It’s no secret that Eastern European countries worry about Russia’s intentions. They have good reason to. Between cyber and physical attacks, Russia’s activities in its former sphere of influence aren’t exactly an extension of the hand of friendship. Add to that a little bit of uncertainty about the United States’ dedication level to its NATO allies, and you have some valid concerns building up. These countries remember what it was like to be in Russia’s orbit, and they have no intention of ending up there again.
The New York Times ran an article in early November that profiled an aspect of Estonia’s response to this uncertainty – they are openly preparing for a guerilla war. The Estonian Defense League, a sanctioned paramilitary organization, trains and drills civilian volunteers to prepare them for guerilla operations. The Times profiled the “Jarva District Patrol Competition, a 24-hour test of the skills useful for partisans, or insurgents, to fight an occupying army, and an improbably popular form of what is called ‘military sport’ in Estonia. The competitions, held nearly every weekend, are called war games, but are not intended as fun. The Estonian Defense League, which organizes the events, requires its 25,400 volunteers to turn out occasionally for weekend training sessions that have taken on a serious hue since Russia’s incursions in Ukraine two years ago raised fears of a similar thrust by Moscow into the Baltic States…
…Since the Ukraine war, Estonia has stepped up training for members of the Estonian Defense League, teaching them how to become insurgents, right down to the making of improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, the weapons that plagued the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another response to tensions with Russia is the expansion of a program encouraging Estonians to keep firearms in their homes.”
Essentially, the Estonians are acknowledging that their 6,000 member army isn’t going to be capable of stopping the Russians (or whoever else may be a threat), but they plan to make any invaders pay dearly and thereby make the idea of an invasion unpalatable. Lest we consider this strategy to be foolhardy, keep in mind that it is essentially the Swiss defense strategy. So let’s take a look at the two:
There are significant differences in how the Swiss would execute their strategy versus the Estonians. As far as manpower is concerned, the Swiss have compulsory service in the armed forces for all males. This produces an entire populace that is well-acquainted with conventional and mountain warfare. The Swiss have built their entire defensive strategy around being able to mobilize the population for a conventional war. They purchase equipment with enough parts to sustain it throughout its planned service life. They have agreements with major manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and foodstuffs that allows the government to maintain stockpiles, then return the goods to the manufacturer for sale after a set time. The government only pays for the goods if they use them, and the manufacturer still gets to sell the items and realize a profit. In case of invasion, the populace would report to conventional military units such as infantry, armor, and air; would blast bridges, tunnels, and factories into uselessness; and then would fight a conventional battle of attrition until the invader loses the will to fight.
An interesting development in the Swiss military system is the creation of private military associations that conduct voluntary training in between required military drills. Members pay a small fee that helps fund the association, and use their issued arms and equipment for the drills.
The Estonian population also has compulsory military service for males, with an active force of around 6,000. The objective of the Defense League is to train volunteers that are either not subject to compulsory service, or are past their service age, to conduct unconventional warfare and civil defense missions. Essentially, they function almost like a State Guard in the United States, but with a war-fighting capability. The current Estonian plan seems to assume that the invader will achieve conventional victory, but would then be forced to maintain an expensive occupation force that would sap its will to fight. To that end, “[t]he number of firearms, mostly Swedish-made AK-4 automatic rifles, that Estonia has dispersed among its populace is classified. But the league said it had stepped up the pace of the program since the Ukraine crisis began. Under the program, members must hide the weapons and ammunition, perhaps in a safe built into a wall or buried in the backyard.”
Unlike Switzerland (which is neutral), Estonia is a NATO member, and would be eligible under Article 5 to call for collective self-defense. What many people forget when they talk about Article 5’s collective defense, though, is that Article 3 specifically states that members “will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
We all hope that Estonia’s preparations won’t be necessary, and that the threat of NATO’s collective self-defense will maintain the border sanctity of the former Russian satellites. But hope is not a plan, and as long as the sabers keep getting rattled, the Estonians will prepare to make an occupation untenable.
About the author
Joel is a 12 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.