How Baltics are preparing for a Russian invasion without the help of NATO
Estonia is training an army to be ready for partisan warfare, Lithuania distributes manuals for armed resistance in schools and Latvia is giving out night vision goggles and weapons to keep at home. Everything to defend themselves from Russia.
- Wednesday, 23 November 2016
No one really knows if with Trump at the White House NATO will continue to be the one we know. And, even at best, no one knows what would be the Alliance's response to a Ukraine-style Russian aggression on a Baltic State. Nevertheless, the three small former Soviet republics are preparing for a worst case scenario: to face the Russian bear alone, imagining a quick military defeat, without the intervention of the Western allies and by relying onguerrilla warfare and sabotage.
Already a year ago Lithuania started to print manuals to be distributed in public places: libraries, municipal offices and high schools. There have now been three issues of the "What we need to know in times of war" series. Each contains practical information on how to recognize Russian T90s, how to orientate in the woods and what to bring to camp in the forest. It is perhaps the most useless among the Baltic initiatives: you don’t train citizens to war with a booklet, you just scare them. But the Lithuanian MOD’s initiative is a clear thermometer of the Russian invasion fever that is shaking the country.
Latvia and Estonia are doing something more concrete. Riga put up a Home Guard made up of volunteers equipped with weapons and night vision goggles to keep at home, ready to fight Russian soldiers. Tallin is instead organizing a partisan army of 20,000 that every Sunday learn to assemble IEDs and use improvised weapons: a huge force for a country that can count on an army of 6,000.
It is political fiction? Maybe, but not definitely. A year ago the BBC aired an interesting simulation: in a war room, former diplomats and British officials had to decide how to deal with a hybrid attack on Latvia. Leaving aside the elements of fiction and the outcome – determined by decisions made in the war room, which you can’t say would necessarily be the same in the real world – the experiment was extremely realistic. The authors just took the actual events in Ukraine and imagined they were happening in Latvia, a member of NATO.
Latvia is the country with the largest Russian component among the three Baltic States. Daugavpils, the town where the BBC staged riots instigated by Russia and the declaration of independence from Riga, is a kind of Donetsk on the Baltic Sea, and the Latgale, the region that borders Russia, a kind of Donbass.
In 2015, some photos circulating on the Internet of a separatist group for the "People's Republic of Latgale" triggered alarm in Latvian intelligence, while according to a survey by Latvian public television only 37% of the inhabitants of Latgale would be willing to defend Latvia from Russian invasion. Even if this is very little evidence of a separatist danger in Latvia, there is no denying the existence of a problem of integration of the large Russian minority. An integration halted by Riga’s policy on nepilsona – the status given to Russian permanent residents, born and raised in Latvia, but deprived of Latvian citizenship.
Estonia and Lithuania show similarities, but arouse less concern. Tallinn has always been working on integration, while Vilnius has much smaller numbers to deal with.
Lack of confidence
Nobody knows if it’s really time to put sandbags on the windows, but the Baltic fears are understandable (they experienced Soviet occupation for more than fifty years). But what is interesting is the distrust of NATO that seems to emerge from these initiatives. Ukraine's experience has shown that even the best international agreements can become waste paper when they get to reality. We know what happened to the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 by Russia, United States and Britain to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity, in exchange for the dismantling of the nuclear arsenal that Kiev inherited from the USSR.
With Trump in the White House, who is ready to bet on the application of Article 5 of the NATO treaty which provides for the Alliance's intervention in the event of aggression against one of its members? How many in the hierarchies of NATO would be willing to recognize a Ukraine-style hybrid attack as armed aggression, and risk a war with Russia?
In addition, a recent simulation gave the Russian armed forces just 36 hours to take Riga and Tallinn and less than three days to occupy Estonia and Latvia, defeat NATO’s defences and leave the West with a fait accompli. Just like it happened in Crimea.