By Molly K. McKew

Pretty much no one in the Western alliance is looking forward to the next few days.

NATO heads of state are due to meet Wednesday in Brussels beneath the disinterested gaze of President Donald Trump before he jets off to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. In between, British Prime Minister Theresa May — who faces a pending collision with the brick wall of Brexit — meets first with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then with Trump herself. It’s a rapid-fire series of what would usually be staid diplomatic photo-ops that could, in this iteration, seriously disrupt the international order that has made the United States a global superpower since the end of World War II.

While the president and other Republican envoys make reassuring entreaties to the Kremlin, Trump continues to view himself as the disruptor of NATO. In the weeks leading up to the NATO summit, the president again berated America’s allies for their defense spending. To push back, supporters of the transatlantic framework that is the architecture of American power in the world are on an information blitz, heralding increased defense spending across the alliance.

All this has been accompanied by the usual cycle of pre-summit reports about NATO’s defensive vulnerabilities — including the choke point of the Suwalki Gap between Poland and Lithuania. And, as usual, it’s the allies to the north of that gap that are trying to stay focused on what matters most: the fundamental transformation of the alliance that is needed.

Almost 10 years after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, it’s clear NATO still needs to learn more quickly from our partners with a deeper history of fighting Russian aggression in all its various forms. Foremost of those partners is Estonia, which unlike Georgia is a full NATO member and has been since 2004.

There’s an unspoken duality underlaying the mindset of Estonian defense. To survive, you must integrate: The three Baltic states – Estonia plus Latvia and Lithuania — acted as a unified region to achieve NATO and EU membership, and they continue to engage the U.S. and NATO from that “B3” format above all. NATO’s charter requires that the alliance come to the aid of any member who is attacked. But to survive as a small and vulnerable state, you must also believe that a crisis will come where you will again be on your own fighting the Russians, and you have to be prepared for that.

This duality – stand together, but be ready to fight alone – is driving a shift in U.S. force posture in the region, and it has helped inform a new model for our engagement in frontline states: Defense must be alliance-driven, but it must also be almost hyper-local.

The idea that Estonia – whose entire population isn’t much bigger than Russia’s standing army, and which has little on its own in the way of air power and armor – could withstand a Russian assault might seem like a silly discussion from the far side of the Atlantic. But Estonia has resources that are as much in demand in the alliance as TOW missiles and tanks: will and a mobilized population. In a country of just over 1.3 million, fully 60,000 are trained and serve in the military or reserves. The importance of this human element cannot be dismissed: Estonians still have vivid memories of the price of occupation, and this perspective sharpens strategic planning in unexpected ways.

This is in no small part why U.S. Special Forces have committed new resources to the Baltics, including Estonia: to learn from local experience, and to challenge America’s thinking about Russia and what the U.S. can do to build a new kind of deterrence against hybrid threats.


On a recent rainy afternoon in Tallinn, in the shadow of Estonia’s Freedom Cross, I met Colonel Riho Uhtegi, commander of the Estonian Special Operations Force (ESTSOF), to discuss the Russian threat and the new deterrence.

“People talk about this ‘Five Days War’ in Georgia” said Uhtegi, staring out into the rain. “But it wasn’t five days. The hybrid campaign started much earlier. No one wanted to see it.”

Uhtegi has an unconventional background. He doesn’t have a traditional military pedigree, and his biography — including stints as an outlaw, in underground resistance and in military intelligence and counter-intelligence — reads like the plot of a series of a Soviet spy novel. He tells a particularly good anecdote about getting the last of the Russian tanks out of Estonia in 1994 — a process that all Estonians would very much like to avoid repeating.

Which is why, almost three decades after he helped form the first irregular units of what would become the Estonian Defense League (Kaitseliit, in Estonian) to begin preparing for soon-to-be re-independent Estonia’s territorial defense, Uhtegi is still working to ensure that there’s enough unconventional thinking in how Estonia prepares to fight what are likely to be irregular, hybrid conflicts.

“Modern warfare is asymmetric in nature,” Uhtegi told me. “It is difficult to find the enemy forces on the ground. It is difficult to identify them, fix their position and destroy them. But this is what we must prepare for here. Like Afghanistan, Iraq — but here.”


Like almost all Estonians of his generation, what drives Uhtegi is intensely personal, and tends to be tied up in the history of his country.

“We all had one grandparent that remembered independence,” said Uhtegi, speaking of growing up during the Soviet occupation, “and they filled our heads with stories of it.” He shifts his very blue Estonian gaze back from the distance. Unspoken is all the other grandparents — the ones who were executed by the Russians or died somewhere in a gulag. Wartime casualties aside, more than 10 percent of Estonia’s population was deported before Stalin’s death in 1953.

“In the late 1980s, after my Soviet military service,” Uhtegi said, “we were on this expedition, and came to a remote village on the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border. And …read more

Read more here: ‘They Will Die in Tallinn’: Estonia Girds for War With Russia

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