Words Versus Deeds: Russian Attitudes Toward NATO’s Defensive Preparations in the Baltic

In March 2016, Estonia received its second shipment of FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile systems. The initial shipment was delivered last September (ERR, September 3, 2015). Estonia received the “Block 1” version of the system, the newest model on the market. The updated systems have improved guidance, faster flight times, and can operate at a range up to 2,500 meters. The exact number of systems delivered and the total cost of the purchase was not made public, but the purchase itself was financed out of the $3.4 billion in European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) funding that the United States promised in 2014 (Kommersant, March 22).

According to Estonian Defense Minister Hannes Hanso, building up Estonia’s defense capabilities against tanks and other armored fighting vehicles is a cornerstone of the country’s military strategy. Estonia’s defense budget reflects just how seriously the government takes building up its military capabilities. In February, the Estonian Ministry of Defense announced that it is allocating $818 million for procurement over the next four years (ERR, February 25). This is a significant commitment for a country whose entire 2015 defense budget was just over $450 million.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in eastern Ukraine have enflamed regional domestic anxiety about territorial integrity, pushing Estonia and its neighbors to boost their defensive capabilities, and it has prompted the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to refocus their attention on securing the Alliance’s eastern flanks. Of the Baltic countries, Estonia is taking the most serious steps toward developing the capabilities necessary to defend itself from invasion. Ruslan Pukhov, the Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a Moscow think tank, thinks that Estonia’s actions need to be taken seriously. In an interview with Kommersant, he said, “unlike other countries in the region, Estonia is seriously preparing for war… and Russia, as the country that these measures are aimed at, needs to respond adequately” (Kommersant, March 22).

Estonia’s push to further develop its military capability poses little real threat to Russia. Russia’s Armed Forces are orders of magnitude larger than the Estonian military in terms of active personnel. With a force of around 750,000 men, the Russian military is larger than one half of Estonia’s entire population. This is not to mention how entirely overwhelming Russia’s military capabilities are in comparison to those of Estonia. Thus, it is unlikely that Estonia itself is the real concern for Russia. Moscow is more focused on NATO’s increased activities in the region—which is itself reacting to Russia’s growing aggression.

In response to Estonia’s Javelin procurement and increased NATO activities in the Baltic, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov recently said, “We need to put an end to spreading horror stories about Russia planning to send tanks into the Baltic States, Sofia, or Budapest. No one is planning to do that. Plans of that sort do not exist” (Lenta.ru, March 24). According to him, Baltic countries are only stoking these fears in order to secure financial support from NATO. However, in reality, Antonov’s remarks reflect the perpetual disconnect between what Russian officials say and what the Russian government does.

Moscow recently announced a major restructuring of its tank forces, which will greatly increase Russia’s force presence in its “Western strategic direction,” along the country’s western border. This restructuring involves changes to the 20thCombined Arms Army and the re-formation of the 1st Tank Army (see EDM, April 5). Disbanded in 1999, the 1st Tank Army played an important role in Russian/Soviet military history. After participating in the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle to date and a turning-point victory in the Soviet military campaign in World War II, the 1st Tank Army continued on to help take Berlin in 1945 (Bmpd.livejournal.com, June 1, 2015; Lenta.ru, February 1, 2016). The Soviet Union’s role in helping to defeat Adolf Hitler is a central element of the Russian political myth heavily promoted by Vladimir Putin’s government. Thus, the revival of the 1st Tank Army as part of a broader restructuring—purportedly in response to US and NATO presence along Russia’s border—was certainly not lost on Russian officials or many of their constituents.

But such attempts to portray Russia as a country facing an encroaching threat from the rapid militarization of countries along its border fall flat when contextualized in a timeline of events in the region over the past two years. In fact, the North Atlantic Alliance had significantly drawn down its forces in Europe prior to 2014. But Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, its direct support for separatism in eastern Ukraine, as well as invasion of Donbas—amid claims of defending the “Russian World”—prompted NATO’s expedited return to the region. Under these conditions, Estonia and its neighbors rushed to build up the capacity to defend their territorial integrity.

Estonia’s actions and the actions of NATO as a whole directly counter the narrative that Russia would like to promote about itself at home and abroad. Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials have worked hard to try to portray Russia as a guarantor of global security. Meanwhile, countries across Europe are coming out to name Russia as a top security threat. In early March, Estonia’s defense minister released a report that explicitly named Russia as the singular external force threatening Estonia’s security. Shortly thereafter, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili named Russia the top threat to security in the Caucasus. Likewise, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently included Russia in a shortlist of top threats to US security (Lenta.ru, March 24). Moreover, these countries are backing their words with action, proving willing to allocate their finite resources, monetary and otherwise, to insure themselves against the danger posed by Russian aggression and revanchism.

Russia’s reaction to the Estonian procurement of Javelins perfectly illustrates the Kremlin’s irritation at having its image challenged in this way. Initially, an undisclosed source from the Russian Ministry of Defense said that talking about Russia invading Estonia is “nonsense” and not worth discussing (Kommersant, March 22). But two days later, Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Anatoly Antonov gave a statement disputing the idea that Russia has plans to invade the Baltic. He continued on to say that Russia’s top priority is preventing the spread of terrorism in Russia and surrounding countries (Rg.ru, March 24). The chairman of the Duma Committee on International Affairs, Aleksei Pushkov, weighed in shortly thereafter, saying that the West is not prepared to partner with Russia in a united anti-terrorism coalition, but instead the West “makes a lot of noise about the necessity to defend the Baltics, which is under no threat, from Moscow” (Rg.ru, March 25). Pushkov’s sentiments reflected the Kremlin line, voiced later by officials in the presidential administration.

Conspicuously, officials in Moscow opted for a strategy of linking the discussion of developments in the Baltic States to the subject of international terrorism. Essentially, this is a continuation of the Kremlin’s informational strategy showcased in Syria. Among Russia’s goals for entering Syria was the desire to promote Russia’s status as an indispensable guarantor of global security and to discredit western claims that Russia is a threat. Thus, by presenting the spread of global terrorism as an alternative danger, Russia is currently trying delegitimize NATO activity in Central and Eastern Europe. In particular, Moscow is painting NATO’s defensive preparations on the Alliance’s eastern flank as a misallocation of resources caused by the West’s misreading of the global threat environment and a broader unwillingness to work with Russia in order to address the “real” risks to international security.

The NATO-Russia Council met on April 20, for the first time since this body was suspended by the Alliance in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, in 2014. Few had any illusions as to any breakthroughs emerging from this meeting; and indeed, the two sides departed by highlighting their serious disagreements on issues of European security (see EDM, April 25). Meanwhile, Russian jets have repeatedly aggressively buzzed NATO vessels and aircraft in the Baltic and prompted the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission to scramble its planes five times in the span of a week in response to close Russian flybys near Lithuanian airspace (see EDM, April 21; UNIAN, May 2). Clearly, Russia’s actions in the Baltic speak louder the words.