Estonian pundits view lessons from Russia’s actions in Ukraine

Text of report by Estonian newspaper Eesti Paevaleht

[Report with comments by Vahur Koorits: "Experts Recommend Contradictory Solutions In Order To Avoid Crimean Scenario Unfolding in Estonia"]

The conditions in Estonia are significantly different from those in Ukraine; yet, the attack of Russian troops and Russia’s subversive activities have led to a lively debate on whether Estonia should learn something from it and change our [defense] plans.

Martin Hurt, deputy director of the International Center for Defense Studies [in Estonia], stated in an analysis that Estonia needs to increase the rapid response capability of our troops, and outlined several ways to achieve it. One way — the arrival of units of NATO ground forces in Estonia and other Baltic states — has already been decided.

[Estonia’s former chief of intelligence] Erik-Niiles Kross wrote in [national daily] Postimees that a thousand-strong specially trained rapid response unit troops, which could be either under the Defense Forces or the police, must be stationed preferably in East Viru County [north-eastern Estonia, border with Russia]. Hurt also recommended something similar, and said that the number of men in our only unit currently capable of rapid response, i.e. the Scouts Battalion which consists of professional soldiers, must be significantly increased. Rene Toomse, a former member of special operations unit, has recognized the stationing of a military unit and artillery near Narva [north-eastern Estonia, on the border with Russia] as an option in his blog.

Russia’s Advantage in Crimea

However, Kaarel Kaas, editor-in-chief of the [monthly magazine] Diplomacy [Diplomaatia], was somewhat skeptical. He first drew attention to a few important differences between Crimea and Estonia. Russian military bases have been in Crimea all the time; the Russians could use the bases for gathering intelligence, and they could also secretly relocate units of special forces there before the attack. The bases gave Russia a major advantage for operating in Crimea, which they do not have in Estonia.

Estonia has considerably better control over the border with Russia than Ukraine; also, the National Security Agency [KAPO] has successfully suppressed activities of Russian special services. This prevents similar events to those happening in Crimea and eastern Ukraine from taking place here. However, we cannot rule out special forces units of the enemy being capable of crossing the border and attacking some important target in Estonia.

Toomse and Hurt seem to assume that, very quickly after taking control of the Narva River bridges and some other strategic targets, such as airfields, the Russians can start bringing in additional troops. It is, however, doubtful whether the Russian reinforcements, including armored units, will be given an opportunity to queue up on the border in order to enter Estonia after taking over border crossing points just like that while everybody is peacefully asleep. The relocation of large units near the borders of Estonia will inevitably make our Defense Forces suspicious that something is afoot.

The threat of a Russian sneak attack is nothing new; this is what we have feared ever since we regained independence; the latest national defense strategy focuses, in particular, on improving the rapid response capability of our troops because, in recent years, Russia has improved the combat readiness of its forces. Our military leaders have confidently said that the Estonian Defense Forces can see the activities of Russian troops near Estonian borders very well. Thus, if the Defense Forces notice a concentration of Russian troops near the borders of Estonia, one response would probably be to step up security at strategic facilities immediately.

Hurt noted that if, on the eve of a conflict, the units of the Home Guard take up positions at our airfields and in other strategic locations, it will be difficult to force them retreat. Thus, the attacker is faced with a dilemma: A sneak attack can only be carried out with very small units because the concentration of large units near the border attracts attention. The first Russian units to attack Crimea consisted of 30 to 50 people, and, as stated above, the conditions were much more favorable for them.

A successful sneak attack requires the attacking units to manage on their own for quite a long time before reinforcements arrive. In that case, would building the offensive capability of our Defense Forces be a solution in order to defeat small and lightly armed enemy units before their reinforcements arrive?

Next year, infantry fighting vehicles CV9035NL, which are intended for the use of the Scouts Battalion, will be delivered to Estonia from the Netherlands. Those vehicles will ensure, for the first time, that the Defense Forces have a serious offensive capability. Could they be used in an attack against units of enemy special forces?

Hurt found, however, that the armor or the firepower of the infantry fighting vehicles was not the key issue; he said that the key issue was the rapid response capability of our troops. "The Scouts Battalion is undoubtedly a unit capable of the most rapid response in our Defense Forces, and, therefore, it is logical for the Battalion to get the infantry fighting vehicles. They would not be of much help if we gave them to some unit of reservists to be mobilized," Hurt said.

Kaas thought, on the other hand, that we should not just focus on the speed of response but also on the number [of troops] and their quality. For the sake of a higher number of rapid response units, Hurt was willing to give up part of the reserve [units], on the training of which the Defense Forces currently focus; Kaas, however, did not consider it reasonable because, in his opinion, the speed and the number are not mutually exclusive.

Discouraged Kyiv

In Kaas’ words, what was significant in Ukraine was Russia’s willingness and capability to deploy large numbers of conventional troops, which were relocated to the Ukrainian border and are still there. The possibility of Russia launching a full-scale military invasion has been the key to the successful operation of the units of Russian special forces. The possibility of invasion has discouraged Kyiv and created a situation in which the Ukrainian leadership has not acted against the units of Russian special forces. Without the deterring effect of Russia’s conventional forces, the small units of Russian special forces active in Ukraine would have long been neutralized and defeated. The Ukrainian Government has refrained from decisively standing up to the units of Russian special forces because the Government assumes that the country’s defense forces will not be able to repel a full-scale Russian invasion.

Kaas expressed his concern that the similar principle would in all probability apply in Estonia: Having only a handful of rapid response units, our capability to stand up to invading large conventional forces would be highly questionable. "That would put Estonia in a position where we would be afraid to deploy the rapid response units for fear of having the conflict escalate to a full-scale invasion. As a result, the small rapid response units would be useless. Simply because we have no extensive military self-defense capabilities," Kaas explained.

How quickly would Russian reinforcements arrive? According to Kaas, a special forces brigade of the Russian Armed Forces and an airborne special forces division are located in close proximity to the Estonian border. Both are standby high-readiness units. The special forces units stationed near Moscow can be relocated to the Baltic region in a short period of time.

As far as [Russia’s] Ground Forces are concerned, two motorized infantry brigades are located near Estonia, one of them in a state of considerable readiness and capable of quite a rapid reaction. Kaas said that, unlike special forces and some airborne special forces, the reaction capability of the Russian Ground Forces is currently moderate. Also, the relocation of conventional forces to Ukraine’s borders took our eastern neighbor weeks, not hours.

Kaas believes that, in the coming years, Russia will continue to improve the capabilities of its special forces and airborne special forces. He predicts that, over the next few years, Russia will also continue to improve the capabilities of its Ground Forces. [Russia will] increase the number of active servicemen and sergeants, modernize equipment and weaponry, improve the level of training, and improve the command and control of operations and military units.

Source: Eesti Paevaleht, Tallinn, in Estonian 29 Apr 14

 

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