Allied NATO battalions will soon mark two years serving in the Baltics. They have worked better than expected but would need prepositioned heavy weaponry and a functional contingency plan in case of a crisis, a report by the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) finds.
“We do not know how Russia would have acted had we not welcomed allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in 2017. I’m afraid they would have tested our resolve,” one of the authors of the report, ICDS research fellow Kalev Stoicescu (Estonia 200) says in summation.
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have each had a battalion battle group for a total of 4,800 troops and their equipment in the region since 2017. Together with the armed forces of the host country, they form the first line of defense in case of a military conflict.
Stoicescu and his colleague Pauli Järvenpää interviewed around 60 allied defense experts from Estonia to Brussels to get a picture of how the battalions have fared and how to make them better.
Stoicescu said it turns out the battle groups are a success story. Some earlier fears have turned out to be unfounded. For example, Russia’s propaganda apparatus has not been successful in provoking serious conflicts with allied soldiers. While attempts were initially made at phone hacking and disseminating fake news, Russia has now abandoned such practices as they failed to drive a wedge between allies.
Secondly, there are no more hiccups in the chain of command. The battle groups are fully integrated into the armed forces of the host countries: for example, in Estonia, Belgian and British units are currently under the direct command of Commander of the 1st Infantry Brigade Col. Vahur Karus. All battle groups are commanded from Multinational Corps Northeast headquarters in Poland that is in turn under the command of Brunssum in the Netherlands.
The fact battle groups in Latvia and Lithuania are multinational has not caused any problems either. “Commanders say that everything is working, and we have no reason to doubt that. They are virtually battle-ready at all times. Countries are motivated to participate both politically and militarily as it is a chance to train in difficult conditions, especially in winter,” Stoicescu says.
Potential aggression by Russia would come in one of three forms: conflict, regional conflict or a limited incursion into NATO territory. Interviews suggested experts see the battle groups playing an important role in the latter eventuality.
“The battle groups are excellent in case of a small initial conflict. The NATO battle groups, together with the forces of host countries, would be enough in such an eventuality, and that is a brilliant deterrent,” Stoicescu says.
Analysts conclude that to complement the battle groups with everything host countries can mobilize, NATO would have at least ten brigades’ worth of units in the Baltics. If we add to that armed forces of USA and Poland, Russia would need a great number of battle-ready units to achieve the necessary three to one advantage necessary for a successful attack.
That is one reason NATO is reluctant to increase the size of its battle groups to the brigade level as per the wishes of local defense theoreticians.
Balance of power still in Russia’s favor
The ICDS report now finds that the Baltics and Poland would need several additional steps to ensure effective deterrence with the forces already in the area.
First of all, NATO could preposition military equipment for a full brigade in each of the four countries, so it would only have to fly in the soldiers in case of a crisis. This would herald expenses for host countries in constructing warehouses and hangars and logistics expenses for countries providing the weaponry. However, once here, the equipment could be used during exercises and in case of crises, without having to fear Russia cutting off the Suwalki Corridor, naval supply routes or the Baltic airspace.
“There is a lot of debate in NATO over whether this would be interpreted as another provocation by Russia. But looking at the balance of power in the region, it is still heavily in Russia’s favor,” Stoicescu explained.
Secondly, efforts should be made to draw up contingency plans for a situation where additional forces need to be brought to the Baltics in a hurry. This is being done in part. Last June, NATO agreed to the so-called 30-plan that requires the alliance to be capable of having up to 30 battalion battle groups, 30 air squadrons and 30 warships in Europe in under 30 days in case of a crisis.
The report also recommends launching talks with USA to have one of their units rotate between the Baltic countries again as the presence of an American flag has serious deterrence value in Russia’s eyes. USA currently has around 9,900 troops in Europe, based, together with their prepositioned equipment, in Poland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
President Kersti Kaljulaid’s security adviser Peeter Kuimet said that Estonia has not proposed to the USA to have permanent presence in Estonia and is not currently in talks to do so.
“Since the battle groups were introduced, America’s approach has been to maintain units in Poland and rotate them into the Baltics temporarily,” Kuimet says. Latvia hosted a unit of U.S. transport helicopters last year, while Ämari airbase in Estonia played host to a full squadron of F-16 fighters from January to March last year. A U.S. marine company also took part in the Spring Storm exercise in Estonia.
Kuimet says that there are no dark clouds on the horizon regarding allied battalions as developments in NATO over the past four years have been favorable for Estonia. While it is true that additional brigades and formidable air and naval power would be required to defend Estonia in case of a conventional conflict, permanently stationing such capacity in the Baltic countries is not necessary at this time.
Instead, NATO is concentrating on having rapid decision-making processes, up-to-date defense plans and rapid reaction forces. “Those were the goals Estonia had for this summer’s NATO summit that generally culminated in favorable decisions for us, and things are moving in the right direction,” Kuimet says.