NATO Troop Boost Too Small to Stoke Russian Fears, Estonia Says

  • Intelligence head says allied brigades won't worsen standoff
  • Official says `migration weapon' is a reality in Baltic nation

Planned increases in NATO troops in the Baltic region are too small to worsen the alliance’s confrontation with Russia, the head of Estonia’s foreign intelligence service said.

A Russian military operation against Estonia is “very unlikely” because the Baltic country’s former Soviet master would face “a massive counter-strike” by NATO, Mikk Marran, director general of Estonia’s Information Board, said in an interview. While a Russian attack stemming from “miscalculation and distorted threat perceptions” can’t be ruled out, allied troop increases won’t raise such risks, he said.

“Russia’s military planners are well aware that even a brigade-sized allied unit in every Baltic country would be insufficient for any attack against Russia,” Marran said March 17 in his office in Tallinn, the capital. “At the same time, it’s clear that on the political level, they’ll over-dramatize the expansion of the NATO contingent in the region.”

The three Baltic nations, staunch supporters of U.S.-led sanctions against Russia over President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, are ramping up defense spending and plan to seek further increases in NATO troop rotations at the alliance’s July summit in Warsaw. While NATO has reduced the number of planes patrolling the region, home to large Russian-speaking minorities, the U.S. and others plan to bolster temporary forces there.

Russian Battalions

Russia could field about 30 battalion tactical groups, equivalent to 10 brigades, in its Western Military District, adjacent to the Baltic region, Marran’s agency said in its first public risk assessment, released last week. NATO would need seven brigades in the Baltics to prevent their “rapid overrun,” according to a January study by the RAND Corp.

While Russia can mount Baltic operations “at few hours’ notice,” forces in its Western Military District may not be enough to seize a chunk of territory, even if they strike first with “precision weapons,” Marran said. “A bigger conflict would be preceded by an escalation period, it would definitely not happen in hours or days,” he said.

Refugees are another lever of pressure that Russia can apply on its European neighbors, according to Marran. Estonia’s authorities “have plans” to deal with increased numbers of migrants from places such as southeast Asia who arrive via Russia, he said.

‘Migration Weapon’

Estonia has largely avoided the migrant numbers seen in nearby Finland and Norway, which fell out with Russia in January after seeking to return almost 2,000 ineligible refugees. There are lessons to be drawn from Finland, where refugee flows from Russia ceased “instantly” after the two nations’ intelligence heads met this year, Marran said.

“It is very likely that the increased flows of the Vietnamese and other third-country nationalities to Estonian borders aren’t happening without the knowledge of the Federal Security Service and the Russian leadership,” Marran said. “The migration weapon is a weapon that really does exist.”

Putin in February called on Russian secret services to tighten control over migrants heading to Europe through Russia, while dismissing criticism that airstrikes in Syria were responsible for increased refugee flows.

Estonian politicians have said the European Union’s deal with Turkey to stop refugee flows through the continent’s south may pressure Estonian borders as Putin is interested in “destabilizing Europe.” The Baltic nation of 1.3 million people will upgrade infrastructure on its border with Russia by 2019, including a 90-kilometer (56-mile) fence, Interior Minister Hanno Pevkur said last week.

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