Renewed: 20.10.2015, 08:59

13 May 2015 00:01

Estonia ready to deal with Russia’s ‘little green men’

Article appeared in the Financial Times; May 13, 2015
By Sam Jones, Defence and Security Editor,  Tallinn

Estonia has a clear plan for dealing with any “little green men” — the undercover Russian special forces operatives who sprung up in the early days of the Ukraine crisis last year — according to the country’s chief of defence: they will be shot.

As Nato powers digest the Kremlin’s newfound revanchism, the Baltic region has emerged as an area of particular concern for the alliance — and a potential next-target for Russian militarism and subversive tactics.

But Estonia and its neighbours are not like Ukraine, stressed lieutenant general Riho Terras, the country’s most senior military officer, in an interview with the Financial Times. Estonia, a nation of just 1.3m, is in the midst of its largest peacetime mobilisation exercise this week, involving 13,000 troops, 7,000 of them called up by draft.

If Russian agents or special forces enter Estonian territory, “you should shoot the first one to appear,” Gen Terras said. “If somebody without any military insignia commits terrorist attacks in your country you should shoot him ... you should not allow them to enter.”

Having watched Russia’s undercover operatives quickly and effectively create their own facts on the ground in Ukraine’s restive east last year, with Kiev paralysed and unable to stop them, Nato policy makers and strategists have spent months grappling with the question of how best the alliance should position itself to deal with Moscow’s subversive tactics.

Images of unmarked special forces troops silently taking up positions at key locations, shadowy militias rapidly mobilising in support of Moscow and a relentless information warfare campaign have raised questions about military readiness, intelligence capabilities and the threshold of responding with violence to provocation.

While Estonia is considered by many to be on the front line of the alliance in facing such a threat, dealing with it is a question of Nato’s unity, as much as it is tactics, said Gen Terras.

“Hybrid warfare is nothing new. You can deal with it only with the cohesion of the nation, with integrity, with all society working together.”

“[Estonia] is a functioning society,” he stressed. “We are not like Ukraine . . . But we need to be very well aware of what is happening in Russia and be ready.”

Most importantly, Gen Terras said, Nato needed to be prepared to stand behind his country and go to war in the event of his forces having to forcibly confront any Russian interference in a way that Kiev was initially unable to do.

“We need to make sure that we believe in article five,” he said — referring to the principle of collective defence in Nato’s founding treaty — “but, even more importantly, we need to make sure that Mr [Vladimir] Putin believes in article five. And I think we should put a lot of emphasis on that.”

Maintaining defence spending was particularly crucial, he added. Cuts to the defence budgets of countries such as the UK, he said, directly impacted upon Estonia’s safety.

Members of Nato are obliged by the alliance to spend 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence, but only a handful currently hit such a target. Britain, Nato’s largest European defence spender, is set to fall well below its obligation over the course of the next five years, based on current government projections.

The UK and others “need to be convinced” to spend more, according to Gen Terras.

He also warned against any move to scrap or scale back Britain’s ageing nuclear arsenal — a key and expensive decision that needs to be taken by the UK government in the coming months. The UK is Nato’s only European nuclear power. Although France has atomic weapons it has a special opt-out that means its nuclear forces operate entirely independently of the alliance.

“[Nuclear weapons are] one of the very important Nato capabilities which have kept Nato countries out of war from the beginning, and it should be that way,” Gen Terras said.

A decision by the UK to wind back its nuclear capabilities would be damaging, said Gen Terras, even if it would be domestically popular.

“It would [impact us]. It would impact Nato. It needs to be discussed at the Nato table, for sure. I have seen Britain as a very reliable Nato ally always, throughout [Estonia’s] history. They have a prominent position.”

Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces, 717 1900, mil[at]mil.ee, Juhkentali 58, EE15007, Tallinn, Estonia.

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