Standing strong together: Allied efforts to reinforce NATO’s deterrence move forward in Estonia

Brussels / Tallinn, 25 June 2018 – NATO’s evolving deterrence posture along the Alliance’s eastern flank is a clear demonstration of the transatlantic community’s resolve to stand by all member states in an increasingly volatile European security environment. A newly emboldened Russia is challenging NATO’s will with a range of aggressive actions, from conventional sabre rattling to destabilising hybrid tactics at the political, economic, and social levels. Nowhere is the new Russia challenge being felt more keenly than in the Baltic States. 

In advance of this July’s Summit of NATO Heads of State and Government in Brussels, a delegation from the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation (DSCTC), led by DSCTC Chairman and NATO PA Vice-President Lord Campbell of Pittenweem (UK) and NATO PA President Paolo Alli (Italy) visited the front lines of NATO’s new deterrence posture in Estonia as part of its yearlong study of NATO’s evolving efforts in its eastern territories. 

As Estonia’s Foreign Minister and former NATO PA Vice-President Sven Mikser told the delegation in Tallinn: “The Baltics region is the only border between NATO and Russia where the Kremlin believes they have the advantage in terms of space, the balance of forces, and time.” Mikser remained cautiously optimistic about the Alliance’s position vis-à-vis Russia: “They can be deterred,” he continued, “there have been positive developments since the standing up of the air policing missions and the eFP [enhanced Forward Presence]. This is a positive dynamic moving in the right direction. It is not complete, however, as many capability gaps still remain.” 

The imbalance of forces and questions about the ability of the Alliance to reinforce its presence in the Baltics in the event of a contingency has raised considerable concern throughout the Alliance – Continued Russian brinkmanship in the region in the form of snap exercises, air and sea space violations is keeping military and political eyes on the region.

The most significant move to date by NATO to deter against any possible Russian adventurism is the recently established eFP, which consists of four multinational battlegroups manned by a cohort of transatlantic Allies and stationed in the Baltic States and Poland. Commenting on the eFP, Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Estonian Parliament Hannes Hanso told the delegation: “This is an important signal at all levels. The eFP is far from a provocation of Russia – if it were, it would be rather weak. None of this would have happened if Russia had not made the moves it did in Crimea.” 

The eFP battalions are relatively small when considering the size of the Russian forces manning the Western Military District, which shares a border with all three Baltic States. The eFP battalions, however, are only meant to be a trigger for an overwhelming Alliance response, if Russia were to attempt any military reaction inside of Alliance territory. 

The over 1,000-strong multinational battalion in Estonia, stationed in Tapa, is being led by the United Kingdom and supported by Denmark and Iceland. France is currently leading the air policing mission out of Amari Air Base. The precarious geographic position of the Baltic States, however, is leading to much speculation about further reinforcements at the upcoming NATO Summit in July. 

Allied planners are particularly focused on the challenge of the speed of reinforcement due to military mobility challenges and force readiness in Europe. The Baltics States are connected to NATO territory by a narrow 65km strip of land, known as the Suwalki Corridor, which is bordered to the West by the non-contiguous Russian oblast Kaliningrad and Russia-allied Belarus to the East. It is NATO’s most vulnerable chokepoint. Russia’s formidable integrated defence systems in the area challenge all military supply links to the region.

The Alliance’s own infrastructural and bureaucratic deficiencies do not help with the dilemma of potential Baltic reinforcement. Recent reports have laid bare the insufficient infrastructure in NATO’s eastern territories, highlighted the cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles to personnel and materiel transfers, and the ability of European NATO allies to rush the necessary brigades to the area in the event of a conflict. 

Military mobility will play a key role in the upcoming summit. As several interlocutors in the Baltics told the delegation, the United States is likely to propose increasing the number of Allied forces deployable to the Baltics at the July Summit in Brussels. The proposal is being called 30-30-30-30, the plan would require NATO to have 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons, and 30 ships ready to deploy within 30 days of being put on alert. 

If implemented, the plan could be seen as a challenge by the United States to its European Allies to demonstrate an increased willingness to meet the demands of the Alliance’s new defence and deterrence posture. With fast-paced adaptation demands to deal with eastern and southern flank challenges, a rise in terrorist-related incidents, and other destabilising hybrid threats at all levels, NATO members must invest more to cover the rising costs of security across the Alliance.

Currently, the United States is paying an imbalance of the costs of NATO adaptation. The burden sharing issue will be a key question brought to the table by the United States as it sits down to negotiate the future of NATO with its Allies this July. As Estonian Defence Minister Jüri Luik told the delegation quite plainly: “The truth is, there is not enough investment to cover the costs for today’s security needs. The problem is political. The will has to be there. All Allies have to take this issue seriously.”  

Over the past several years, the United States has increased its investments in European security, particularly raising its profile in Eastern Europe. Funded under the moniker The European Deterrence Initiative, the United States is leading the multinational battalion in Poland and investing billions to improve infrastructure, increase exercises, and to rotate more personnel and equipment into the area. The DSCTC delegation witnessed U.S. efforts in the Baltics firsthand by its participation in the Distinguished Visitors day events of the US-led Saber Strike exercise. 

Saber Strike is an important exercise coordinating all Baltic States and Polish forces, US Army Europe, along with many other NATO allies and partners. Over several weeks, 20,000 forces conducted the exercises in the Baltics and Poland. As US Commanders told the delegation, Saber Strike is an important platform for the continuous commitment of the United States to the region. Brigadier General Kate Leahy, Deputy Commanding General for Mobilization and Reserve Affairs – US Army Europe, told the delegation: “Saber Strike is about how Allies are building deterrence together. It is a clear demonstration of our collective defence capabilities.” 

The delegation from the NATO PA Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation consisted of 20 NATO member state and partner parliamentarians from 11 different nations. A full report of the Sub-Committee’s visit to Estonia and Finland, which took place on 11-15 June 2018, will be made available on the NATO PA website.