Tartu, Estonia. 20 January. Thirty-five kilometres from Estonia’s border with Russia freedom has a particularly sweet taste like a good, young wine. It is as yet not full-bodied and has some noticeable flaws and vulnerabilities but it is clear that over time if left to rest a distinct flavour will emerge that will make it a vintage to remember. How do ‘we’ defend Baltic freedom?
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are important to me because they are the conscience of freedom. We in Western Europe have become old, slow and complacent about the liberties and freedoms which we take for granted. This is somewhat ironic given that today is the seven hundredth and fiftieth anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s first truly English parliament which set so much of the world on the long path to democracy. Sadly, whilst the Paris attacks may have finally awoken us to the very real dangers posed by those who despise liberty and democracy it is unlikely to have really shaken our ever-so-little, all talk no action Western European leaders out of the torpor of denial that is helping to make Europe and the world a more dangerous place.
Contrast Lithuania. The Baltic States may be small but their leaders tend not to be, even if the politics of the region is not for the faint-hearted. Last Thursday in Vilnius I met the impressive Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaité at the hugely important annual Snowmeeting at which I had also the honour to speak. Today, I address the equally important Baltic Defence College, a model of defence integration and NATO’s most easterly command. My message to both was direct; all of the complacent assumptions you hold about the defence of freedom will be destroyed unless ‘we’ as the community of freedom stop talking and start acting.
In his seminal book “The Great Crusade” H.P. Willmott said of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg attacks, “German success between 1939 and 1942 owed as much to the German armed forces’ better understanding of the balance between offensive and defensive firepower as it then existed as to any material consideration. Opposed by a number of enemies of limited military resources and inferior doctrine, the Wehrmacht had been able to defeat opponents lacking adequate anti-tank and anti-aircraft defences and – crucially – the space and time in which to absorb the shock of a Blitzkrieg attack”. That pretty much describes the correlation of forces between NATO and modernising Russian forces and doctrine today in and around the Baltic region.
Now as then, NATO would not be able to defend the Baltic States against a surprise attack by an unstable, despotic and probably desperate Russia regime. Now as then, NATO would need to trade space for time until the West’s massively better fundamentals could generate the forces and resources to blunt and then repel a Russian lunge. Now, unlike then, an aggressive Russia would make it perfectly clear that it has treaty-breaching short and intermediate range nuclear weapons to deter such a NATO counter-attack. Stalemate!
When I rose to speak at the Snowmeeting I simply tore up my prepared remarks and went for the jugular of complacency. No, I did not believe Russia is about to attack NATO allies. Yes, I am fully aware of Russia’s military shortcomings revealed during “Operation Russian Spring” in Ukraine. However, “proval blitzkriga” is still at the heart of Russian military doctrine albeit leavened and reinforced by the use of proxies in conflict and destabilising disinformation designed to keep potential targets divided and their potential defenders politically off-balance.
But that is not my essential point. Russia forces may still be short of the fully-professional army they are seeking to achieve by 2020. However, the increasingly militarised Russian state will continue to drive towards such a force and Moscow will study carefully how to improve their military performance as well as the paucity of Alliance forces and resources in the Baltic region. The essential strategic truth is that Russian military weaknesses would likely be less critically decisive at the point and moment of engagement than NATO military weaknesses.
Therefore, due to European defence slashing and increasing American military overstretch that essential correlation between Russia and NATO forces in the Baltic States is only likely to favour Russia unless Alliance leaders do something about it rather than simply talk about it. In other words, current analysis suggests within four to five years the conditions will be favourable for a desperate Russian regime to act and impose a new/old ‘buffer zone’ via a military fait accompli.
The Ukraine crisis is as much a crisis of Russian weakness as Russian strength and that makes it all the more dangerous. My sincere hope is that Russia will demonstrate the very real greatness of which it is capable by stopping the military logic of Moscow’s current strategic and political nonsense. However, my fear is that a regime that is lost in the wilderness of romantic Russian nationalism and which is now undertaking all the necessary analyses and assessments of Alliance weakness will at some point reach all the wrong conclusions and be tempted to take all the wrong actions.
How do ‘we’ defend Baltic freedom? Not like this.