Bully in the Baltics: The Kremlin’s Provocations

Estonians were in full Christmas mood in late December, buying presents and mingling at holiday markets to the background music of children practicing songs greeting the arrival of Baby Jesus. But at 5:05 p.m. on December 9, 2014, another unexpected guest appeared: a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance plane, which entered Estonian airspace without permission, without a flight plan, and with its transponder switched off.

It was not the first time in recent months that the Russian military paid an illegal visit to its ex-Soviet underling. Last year, Russian military planes violated Estonian airspace seven times. Neighboring Latvia has seen an even more dramatic increase in Russian military activity. Last year, Russian planes approached Latvian airspace more than one hundred and eighty times, and Russian Navy vessels—including warships and Kilo-class submarines—entered the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone or approached its territorial waters forty times. Lithuania, meanwhile, logged one hundred and fifty approaches by Russian military aircraft last year, up from four in 2004. “The intensity of Russian flights, and the fact that they’ve been conducting patrols with strategic bombers, was completely unpredictable,” says Lauri Lepik, Estonia’s ambassador to NATO. “I do not recall ever having a Russian strategic bomber flying around us.”

Across the Baltic Sea, Sweden, not an immediate neighbor, is receiving unwelcome Russian attention as well. In 2013, when Russian military planes entered Swedish airspace during a simulated attack on Stockholm, the capital, Swedish fighter jets did not even manage to scramble. In a humiliating turn of events, NATO planes based in Lithuania had to come to the Swedes’ rescue. Last year, Sweden experienced similar embarrassment when it detected what was almost certainly a Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago, but failed to catch it after a highly public hunt. Russian media responded by poking fun at the Swedish supreme commander, Sverker Goranson, suggesting that the Swedes had mistaken a mink for a U-boat. Seizing on Goranson’s statement that Sweden would only be able to defend itself for a week without NATO support, the Russian TV program Yesterday Live broadcasted a music video—later available on YouTube—with the Swedish pop group Abba playing in the background and strapping “soldiers” singing, “[Russian soldiers] will conquer the country in just one week, in order to rest for a weekend after Friday.”

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The situation is, of course, far from funny, either for the Swedes or for their fellow Baltic Sea residents. But Sweden is reaping what it sowed. In the mid-1990s, it concluded that with the Cold War over it was time to reduce its large, conscription-based military trained for “territorial defense” (i.e., a Russian invasion). The Nordic country, which has enjoyed uninterrupted peace since 1814, adopted massive defense cuts. “The governments decided that eternal peace had arrived in this part of the world,” Karlis Neretnieks, a retired major general in the Swedish Army and former president of the Swedish Defense College who is now a military adviser, explains sardonically. As its Army’s manpower was cut by ninety percent and the Navy and Air Force by seventy percent, Sweden also proudly opted to remain outside NATO, although it had given up is Cold War–era policy of neutrality by joining the European Union in 1995. Taking its unilateral sunshine policy one step farther, in 2009 the center-right government decided that Sweden should for all intents and purposes give up territorial defense and instead focus on limited international operations such as the war in Afghanistan.

But while the Swedes were belatedly buying into the “end of history,” the world around them had already started moving in a different direction with Russia’s 2008 war against Georgia. “Sweden is always behind the international curve,” notes Neretnieks, born in Sweden to exiled Latvian parents. “At the moment the Swedish armed forces have an extremely limited ability to defend Sweden, but only now are Swedish politicians beginning to talk about what to do now that the Russians are getting nasty. The social democrats and the center-right are equally responsible for the mess we are in today.”

In practical terms, the mess looks like this: some fourteen thousand six hundred active-duty troops plus a reserve of nine thousand two hundred responsible for protecting a country of about two hundred eighty thousand square miles—about the size of California—with a coastline of almost fifteen hundred miles. As Johan Wiktorin, a Swedish former military officer who served as head of R&D for the country’s military intelligence agency, points out, today Sweden has as many hairdressers as army troops. Given this state of affairs, Sweden’s 2009 solidarity pact, which promises to consider military support to neighbors in the event of an attack, seems somewhat vacuous. A 2013 report concluded that Sweden is no longer able to defend itself, and even a massive increase in military spending would do little to change things. “We have lost a whole generation of combat commanders,” says Neretnieks. “If you buy new tanks, you have to know what to do with them.” Perhaps recognizing the fading strength of its sunshine policy, last year Sweden along with Finland finally took the half-step of signing a cooperation agreement with NATO.

