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Estonia’s defensive options against Russia

  • 2011-12-14

Retired Estonian Defense Forces Lt. Col. Raivo Tamm said in an interview published Dec. 5 by ERR that Estonia should independently build up its defensive capabilities in response to a growing Russian military presence on Russia’s side of the border. However, Estonia’s terrain disadvantages and the sheer scale of the challenge it faces in defending against Russia far outstrip its economic and demographic capacity (even compared to Georgia before its war with Russia in 2008).

Thus, even if Estonia succeeds in expanding its own capabilities, its defense strategy will still rest on a foundation of alliances and regional security cooperation.
Tamm pointed out that Russia recently doubled its troop presence in the northwestern region bordering   Estonia  and said that Estonia’s response to this requires a balanced approach, including cooperation with NATO and the European Union and an increased independent capability on Estonia’s part. He then used the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 as an example, saying the conflict caught the world off guard and had a long reaction time - something he said Estonia should try to avoid.

Tamm was not implying that a Russian attack is imminent. However, he said that such an attack is theoretically and technically possible. The retired colonel said he did not see a reason to panic but that Estonia needed to more seriously consider Russia’s actions and how it should respond.

His comments reflect Estonia’s increasing nervousness about Russia’s defensive posture in the region, particularly because of the growing tensions surrounding the United States’ ballistic missile defense plans for Central Europe. Washington’s unwillingness to address Russia’s concerns about the plans not only led to the Russian troop buildup near the Estonian border, but also prompted Russia to make preparations to deploy Iskander missiles to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which Russian military officials claim can be done within six to 12 months.

The Iskander deployment is not much of a tactical concern for the United States, as it does not change the strategic military balance in the region. However, the countries near Kaliningrad - the Baltic States and Poland, specifically - do not have the luxury of being comfortable with the deployment and the growing Russian assertiveness it represents.
These are only the latest developments; Russia’s purchase of Mistral troop carriers from France with plans for Baltic Sea deployment, as well as Russia’s Zapad military exercises that simulated an invasion of the Baltic States and Poland, have also made Estonia increasingly nervous about the Russian threat.

Estonia’s small military, location and terrain and limited economic and demographic resources all constrain the country’s ability to respond to a potential Russian attack. If Estonia faced the same force that Georgia did when Russia invaded in 2008, the campaign would not last long. With forces in the region, Russia has the ability to quickly overwhelm Estonian defenses, and an invasion would last a matter of days, if that.

The Estonian military has approximately 4,800 troops, of which 2,500 are conscripted (conscription makes meaningful training and experience difficult), in addition to 11,500 professional reserves. Estonia does not even possess heavy armor, a substantial air force, or anti-aircraft defenses save a few shoulder-fired missiles. As a point of comparison, the Georgian military that faced a Russian invasion in 2008 had four regular infantry brigades and one infantry brigade under formation, with a total strength of approximately 20,000 troops and 6,000 Interior Ministry forces.

Compared to Georgia, Estonia is also at a geographic disadvantage. The entire Georgian border with Russia is in the heart of the North Caucasus range. The mountainous terrain restricts troop movements and makes armor movements very difficult. Estonia, however, sits on the North European Plain and is flat and forested. Estonia could be facing a minimum of four Russian brigades near the border area alone. Furthermore, Estonia’s entire coast - including Tallinn - would be vulnerable to Russia’s Baltic Fleet. In other words, Estonia is militarily indefensible.

Because Estonia’s individual military capabilities are so limited, it will have to continue building alliances to bolster its security. The country’s weak position relative to Russia could add some urgency to the strengthening of the Nordic Battlegroup, which would give Estonia the opportunity to join a closer (in terms of geography and interests) security group that could come to Estonia’s aid as opposed to the larger and more disparate NATO. However, this grouping is still in its nascent stage and currently has less than 3,000 troops. While emphasizing the importance of the Baltic-Nordic grouping might seem to contradict the independent capability Tamm advocates, having a stronger independent capability would make Estonia a more attractive ally.

Estonia’s strategic position and obvious vulnerabilities at a time of increased threats from Russia gives the country’s new military chief, Brig. Gen. Riho Terras, something to think about as he begins his tenure: the possibility of adding a greater independent defensive capability to Estonia’s existing alliance-based defense. However, those vulnerabilities and its proximity to Russia will always limit the effectiveness of its independent defensive capabilities.

Reprinted with permission from Stratfor