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. 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.
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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 trans-Atlantic 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 underlying the mind-set 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 front-line states: Defense must be alliance-driven, but it must also be almost hyperlocal.
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, 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 counterintelligence—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 the fate of 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 the people in this remote place had heard of our demonstrations for independence and thought of Estonia as a symbol of freedom. I was really surprised. I had been to these protests, because it was something to do. We all went. But now I understood that it meant something to people.
“When I got back, I had this dream. There was a battle, just next to my hometown. Us against the Russians. And we were badly organized, of course. There were trenches, built between the hills near Elva. All my friends were there. The Russians were coming from the south, from Valge.
“Most of us died. And I smelled the blood and the ammunition so clearly. I picked up a Kalashnikov from a dead Russian soldier and I shot at them. And then we ran and hid in the woods. We were being hunted. At first we had a squad. And then only a few guys. And then I was alone, and I was running. And I understood then where I was running. To the sea.” In Soviet times, Estonia’s coasts were heavily controlled, as those who found their way to a rowboat tended to drift away to Finland and Sweden.
“When I got there, it was evening, and the sun was down, and the sea was already still and flat. And I saw mirrored on the water a white ship.” (In Estonia, white ships are symbols of hope, release, and freedom—during the occupation, a symbol that the West had finally come to rescue Estonia.) “I was already in the water, up to my waist. And I stood there, with this empty Kalashnikov in my hand. Behind me, I could hear the dogs in woods, and the shouting in Russian. They were coming.
“I was ready to go to the ship. I was in the water. But I stopped, and I thought. Home is here. I have to stay. No matter what happens. This is where I belong.”
“When I woke up, I was so much under the influence of this dream. I could still smell it and see it. And I was so happy to see my dead friends alive. … This was a turning point. I saw what I needed to do. I needed to build the freedom of the homeland. So I went and found a way to fight again.” Shortly after this, Uhtegi and a few others organized the first irregular units of the Kaitseliit.
Uhtegi seemed vaguely embarrassed to have told this whole story, but every word stuck with me because he is not the only Estonian who has told me a story about dreams that have focused them on what they need to do. The defense of this place is a visceral, sacred duty—especially for the men from the generation of independence.
This, Uhtegi argues, is what is typically missed in the reports about how vulnerable the Baltics are to a potential Russian incursion.
“You know why the Russians didn’t take Tbilisi in 2008?” Uhtegi asked me. “They were just up the road, 50 kilometers or so, and nothing was stopping them.”
Having spent many years in Georgia, I knew the answer to this one: because Georgians are crazy. Uhtegi barked a laugh. “Yes. Exactly. Georgians are crazy, and they would fight. The idea of this unwinnable asymmetric fight in Tbilisi was not so appealing to the Russians.”
He continued: “There are always these discussions. Like, yeah. The Russians can get to Tallinn in two days. … Maybe. [The Estonian capital is about 125 miles from the Russian border.] But they can’t get all of Estonia in two days. They can get to Tallinn, and behind them, we will cut their communication lines and supplies lines and everything else.” That dead-eyed Baltic stare fixes me again. “They can get to Tallinn in two days. But they will die in Tallinn. And they know this. … They will get fire from every corner, at every step.”
Indeed, Estonia’s defense doctrine calls for fighting back in the event of an invasion. In a previous conversation about General Aleksandr Einseln—an Estonian who fled the occupation and served 35 years in the U.S. Army before being recruited to be Estonia’s first post-independence chief of defense—we discussed Einseln’s General Order No.1, which states that, in the event of any future invasion of Estonia, the defense forces are to “provide active resistance to the aggressor” without needing additional orders until told to stop by the elected president.
“He ordered every officer to start immediate resistance if the Russian army should cross the Estonian border. None of the following commanders of the Estonian Defense Force has dared to annul it.” Uhtegi believes this has been foundational for the new generation of officers.
The threat of invasion may seem far less existential from the American heartland, where no one has ever listened to the commander of an elite fighting force talk about his family’s plan in case crisis comes. Everyone, Uhtegi said, had such a program for their families during the occupation—and they still do now. Essential to this is an understanding of who fights, and providing those fighters the sense of certainty that their families know what to do to find relative safety without them.
“We didn’t believe anyone was coming to help us in 1991,” Uhtegi said. “Even after independence, no one would even sell weapons to Estonia at first. So, I knew who in my units had every gun, and how many rounds of ammunition each man had. … We had to hope for a peaceful transition. … But you can only do that with a willingness to fight.”
This last part remains a quiet debate across the allies of NATO—whether the willingness and readiness to fight NATO’s eastern neighbor can deter Russian adventurism, or whether this preparation is a “provocation” to which the paranoid Kremlin will inevitably overreact. In Estonia, however, there is reasonable clarity that anytime national defensive positions are compromised for the sake of placating Russia, we’ve already gotten it wrong.