The Baltic states, painfully familiar with Russian aggression, at least were never infected by Swedish-style optimism. As soon as they regained independence, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania began building territorial defense-based armed forces, the military setup that most wealthy Western nations maintain. Hain Rebas, Estonia’s defense minister in the early 1990s, recalls how the country bought defense equipment from Israel because suppliers elsewhere were unwilling to sell to the post-Soviet upstarts. But the Baltic states were also eager to join NATO, and understandably so, considering that a combined peacetime force of three thousand eight hundred troops (in Estonia’s case) can do little to counter a Russian attack, though this spring the country will conduct a military exercise involving twelve thousand armed personnel. But the downside of their 2004 NATO accession meant accepting demands by NATO’s larger member states for a military focused on fighting the Taliban and other non-territorial threats, not Russians. Cooperation between NATO and the Russian Federation was increasing, and after the 9/11 attacks Russia gave NATO planes bound for Afghanistan permission to take a shortcut through its airspace. Though still worried about Russia, the small-state trio did as it was told and adapted its militaries to foreign missions, away from home defense. Estonia alone tried to do both, at a high financial cost: for the past five years, it has spent two percent of its GDP on defense, whereas Latvia and Lithuania are languishing at less than one percent. The latter two states have, however, announced their intention of reaching the NATO goal of two percent by 2025. “We’re responding to the gradual modernization of the Russian military,” explains Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics of Latvia. “Six-seven years ago, we did not even have contingency plans.” Estonia plans to maintain its two percent defense budget.

Finland, another victim of Soviet invasion during World War II, positioned itself somewhere between Estonia and Sweden: not quite as concerned about Russian expansionism as Estonia, but not as optimistic regarding eternal peace as Sweden. It has maintained its standing armed forces of some thirty thousand troops plus reserves as part of a wartime establishment of more than two hundred thousand troops, as well as its politics of conscription and deterrence. In the past five years, defense spending has remained relatively constant at about 1.4 percent of GDP. But if it did see Russia emerging as a threat to the region, Finland—eager to maintain its good neighborly relations with Russia—did not say so.


As far as the Baltic states were concerned, the Georgian war was a historical turning point that proved them right in their suspicion that the Russian bear would sooner or later begin to prowl. But to their despair, nobody listened when they talked about their fears. Russia portrayed President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia as a loose cannon who had provoked a war, and larger NATO allies were eager to maintain good ties with a country that provided so much energy for their citizens and such a lucrative market for many of their companies.

Crimea, by contrast, has proved a decisive turning point. “We do not like to say, ‘I told you so,’” says Rinkevics, the Latvian foreign minister. “But we were right.” Insightful though these Nordic Cassandras may have been, their fulfilled prophecies mean that they themselves face serious threats. Last year, Estonia, which in 2007 was the target of a massive cyber attack thought to have been directed by Russia, saw one of its officers working on the Russian border abducted by Russia, and endured international humiliation as Russia revealed that it had run a double agent in Estonia’s Internal Security Service for two decades. Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia’s less prosperous neighbors to the south, are watching equally powerlessly as Russian pilots and ship captains seem to taunt them. The reality, of course, is this: Whether a small country like Estonia spends one, two, or fifty percent of its GDP on defense, it will never be able to stop a mighty neighbor, especially not one equipped with nuclear weapons. “Lithuania, as well as other Baltic states, has no military capabilities to ensure the security and defense of our airspace on its own, except for observation capability,” explains Major General Jonas Vytautas Zukas, Lithuania’s chief of defense. “This is why we rely mostly on our allies in this field.”

The Baltic states’ NATO allies now form a steady—if not permanent—presence on this small sliver of land to Russia’s west. One hundred and fifty US soldiers are currently serving in Latvia, soon to be supplemented by small contingents of troops from Hungary and Denmark. For its part, Estonia has also asked NATO to permanently base troops and equipment on its soil. Last year, NATO’s air policing mission over the Baltic airspace, which has been in place since 2004 and initially involved four fighter jets as well as personnel from NATO allies, was expanded to twelve aircraft. Judging from the number of scrambles they have made during the past several months, it was a necessary increase. When the Russian IL-20 recon plane entered Estonian airspace on December 9th, it was German Eurofighter jets belonging to NATO’s Baltic air policing mission that established visual contact with the plane and identified the illegal entry.

And powerless though they may be on their own vis-à-vis Russia, the three Baltic states are increasing their military capabilities along with their defense budgets. Lithuania, for example, has established a high-readiness force that can respond to hostile actions within two to twenty-four hours. But the reality, of course, is that not even a fifty percent defense budget would save a Baltic state should Russia decide to attack, and despite pleas by the three states, their NATO allies have not agreed to a permanent troop presence. “What we have now is the beginning of NATO’s deterrent push,” says Lauri Lepik, the Estonian NATO ambassador. NATO allies are, however, likely to extend their presence on the ground in the Baltic state.

