NATO must send more troops to Baltic countries for “quite some time” to counter increased threats from Russia, according to Estonia’s defense minister.
“I believe the change in the security environment is for the long haul,” Sven Mikser said. “We’re going to stay with aggressive expansionist administration in power in Moscow for quite some time and that means allies need to be here as long as the Kremlin regime remains aggressive and expansionist.”
In an interview Wednesday in Tallinn, the capital, Mikser, 41, said NATO wouldn’t have a “substantial combat force” presence in the Baltic countries “any time soon.” It has no plans for a regional “arms race” with Russia or “Cold War-style” bases, he said.
Estonia, along with Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, has seen a surge in Russian military activity since the Ukraine conflict jolted European security. The nations, concerned their Russian-speaking minorities make them a target for President Vladimir Putin, want NATO to provide more than the increased air patrols and rotating U.S. troop presence secured last year.
Estonia “isn’t just expecting but also making preparations” for NATO allies to deploy a battalion-size unit, while Germany has pledged to send a company-size infantry unit to Estonia next year, Prime Minister Taavi Roivas told a news conference in Tallinn on Thursday. A battalion usually consists of 300-800 troops, while company has as many as 250 troops.
Limits contained within the NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed in 1997, wouldn’t hinder expanded deployments because Putin has already violated the document’s terms, according to Mikser. Responding to reports the three countries want a permanent NATO presence, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this month that Baltic deployments have already risen.
NATO allies have already responded to a “half” of Baltic requests, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, told reporters in Brussels on Thursday.
“There are some new ones on there which we’ll have to take under advisement,” Breedlove said. “We’ll go back to our staffs and look at the feasibility of those requests and pass those up through the leadership.”
Estonia is closely watching the establishment of new Russian bases across the two nations’ border, as well as troop movements, some of which have taken place under the cover of snap exercises, Mikser said. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s response time has been reduced “virtually to zero,” according to Mikser.
To enhance its capabilities, Estonia will determine new military procurements by the end of 2016, with options including mid-range air-defense systems and tanks, Mikser said. It conducted record military drills this month, with more than 13,000 people taking part, including forces from NATO partners the U.S., Britain , Germany and Poland.
“NATO is dealing with reassuring the people in the borderline countries but also deterring whatever aggressive intention Putin might have,” he said. “Strength is the one language Putin understands.”