British troops are to be stationed in Estonia from May 2017, as part of a NATO plan to improve the defences of its front-line states. This is a small but essential step to discourage possible assertive moves by Russia. The geography of the Baltic means that being in place before a crisis is essential - because after it begins is too late. Russia has been practising for years at blocking access to the region, and for NATO to fight its way through to protect its allies would be vastly harder than simply being present to start with.
Local populations in the host countries are pleased to see NATO troops arrive as a concrete demonstration of commitment to their security. According to Estonia’s defence minister, British commitment to European security and collective defence feels stronger after Brexit. The larger than expected British presence in Estonia - up to 800 individuals from a previously planned 650 - is primarily to be based in new infrastructure in the garrison town of Tapa, in north-central Estonia an hour’s drive from the capital Tallinn. So far, the facilities there are scanty - the general in charge of the Estonian Armed Forces, Riho Terras, has been heard saying that if he were in business he would set up a fish and chip stall near the planned British barracks.
The international units also serve as a concrete indicator of the commitment to European security by NATO’s North American members. A change of government in Canada had led to questions over the depth of this commitment - but Canadian leadership of the battalion to be stationed in Latvia has resolved these questions.
But forward deployment also exposes UK and other NATO soldiers to a wide range of new threats and challenges. In the event of a conflict, they would face Russian forces re-equipped and re-trained based on operational experience in Ukraine and Syria. But even in peacetime, Russia will be working hard to undermine the deployments and use them to its own advantage. This could include efforts to damage the reputation of British troops not only with the local population, but also with their families and communities back in the UK. As NATO servicemen from other nations have already found, Russia is adept at identifying individual soldiers that come within their reach, and targeting and smearing them - and the personal effects can be devastating.
At the same time the excitement that has greeted a relatively minute rearrangement of NATO forces is a measure of how little capability remains within the organization. Many member states are now once again realizing the importance of high-end warfighting for territorial defence, following 20 years of running down their armed forces and focusing on expeditionary warfare.
And the redeployments are tiny by comparison not only with the much greater scale of forces that were previously considered essential to deter Russia, but also with Russian numbers on the other side of the border. Russia’s exercises involving huge numbers of its troops have been accompanied by intensive practice for war in Syria. This includes using as many weapons systems there as possible in order to test them, even when they are not the most suitable or efficient for the job - as, for instance, sailing the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to the eastern Mediterranean instead of using local airbase facilities.
But as a first step toward NATO defending the front-line states, size is not the only thing that matters. Critically, multinational presence in these states makes it far more complicated for Russia to take any military action against them without immediately involving the rest of NATO.
Although the redeployment of NATO troops most directly affects the host countries and Russia, other states in the region will feel the side effects. Sweden and Finland are continuing their long-running debate over whether they would be safer within NATO or remaining outside. But one key argument against greater NATO involvement in the region - concern that new military deployments there could be escalatory and provocative - has receded in the face of Russia's intensive drive for mobilization and militarization. New Russian moves like the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, or the arrival in the Baltic of Russian corvettes with cruise missiles, mean that Sweden and Finland’s desire to appear peaceful and unprovocative has been overtaken by reality. When Russia has already made threats of using nuclear weapons in the region, some in Sweden now feel that defensive preparations could hardly make the situation worse.
Belarus, meanwhile, looks at both Russia’s and NATO’s military moves with alarm. Unlike Russia, whose claims of being ‘encircled’ by NATO are based on fantasy, for Belarus this is already a fact: the landlocked country is already quite literally surrounded by military buildup and conflict on all sides. How Belarus will respond to this, and to Russian offers of ‘protection’ from NATO, make for another worrying potential flashpoint in eastern Europe.
Fears of Russian escalation in response are misplaced. NATO’s actions have been signalled so far in advance that Russia has had plenty of time to already massively out-escalate NATO, which in turn is now only beginning to catch up. What is important is putting in place countermeasures to the Russian military potential that already exists in the region, in order to reduce the number of options for assertive military action which are available to Russia.
There is no shortage of scenarios and candidates for where Russia might choose next to exercise its growing military potential. But discussion of where and when this might happen often overlook that Russia is unlikely to initiate any direct confrontation ‘just because’. What is needed is both an opportunity for Russia to take action unchallenged, and some form of crisis that triggers this action. These new defensive measures by NATO, as and when they take place, will be an important step toward reducing Russia’s opportunities. In this way they make northern Europe a safer place.
Keir Giles, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme