Key point: Washington is hoping that armed and trained civilians could spot and help stop a Russian invasion before it seized territory. Ever since Russia attacked Ukraine, American soldiers have been training NATO allies on how to counter such a surprise and unofficial attack.
U.S. Army soldiers have been training militia troops from the Baltic states in order to help them resist Russian occupation in the event Russia makes a land-grab west of its current border.
Special Forces from the active Army as well as from the West Virginia National Guard recently completed the first “irregular and unconventional warfare training iteration” for the Polish Territorial Defense Forces and the Latvian Zemmessardze.
The training was part of the Ridge Runner program in West Virginia, Army officials told Army Times reporter Kyle Rempfer.
Mountainous West Virginia “is the perfect venue for our highly-trained Special Forces to help these two nations' military forces develop the skills vital to their mission at home, which is extraordinarily important in this era of geo-political uncertainty,” U.S. Army major general James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, said in a statement.
“This summer, [troops from] Latvia and Poland traveled to West Virginia for the program,” Rempfer wrote. “Both nations have newly invigorated homeland defense forces capable of pushing back against an invading force and opposing a potential occupation.”
The units are trained to provide response during the early stages of a hybrid conflict. Their tasks could include slowing the advancing units of an aggressor nation by destroying key transportation infrastructure such as bridges, attacking enemy forces at choke-points and potentially serving as forward observers for NATO aircraft responding with air strikes.
Polish Territorial Defense Forces, for instance, typically have a role similar to that of the U.S. National Guard, supporting local communities and acting as a reserve base for conventional forces.
Militia operations could turn the table on Russia’s own strategy for influencing and even annexing countries along its periphery. The Kremlin often deploys anonymous special forces -- Pres. Vladimir Putin’s “little green men” -- in advance of a conventional attack.
Little green men occupied key sites and sowed confusion in the days preceding Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula.
A report that California think-tank RAND published in April 2019 calls for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in particular to develop militia "resistance" cells.
Their capabilities “would range from cyber to drones to long-range mobile communications and non-lethal weapons as well as small arms, explosives, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons,” wire-service AFP explained, citing the report.
“The idea proposed by the report's authors would be to organize each Baltic country's defenses around four levels of resistance,” AFP reported.
"Violent" units made up of special forces, reservists and undefeated combat units would be charged with carrying out ambushes or freeing prisoners, under the scheme outlined in the report.
Less heavily-equipped units composed of police or amateur sharpshooters would be in charge of sabotage operations.
Civilians would be looked to for intelligence support, to care for the wounded and feed combatants.
The report recommends supplying the Baltic states with night-vision goggles, portable computers, cameras and all-terrain vehicles as part of a program estimated to cost an initial $125 million.
"Total defense and unconventional warfare capabilities can complement the existing conventional defense efforts of the Baltic states and NATO," said Stephen Flanagan, the report's lead author. The cells could buy time for NATO reinforcements to mobilize.
But NATO is at a major disadvantage along its eastern frontier. Russia keeps around 760 tanks in units within quick striking distance of NATO's Baltic members. NATO countries together keep around 130 tanks in the same region -- and around 90 of those are American M-1s on temporary rotation.
In 2016 RAND war-gamed a Russian invasion of the Baltics. In RAND's scenario, the Russian forces quickly overrun lightly-armed NATO forces. The Western alliance quickly deploys helicopters and air-mobile troops to confront the Russian advance. But NATO tanks are too slow to arrive.
"What cannot get there in time are the kinds of armored forces required to engage their Russian counterparts on equal terms, delay their advance, expose them to more-frequent and more-effective attacks from air- and land-based fires and subject them to spoiling counterattacks," RAND explained.