A Bold New Baltic Strategy for NATO

The security environment has changed, so should the methods of deterrence.

The key to this strategy is the small state developing and honing both the capabilities and mindsets for long-term resistance well in advance of a conflict. This requires the development of standing irregular forces that could be employed at short notice to bleed, delay and harass an occupying army. Such forces differ from regular military units in being smaller, more loosely organized and trained for insurgency warfighting. There is a long tradition of such forces in Europe’s eastern marches, ranging from the Habsburgs’ use of Pandurs and Grenzers to defeat the Turks, Polish employment of irregular cavalry to defeat the Soviets in the 1920s and Lithuanian partizanai sustaining the fight against the Soviets into the 1950s.

To varying degrees, all four U.S. allies in North Central Europe possess nascent paramilitary units and supporting cultures of national resistance upon which to build sophisticated insurgency strategies. Finland is the most advanced in its cultivation of irregular warfighting abilities as a component of deterrence. One of the reasons the Finnish model works so well is its professionalization. Finnish irregular units are organized by the state and receive instruction in advanced insurgency tactics. A balance is struck between instruction and retaining the panache and decentralization that constitute such forces’ main advantages in the field. They are equipped by the government and maintain a professionalized officer and NCO corps that can serve as the backbone for a larger force. By comparison, irregular units in other North Central European states remain embryonic, being either reserves to the national army (as in most of the Baltic states) or unintegrated with national defense structures (as in Poland, where the ministry of defense only recently recognized the 120-odd paramilitary units).

Another reason the Finnish model works well is its high readiness. As in Israel, members of the paramilitary and territorial forces keep their equipment at home for quick access in a crisis. Their government-provisioned weapons are pre-positioned at key points and strongholds across the country. Arsenals provide an infrastructure for wider national resistance in wartime, as successive generations accumulate military experience and theoretically would have ready recourse to cheap and abundant munitions for maintaining francs-tireurs over extended periods to impede an invading force. Given the often-cited centrality of logistics to war, the designation of substantial military resources with a supporting network of provision is crucial for signaling that a country’s commitment to resistance is rooted in a serious strategy and not just a matter for amateur weekend rifle clubs.

A third feature of Finland’s irregular fighting ability is its size. At 350,000 reservists (out of a population of five million), the country’s paramilitary and territorial troops comprise a large latent power of resistance. These forces are fed by universal male conscription and can draw upon the participation of the nation in wartime. The irregular forces of other North Central European states are small, ranging from 45,000 for Poland to a few thousand in each of the Baltic states. A national mindset of resistance is an integral component to deterrence by denial for small states. This requires not just the physical resources but the political commitment to cultivating a “nation-in-arms” mentality among the citizenry. Such an approach could be particularly effective in the Baltic states, where legacies of resistance remain strong at the popular level.

An especially important dimension of the “bitter pill” strategy is advertising it to a would-be attacker. The Finns find ways of communicating to Russia that they are able to make any war bitter and protracted. They do so through carefully placed newspaper articles and highly publicized acquisitions of advanced weapons for enhancing insurgency warfighting. For other North Central European states, expanding the ability to wage this kind of warfare and communicating that ability well in advance of a conflict should be important defense goals in coming years. Doing so would further the aim of deterrence by signaling that any gains of aggression will come at a steep price—a message that the Russian military, with its aversion to Chechnya- and Afghan-style conflicts is likely to note.


Costs of Denial

Incorporating a “quills and pills” approach into North Central European deterrence would not require the United States or its allies to divert significant attention away from more traditional strategic reassurance measures—or eventually, large and permanent NATO basing for the region. Nor would it prevent key states in the region—notably Poland—from also pursuing offensive-oriented approaches to national defense (for a skillful presentation of the case for allies possessing offensive capabilities, see Jakub Grygiel, "Why Frontline States Need Offensive Weapons," in Mitchell and Grygiel, eds., Frontline Allies). It would, however, require certain shifts in mindset for allies as well as the United States. For America, it would mean changing the way we think about the use of our own forces in North Central Europe. Unlike the “trip wires” used for deterrence by punishment, which are understood to have low survivability and simply trigger reprisal, the purpose of troops deployed for deterrence by denial is to live and penalize the attacker. Hence, more thought should be given to what kinds of U.S. forces are sent and, most importantly, how they are tactically integrated with local forces.