The UK is to dispatch an armoured infantry battalion to serve alongside other NATO troops and assets deployed to demonstrate to Mr Putin that Estonia is a full NATO member and that the other NATO states take their obligations seriously.
Presumably, the hope is that Putin will realise that NATO is serious and will desist from threatening the Baltic states. Maybe.
While it is the case that had NATO done nothing tangible Putin would doubt NATO’s resolve, and therefore NATO had to do something, it is not necessarily the case that this is the right something, or that it will, of itself, deter Vlad. I hope that someone has been thinking this through (and done a better job of it than they did in Iraq and Afghanistan).
Firstly, Estonia, at the north eastern tip of NATO, is a tough place to defend. Even if Sweden agreed to interpret its historic neutrality in a way that allowed NATO overflight but not Russian ones, it is a pain to get to by air. And by sea it is even worse. The Baltic is a challenging environment for naval operations as it is shallow and close to land. There is little room for oceanic Navies (like the British, American and French ones) to manoeuvre and hide – which makes them appallingly vulnerable to air- and land-based missile attack. It is tough for submarines too. And sea is important because heavy stuff moves by sea. To make matters worse, the Russian Navy has a base on the entrance to the Baltic at Kaliningrad. Anyone sailing to Estonia has to pass it.
The second point is that one battlegroup is not actually much of a force. The Russians could, should they chose, deploy overwhelming strength to defeat all the armed forces in Estonia, including all the NATO ones. In that scenario the NATO troops are little more than a tripwire. Once they have been destroyed and Estonia is occupied, what does NATO do? Sailing an invasion fleet up the Baltic is not viable. Advancing out of Poland is, as both Hitler and Napoleon demonstrated, risky at best. That really only leaves punitive air raids, perhaps on Russian territory as well. Russia could, reasonably, cite that as an act of war, and then we get into the nuclear scenarios and mutually assured destruction.
Revision time! MAD (mutually assured destruction) meant that if any nuclear power launched a nuclear strike it could be confident of only one thing, which is that an equally destructive strike could be launched against it. The development of the submarine-launched ballistic missiles (like today’s Trident) means there is scant hope of being able to avoid this. At the beginning of the Cold War, when the West had exclusive access to nuclear weaponry, the defence of NATO was essentially a tripwire. Soviet tanks driving west would result in nuclear warheads heading east.
As the Soviet Union developed a nuclear capability this became less credible, as did using tactical nuclear weapons to stop westbound Russian tanks. The concept of flexible response was developed and NATO forces on the German frontiers were equipped and trained to a standard that (arguably) made it unlikely that any Soviet attack could succeed without the use of nuclear weapons, which meant that no rational Soviet would attack. Net result: a conventional arms race that broke the Soviet economy.
But NATO, in its wisdom, is now on a tripwire scenario. Are we going to release nuclear weapons to defend Estonia? Or to avenge (or prevent) the destruction of a British battalion, or a NATO brigade? What about if Vlad’s tanks did the clever thing and just drove past NATO tanks without engaging them. Would we shoot first – and if we did would the rest of NATO? Remember Gorazde and Srebrenica in Bosnia – a British battalion interpreted their rules of engagement aggressively and fought off Serbs, saving the people of Gorazde. Up the road, another battalion from another NATO country was less aggressive and the massacre happened.
So, if we want to deter Vlad we need to deploy sufficient forces to persuade him that any attempted invasion is likely to fail militarily. That needs more armed forces, and good ones. While I am confident that the British Army remains excellent man for man, and that its kit is adequate if better, I am not persuaded that it is either large enough or well enough exercised. In other words, the defence budget is woefully inadequate.
If we want to confront Putin militarily we are going to have to spend more on defence. I am not talking about the two per cent rise agreed as a NATO target, I am talking about increasing manpower by 20 per cent or more. Or we need to drop the pretence that we have credible military power.