Russia stationing modern arms on its western border

Ships in Russia’s Baltic Fleet were the first to get modern Kalibr missiles. PHOTO: Vene kaitseministeerium/AP/Scanpix

Russian efforts over close to the past decade have come to fruition. Forces stationed around the Baltic countries are far stronger than anything Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can muster, counting allied units in the region.

Despite the balance of power being clearly in Russia’s favor, the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service’s (EFIS) annual report does not hold a conflict likely as attacking the Baltics would equal attacking NATO, which is something Russia does not want to do. The Estonian intelligence sees a theoretical possibility of Russia launching a preemptive strike against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania if it should find itself in a conflict with the United States of America elsewhere in the world.

Director General of EFIS Mikk Marran said that it needs to be kept in mind Russia does not see the Baltic states as separate entities but rather as part of the European Union and NATO. Any military steps against the Baltics on Russia’s part would have to be part of a larger conflict. The agency does not hold such a conflict to be likely.

The world’s conflict zones include Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, while Marran does not see a Russia-U.S. conflict escalating in any of them. “We are talking about the future. Russia has several advantages in our region – time, space and how long it takes to make decisions – and they know that they can use them if they have to,” Marran said.

In its Western Military District, Russia has Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad, 120 kilometers from the Estonian border and 45 kilometers from the Lithuanian border. This allows Russia to threaten the Baltics on two headings, while NATO does not have comparable missile systems anywhere in Europe.

Ships in Russia’s Baltic Fleet were the first to get modern Kalibr missiles that can hit targets up to 4,500 kilometers away depending on the modification. The first new SU-30 SM fighter jets were also deployed to Kaliningrad.

Over the past ten years, Russia has created three army-level commands, five new division headquarters and 15 new maneuver regiments in the Western Military District. The latter include motorized infantry, tank and assault regiments. The 76th Guards Air Assault Division stationed just 28 kilometers from the Estonian border is the first Russian air assault unit to have a third assault regiment.

The Pskov division has received over 30 tanks recently, while it didn’t have any just two years ago.

Even though NATO battalions stationed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and the countries’ independent defense capacity falls short of Russian military power in the region, it still constitutes a considerable deterrent.

“They cannot attack the Baltics without launching a war with NATO. Russia is not looking for a direct military conflict with NATO. But it is trying to bother us and our allies any other way it can,” Marran said.

The intelligence agency is anticipating great Russian interest in U.S. exercise “Defender Europe 20” where it will test moving units to Europe, including Estonia. It is the largest U.S. training exercise to take place in Europe in 25 years with around 37,000 allied participants.

“The exercise will very likely be a target for Russian intelligence agencies and cyberattacks. We will definitely see propaganda trying to paint the exercise as a provocation. Participating units must be ready for shows of strength by Russian armed forces’ aircraft and ships,” Marran said.

Caution urged regarding Chinese investments

The foreign intelligence service warns that major Chinese investments need to be approached carefully, both as concerns development of 5G networks and other major projects.

“There is a realistic chance that the Communist Party of China is using tech companies to promote its interests. Dependence on Chinese technology providers is a potential security threat for Estonia,” Marran said.

He explained that it is the duty of EFIS to point out that major foreign investments by Chinese companies often equal Chinese state investments. “In Chinese state capitalism, the chain of command made up of many seemingly private companies leads to state companies and the government. China is using foreign investments as tools of influence to steer policies of other countries in directions that suit its needs,” the director general noted.

This needs to be kept in mind regarding the potential Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel project in which Chinese company Touchstone Capital Group Holdings Limited has shown an interest. The intelligence agency points out in its yearbook that the company is valued at £1 and came close to being deleted from the U.K. business register last year, while it has promised to invest €15 billion in the tunnel project.

Marran also urged decision-makers to remember the nature of Chinese state capitalism when major public procurements for the Rail Baltic project open.

“China will do everything it takes to boost its influence. Including using consultants, which is common practice in Estonia and elsewhere.”

Marran did not wish to comment on a full page of content marketing published by daily Eesti Päevaleht last week that was procured by the Chinese Embassy in Tallinn and talked about the Xinjiang autonomous region where 46 percent of the population is Uighur. The text assured the reader that human rights are guaranteed in the region.

“The foreign intelligence service does not advise the media. The media is clever enough on its own. The article you pointed to is a good example of China disseminating its propaganda. If it proves ineffective through normal articles, they buy advertising,” Marran said.

The embassy procured a full page for a similar text in Postimees last summer.

Foreign intelligence yearbook published for the fifth time

EFIS presented its fifth annual report yesterday. Like its predecessors, it concentrates most on Russia as the agency perceives Russia as the only realistic threat to Estonian security.

When compared to last year’s report, the yearbook makes no mention of Islamic terrorism this time. Mikk Marran said that does not mean Islamic terrorism has disappeared from the world or become something the agency is not concerned with.

“Islamic terrorism threatens certain European countries, while its likelihood is low in Estonia. This year’s report makes no mention of it because the situation has not changed from last year. The threat level has remained the same,” Marran explained.

The foreign intelligence chief also said that the U.K. leaving the European Union will not have an effect on Estonian security. “The United Kingdom is and will remain a NATO member, and British troops will continue to be stationed in Estonia,” he said.

The presentation of the report was special this time as it took place at an EFIS facility on Rahumäe Road in Tallinn – a location that had until now been kept secret. Past intelligence reports have been presented at the conference hall of the Palace Hotel.

“We did not have suitable premises for such an event before, while we managed to change that over the past year,” Marran said.