The Buzz

A Large Military Exercise Just Started in the Baltics. Here Is Why It Matters.

On May 2, 2018, Estonia began the largest exercise in its history since regaining independence in 1991. The exercise is called Siil 2018 (“hedgehog” in Estonian), will last until May 14, and features 15,000 servicemen including 2,000 foreigners from ten NATO countries (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States) and five non-NATO countries (Finland, Georgia, Ireland, Sweden and Ukraine).

The northernmost of the Baltic States, Estonia has been under pressure to increase its defense spending since the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, owing to its proximity and tumultuous history with Russia. Tallinn has increased the country’s defense spending to record levels, meeting NATO’s 2 percent requirement and making little Estonia one of only six alliance members to reach that goal. Estonia has increased the readiness of its reserves with regular exercises, a task other NATO members on the eastern flank are only starting to tackle. On March 1, 2018, Estonia’s Chief of Staff, Brig. Gen. Martin Herem declared that Estonia can “can’t be occupied within days,” throwing the gauntlet down for any hypothetical Russian aggression.

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Understandably, the Russian press has taken interest in Siil 2018, running the headline “largest military exercise frequently. For a country of fewer than 1.5 million people, these statistics and headlines are indeed impressive. Some Russian commentators have discussed the possibility that the Baltic States are preparing their own aggression against Russia, either literally or by simply conducting these exercises in regions with Russian-speaking populations.

However, how does a 15,000-strong exercise stack up against Russian military exercises? It should be noted that most of the 13,000 Estonians participating in Siil 2018 come from the Estonian reserves (Kaitseliit). Russia, by contrast, has a rather dysfunctional reservist recall system only just beginning to rectify its problems. Even Belarus has a better reservist training and reintegration system than Russia.

However, Russia today retains a juggernaut of a regular force with a variety of supporting services technically not considered part of the “armed forces.” One of those services, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, hosted a massive 112,000-man exercise across Russia just two weeks ago. Including the ancillary government personnel involved, its total number of participant was greater than 640,000. However, this was an exercise designed to respond to large-scale natural disasters like floods and wildfires, not military operations (though these forces would certainly be providing support to Russian infrastructure and stricken population centers during a war).