastern Military District in Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, and the 14th Army Corps of the Northern Fleet in the Kola Peninsula). With Shoigu's military reform, army corps are formed within the regular army structure, indicating that the Russian leadership sees the need to return to a mass army concept to continue the conflict in Ukraine and prepare for a possible conflict with NATO."

Russia plans to increase size of its army by a third

The Foreign Intelligence Service also highlighted Shoigu's initiative to increase the number of troops and units in the Russian armed forces and return to the concept of having a mass army.

The plan foresees "increasing the personnel and adding new units to the armed forces is the primary focus of Shoigu's military reform. Russia aims to increase its military personnel from 1.15 million to 1.5 million soldiers by 2026, restructure 12 land and naval infantry brigades into divisions, and create dozens of new units larger than regiments in the land, air and naval forces, as well as in the airborne troops."

The formation of many of these units has already begun, but the main challenge is the shortage of contracted service members and officers, which delays the unit formation process," the VLA noted.

At the same time, the VLA stressed that while Russia plans to strengthen in all strategic directions, its priority for troop deployment is the Western strategic direction and Ukraine.

"The Kremlin is preparing for a prolonged conflict with Ukraine, necessitating additional armies and army corps (3rd and 40th Army Corps, 18th Army and 25th Army), for which dozens of new maneuver, combat support and combat service support units are being formed," the yearbook states.

"The Russian leadership sees the need to return to a mass army concept to continue the conflict in Ukraine and prepare for a possible conflict with NATO," the VLA added.

While the priority for troop deployment lies in the strategic directions of the West and Ukraine, the other important area is Finland. Russian troop deployment has previously been minimal in that direction due to Finland's neutrality, though it now aims to bolster it in light of Finland's accession to NATO and, ostensibly to protect St. Petersburg.

Number of units in Estonia's vicinity could double

"The growth of Russian military capabilities in Estonia's vicinity in the Leningrad and Pskov oblasts primarily results from the potential transformation of existing units into divisions," the yearbook states.

"According to one possible scenario, the personnel strength of Russian land forces and airborne troops in the Estonian direction may nearly double from approximately 19,000 before February 24, 2022. The extent to which these units will achieve combat readiness depends on Russia's ability to recruit, train and retain contracted service members."

The report also stressed that "the success and timeline of Russia's military reform will be largely determined by the course of the war in Ukraine. If Russia manages to implement the reform, NATO could face a Soviet-style mass army in the next decade. This army is likely to be technologically inferior to NATO allies' defense forces in most areas, except for electronic warfare and long-range strike capabilities. However, its military potential would be significant, owing to its size, firepower (including artillery and numerous inexpensive combat drones), combat experience and reserves."

"Defending against a possible conventional attack from such an army would require allied defense forces and defense industries to be significantly more prepared, capable and better-stocked with ammunition and materiel than they currently are," the VLA report said.

"In summary, Russia's plan to increase its military forces is ambitious, especially considering the short timeline and Russia's economic and demographic situation. However, it is also a source of threat for Estonia and NATO, contributing to Russia's aggressive posture, military potential and growing militarization reinforcing Russia's apparent path of a long-term confrontation with the West."

On Tuesday, the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service published its ninth annual public report: "Estonia in the International Security Environment 2024," in which it assessed the external security threats facing Estonia.

Rosin: Reinforcement of forces in Western direction can start now

Responding to a request for comment on the timing of Russia's army reforms, Kaupo Rosin, head of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (VLA), said that while it largely depends on the course of the war in Ukraine. However, Moscow can already begin to a lesser extent while the war goes on.

"The timeframe is difficult to say. A lot depends on how the war in Ukraine goes. But what we also see is that even if the war in Ukraine continues at its current rate of intensity, Russia has enough resources to already start implementing this reform just outside our borders," Rosin said at the yearbook launch.

"These units would probably still be tied up in the Ukrainian direction for some time, but more units are already emerging. If everything goes according to Russia's plans, the number of troops behind our borders, which was a little under 20,000 before the full-scale invasion, would double, the number of armored vehicles would also double, the number of tanks would multiply and the artillery systems would do the same. This potential [in Russia] is basically there," Rosin stressed.

According to Rosin, Estonia, along with its NATO allies, needs to start taking counter-measures now, and this is precisely what is being done.

"It is important for us not to get caught napping here. Now is the time for us to raise our own defense capabilities. Before launching an attack, Russia usually calculates the ratio of forces, looks at that and makes its own calculations. Our task as Estonia and NATO is to ensure that those calculations always lead to the conclusion that it is not worth attacking, because an escalation would no longer be controllable, and the success of a military operation would be extremely limited," Rosin explained.

"This is what we can do and what we have already done in Estonia and NATO. The work is going on every day, no matter what that future composition of forces is going to be behind our borders."

NATO can control Baltic Sea

Commenting on the yearbook's claim that Russia's aim is to dominate the Baltic Sea region, Rosin said that NATO should be able to prevent this happening, particular in light of Finland joining the alliance and Sweden's imminent accession.

"Undoubtedly, this situation that has arisen with the accession of Finland and highly likely imminent accession of Sweden is a big challenge for the Russian General Staff and Ministry of Defense – the situation has changed strategically. Russia's ambition is always to dominate, including 6in the Baltic Sea. Whether and how they will succeed is doubtful. With the accession of these new countries to NATO, new opportunities have opened up for NATO here, both in terms of operational freedom and in terms of the overall deployment and deployment of troops in our region. This challenge is very difficult for Russia, and I dare say that in the event of some kind of conflict occurring here in the region, NATO will be able to establish its supremacy in the Baltic Sea very quickly and to deter Russia's actions," said the VLA chief.

The full yearbook can be found here.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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