Addressing the delegates assembled at TechNet Europe 2016 on board the SS ROTTERDAM this morning, Lt.-Gen. Riho Terras, Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, warned the audience that, “Russia is the principal challenge. This is not a weather front approaching from the east that may blow over. It is fundamental climate change. Make no mistake, Russia is preparing for war.”
It is rare for so senior an officer to be so brutally frank in public. It should also be noted that the General stressed his views were his own and not a statement of national policy. Nonetheless it is an infrequent experience to hear so starkly articulated an impression of the current state of European geopolitics. And it it makes a somewhat deeper impression for that.
Couching his remarks under the headline ‘A View from the Alliance’s eastern flank,’ General Terras commented that events in Ukraine in particular have helped to change NATO’s and the EU’s views – but that there is still some mileage to be made up for. “Nobody believed that events in Georgia or Ukraine would develop as they did – but they did. Was it a wake-up call? Yes – but the wake-up call was snoozed. Russia is using our weaknesses against us very cleverly and we need to deal with that – not by confronting them but by finding solutions,” he said.
Estonia’s proximity to Russia and its history make the General’s views perhaps inevitable. But that does not make them any less valid. Russian forces in the western military districts have trebled in size and structures have reverted to the Cold War formations of divisions and regiments, rather than a more flexible brigade structure as has been the case recently. Russian nuclear forces have gone to a high state of alert several times in 2016 already – not counting those occasions on which they have been participating in exercises. Russian concepts of operations currently focus on the use of tactical nuclear strike as a method of de-escalation, since, “they are convinced NATO will not respond in like manner,” the General said.
He recognises that the maintenance of a dialogue with Russia is essential, but points out that, “a dialogue needs two ends, and at the moment they are not talking [openly] to us…..We need to invest in our early warning in order to get inside the Russian decision cycle – and there we have the challenge that they have only one head in the cycle – NATO has 28, soon to be 29.”
Bringing his address to a close in dealing with cyber warfare, General Terras’ remarks ran somewhat counter to the tenor of other speakers at the conference. “Cyber is not unique or special – it is just another aspect of the multi-dimensional warfare spectrum that we now face,” he said. Without belittling its importance, he believes cyber defence is an integral part of a wider strategy needed to counter the principal direct threat his nation faces. “The Russians understand heavy metal above all else,” he stated, referring to the deterrent effect of well-founded and well prepared conventional forces centred on heavy armour capability.
Well-articulated and passionately delivered, General Terras’ point of view deserves a much wider hearing than the small, albeit highly focused and high powered audience in Rotterdam. They bring harsh illumination to bear on an issue that many have discussed – and ignored as being too difficult of resolution. Perhaps it is time for that snooze button to be disengaged!