NATO’s famous Article 5, of course, guarantees that all member states will come to the rescue if one of them is attacked. But what if the aggression is not clearly a military attack? What if it is like events in eastern Ukraine, where separatists are suspected of operating in conjunction with Russia, an allegation denied by Moscow. Such events are changing the military game. “Where is the red line? When there are a hundred green men in [the heavily Russian Estonian city of] Narva? When there is one?” asks Neretnieks. “And how do you prove that they are connected to Russia? That is the weakness of the NATO treaty.”

Eastern Ukraine has, one might say, introduced the concept of ambiguous warfare to the modern military vocabulary, just as Afghanistan introduced “insurgency.” In December, Lithuania acted on this new reality by passing a law that bluntly allows military action in peacetime in cases of aggression or local territory violations and in cases of violations of Lithuanian airspace and territorial waters.

There’s another weakness in NATO’s collective Baltic defense: Even if NATO acted according to Article 5, and even if it reached the unanimous decision required before Russia, or “separatists,” had claimed its desired territory, defending a Baltic state would be very difficult without access to Swedish territory and airspace. But this non-NATO member’s inadequate military poses a risk to the entire neighborhood. “Operational demand can quite easily outstrip our abilities,” explains Wiktorin, the Swedish R&D specialist. “As became clear in the recent submarine hunt, our forces are able to identify a submerged vessel, which is not easy in the Baltic Sea. But if a conflict were to escalate, demands would outstrip our operational abilities after some time. In that sense we’re not contributing sufficiently to the security of the Baltic Sea region.”

Indeed, Sweden has left the crucial island of Gotland—situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea—defended only by a home guard unit. “Despite the Baltic states’ concerns regarding the defense of Gotland, we have not strengthened it,” Wiktorin notes. As a result, Russia could easily claim the island and use it for military operations against the Baltic states. Would the United States go to war against Russia over an island belonging to a non-NATO member? It is highly doubtful.

Then again, should Sweden rush to fortify Gotland simply to aid vulnerable Baltic neighbors? The country’s decisionmakers do not seem to think so, as they have only passed a slight increase of the defense budget, to be implemented by 2023. That is an exceptionally modest response to the increasing aggression surrounding it, especially considering that Sweden’s current defense spending amounts to a modest 1.1 percent of GDP, a far cry from the upwards of three percent it spent during the Cold War. “Not very much has happened in response to Russia’s actions,” says Wiktorin. “The politicians talk about changes, but the funding is inadequate. Recently the military decided to change the rules for activating the reserves”—allowing them to be activated more easily. “This shows that the old policy has collapsed. Changing the law for the reserves is an ad hoc response to a failed policy.”


Sweden’s apparent obliviousness to Russia’s changing behavior seems to be based on magical thinking: simply pretend aggression does not exist and it will go away. But such a position works only if the bully acts logically. What if he is unpredictable and, say, decides to annex a chunk of another country without prior warning and in fact without even being officially present in the disputed territory? What if well-equipped, separatist-style fighters simply decided to temporarily park themselves on Gotland while not even claiming to have annexed it? An outlandish thought, one might argue, but so was the thought of Russia annexing Crimea. Such unpredictability, says Lepik, has fundamentally changed European security this year.

And an aggressor wanting to destabilize another country does not even need a single soldier in the field. Information warfare, the art of concerted subterfuge, can easily achieve the same objective with minimal risk. In a spectacular development, last year Russian-affiliated news media such as RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik expanded to the point that European audiences can now watch top-quality pro-Kremlin news around the clock. That coverage gives ample attention to Russia’s nuclear weapons, which Putin makes a point of frequently mentioning while tut-tutting that they serve an entirely defensive function. It also features a barrage of negative news about Europe, especially the Baltic states. Of course, the Kremlin would argue that, say, James Bond movies and reports denouncing Russia as falling short of Western democratic standards amount to information warfare as well. What is indisputable is that with the fog of this information war, Russia is already scoring victories. “One aspect that really worries me is Moscow’s announcement about the Estonian double agent,” says Wiktorin. “This news will cripple the Estonian security system, and other countries in the neighborhood could reduce the information-exchange with Estonia because they do not know whom to trust. We’re entering dangerous waters.” Estonian officials point out, however, that the double agent, Uno Puusepp, did not have access to classified NATO information.

In spite of Russia’s yuletide double whammy—airspace violation, spy revelation—against his country, Lepik displays hard-won optimism. “Of course they will keep bothering us; they always do. But we will stand firm.” Unfortunately, at this point, it is the firmness of NATO, not Estonia, that will be decisive.

Elisabeth Braw is the Europe correspondent for Newsweek.

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