The Defense League has become the framework for the evolving national concept of Einseln’s “active resistance.” The Kaitseliit was launched before Estonia declared its independence from the USSR, operating at first as a semi-underground organization. Old weapons were handed down from former Forest Brothers—the mythic resistance fighters who opposed the Soviet occupation for decades. As Uhtegi told me a story about retrofitting a Forest Brother machine gun to fire some sort of pistol ammunition that was lying around, I had a vision of him being perfectly happy in the mountains of Idaho leading a local militia. In some respects, it is the same mentality that built and fuels the Kaitseliit.
After Estonia formed a new government and began to organize a national army, there was talk of disbanding the Defense League. But, Uhtegi said: “The Kaitseliit came from the people. The people wanted it. They still do [and] this is why we need to complete its transformation back to where it came from.” For Uhtegi, this means a volunteer-based, essentially guerrilla organization that is highly local and that has the wide range of skills needed to identify and defend against hybrid attacks.
In Uhtegi’s eyes, the new Estonia has already been fighting a conflict with Russia. “All conflicts between Estonia and Russia have been hybrid conflicts—1924 was the same as 2014.” In 1924, an earlier version of the “green men” who seized Crimea in 2014 infiltrated then-independent Estonia from the Soviet Union, attempting a coup to replace the democratic government with a communist regime. Their efforts were thwarted by a series of fortunate events and improbable stories that center around what is now the Telegraf Hotel in Tallinn. The 1924 coup attempt is a story you are unlikely to have heard if you haven’t spent a long time in Tallinn—but it’s one that I frequently relate to visitors to make the point that there’s very little new about the Kremlin playbook. We just mostly choose to forget the lessons people like Uhtegi have learned over and over again.
Defending against hybrid warfare misses requires building human-led deterrence—deterrence that relies on the population having knowledge, capability and will, and knowing exactly what to do in different situations. In Estonia, there are three essential elements in this fabric of resilience: the Kaitseliit, the Estonian Special Operations Force and the civilian population.
“The Kaitseliit was established against hybrid threats—against internal threats,” Uhtegi said. (America’s Baltic allies spend far less time denying that the Kremlin is quite comfortable manipulating their citizens’ views and internal social dynamics through whatever means available.) Uhtegi believes the scrappy initiative of the Kaitseliit in the early days, which necessitated innovation and planning, must be fully restored. This process has begun under the current Kaitseliit commander. “Territorial defense is very local. It has to be their responsibility. This village. This town. This bridge. This river. This piece of land. It’s theirs to defend … They must know their terrain and how to use it.” The Kaitseliit is the framework that knows the local landscape—and into which other trained men and women can immediately integrate in times of crisis.
Estonia’s Special Forces, which Uhtegi says shares the values of elite American units like the Green Berets, have a unique mission under the regular Defense Forces: direct action, special reconnaissance, and military assistance. (The Estonian Special Operations Force’s American counterparts view their partner force as a highly skilled counterpart, I’m told.) “But we are also the force-multiplier,” Uhtegi said. “We are, during peacetime, able to build national total resistance against whatever enemy.”
But Uhtegi believes deterring Russia requires every Estonian’s participation—not just the military. “The bad thing is the panic. We try to explain to people: Resistance in times of war starts today. It starts with resilience. We must be ready for everything and teach people what to do if something happens.”
Civilians’ role in deterrence has three components: prepare, survive, resist. Prepare, because you must do what you can now to understand what could be required from you if there is a crisis. Survive, because survival is not just a military concept, but for everyone: What do you in a war to make better survival decisions? Resist, because you must understand how to continue fighting when you aren’t sure whether anyone else is coming, or how long it will take.
In these aspects, Uhtegi says, deterrence is more critical as a civilian concept than as a military one. And this approach of human-led deterrence is taking root across the region, reinforced by views in the Pentagon about the best defense scenarios for the region in case of a serious Russian attack. The scenarios of our military exercises expose what the Pentagon planners accept as a given: If Russia comes, the question will be how to take the Baltics back, not how to keep it. Uhtegi knows this as well as any Estonian.
“This has always been the fight for hearts and minds,” Uhtegi said. “Those who believe are the most valuable.” So Estonia is working to build a new generation of believers.
The Kremlin invaded Georgia to prevent its accession to NATO. Russia used different means to accomplish the same goal with Ukraine, and then attempted to assassinate the prime minister of Montenegro in a last-ditch effort to forestall the same—all of which expose the Kremlin’s deep paranoia about its former vassals defending themselves from Russian belligerence.
The Baltics, though, were part of the group that “got away” when Russia was weakened and stumbling. This was in no small part because the Balts remained laser-focused on ensuring their escape from the Iron Curtain was permanent. And they see better than most that we are all locked in a deadly dance with Putin’s growing and irrational insecurity—between the knowledge that even a small Kremlin miscalculation involving a NATO ally could lead to total war, and the vital need to build capabilities that deter even the possibility that this miscalculation can occur.
Trump’s focus on defense spending misses that some allies like Estonia not only meet spending commitments but also shoulder a disproportionate amount of the ideological burden of NATO—the willingness to fight.
“I don’t know what it would be like if the Russians really start to fight,” Uhtegi told me as we walked out into the clearing skies, the Freedom Cross now glowing above the square. “Just that every Estonian will fight.”