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Who in the Baltics hogs the blanket?

15.05.2013 10:16

Viktor Koltsov

There is a stereotyped view of the indissoluble defence trinity of the Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All the three countries are members of NATO; the armed forces of the three former Soviet republics regularly participate in joint exercises, exchange experience; the military-political leadership of the countries makes mutual visits, and all this is "peppered" with big words about protection of the Baltic sovereign nations from aggression of the eastern neighbor.

Is there really much of mutual understanding between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (exactly in that order - author's note)?

In mid-October 2012 on the other side of the Baltic Sea ? in Sweden ? a report was made public, "Security and defense of the Baltic States" prepared by a group of experts commissioned by the Swedish Ministry of Defence. The report concluded that, of the three Baltic States, only Estonia to a certain extent can be considered capable of defence.

Of course, the report was strongly welcomed by Latvia and Lithuania, but in Estonia the press, certainly, complacently accepted these points thereof. Moreover, Tallinn was so encouraged by the positive assessment of Swedish experts that did not make no scruples to call the Latvian army "waste of space".

For the sake of truth it should be noted that the impressive report of the Ministry of Defence of Sweden has not only an analysis of the Baltic republics' defense ? it has a lot of information up to the evaluation of the Russian military reform and the prospects for NATO in case of "possible aggression from the East". It is clear that the Baltic republics are unable to independently fight on equal terms with Russia and are directly dependent on the support of the alliance, but here, according to the document compilers, there are significant differences among them.

Estonia has most efficient army. Its armed forces number 5,500 and in the event of mobilization they can be increased by another 30,000 people, which allows to fully equip one infantry brigade, four separate battalions and four defensive areas.

In addition, there are 12,000 people in the Estonian Defence League ? a volunteer paramilitary group, which also reports to the Ministry of Defence. The Estonian army has in arsenal about 100 armoured personnel vehicles, 100 artillery pieces, 230 mortars, some antitank guided missiles and air-defense missile complexes. The Air Force consists of two air carriers and four helicopters, and the marine forces have boats and four minesweepers.

In general, the report says, the Estonian army is the power able to contribute to stability in the region, and any alleged aggressor, who decides to occupy the republic aggressively, will encounter serious resistance.

Against the background of these characteristics flattering for Estonians, the situation in Latvia is pitiable. The Latvian Armed Forces of Latvia consist of about 5,000 servicemen and 10,000 reservists. The army is reduced to two "not the most combat-ready" infantry battalions and a Home Guard battalion ? a volunteer paramilitary group, part of the Ministry of Defence. At the same time the existing operation headquarters in the country consist solely of administrative staff.

In the case of a general mobilization, Latvia will receive 14 more poorly armed infantry battalions, one artillery battalion, one air defense battalion and several auxiliary units. A shared problem in the army is the lack of heavy armament - in particular, it does not have any armored carriers or any other armored vehicles, and there is no short and medium range antiaircraft defense.

According to the Estonian Postimees newspaper, Estonia's and Latvia's defence forces started twenty years ago from the same line, have now found themselves in a diametrically opposite position. Latvia's defence forces are absolutely not prepared to fight. They can neither defend their country, nor cooperate at the international level. The southern border of Estonia is defenseless, and " in terms of security Latvia is a waste of space", says the analyst of the International Centre for Defence Studies Kaarel Kaas. According to him, "in the case of war Latvia's army will be able somewhere in the rear somewhere to guard sacks of flour and bridges, but for military actions it is not suitable."

As concerns, for example, the Latvian volunteer corps, then, in opinion of Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Leo Kunnas, the declared in Home Guard 10,000 people "exist only on paper".

The former Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces General Ants Laaneots said that the army financing sum-total and in terms of percentage of GDP, both in Lithuania and Latvia is much lower than in Estonia. Thus, in 2011, defence expenditure in Lithuania amounted to 0.91% of GDP, in Latvia - 1.05% of GDP, while Estonia spent on its soldiers 1.73% of GDP. "In addition, in 2012, these costs were increased to 2%," said Laaneots. According to him, Latvia and Lithuania filled with big ambitions after joining NATO, switched to the model of a professional army before time. This resulted in a situation where Latvia spends 59% of the army budget on salaries for 4.6 million of its servicemen, and in Lithuania 10.6 thousand servicemen "eat up" 67% of its defense budget. Of course, in such a situation the modernization or purchase of new equipment and weapons is out of the question.

"If we add personnel costs to the cost of participation in the mission in Afghanistan, neither Latvia nor Lithuania, in fact, have no money left for the development of the army," said General. As for Estonia, whose army consists mostly of recruits, here staff costs do not exceed 34.5% of the total military budget.

Interestingly, Latvia chose to answer the criticism coming from the Estonian press, and not to the report published by the Swedes. According to Latvian Defence Minister Artis Pabriks, an article in Rostimees is tendentious, it "strains the atmosphere and destroys the unity of the Baltic States" but the Latvian side did not find many counterarguments.

Thus, Parliamentary secretary at Latvian Ministry of Defense Veiko Spol?tis probably wanting to rehabilitate Latvian soldiers in the eyes of the public, remembered that a few years ago, the armed forces of Estonia borrowed from Latvia for training a T-55 tank, decommissioned as not corresponding to NATO standards.

Among other differences among the Baltic States, there is a separate issue of cooperation with NATO. Recall that the NATO air policing mission in the Baltic States began in 2004, immediately after their entry into the alliance, and to date, the alliance aircraft are based in Lithuania. Tallinn is trying to negotiate with Vilnius to transfer the air base of the coalition forces near Lithuanian Siauliai (here is the Soviet era's largest military airfield) to Estonia to the reconstructed airfield in Amari. In 2012, this struggle with Lithuania for the right of the alliance air-policing aircraft presence on the territory of Estonia was particularly significant ? each of the three countries (including Latvia that technically has no such possibility) is willing to have patrol aircraft based on its territory.

In general, a lot of facts show that the leadership of the Baltic countries are more inclined to "hogging the blanket" rather than to a full-fledged military cooperation. This may be due to the gap between the readiness of the three armies of neighboring states. However, many analysts incline to consider such (and usually reciprocal) attacks part of the political struggle that Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are carried out for prestige on the European arena.