Why Bait the Bear?

A recent NATO summit in Warsaw agreed to deploy four multi-national battalions (from USA, UK, Germany and Canada) to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The British are to be in overall charge and the contingent is to consist of a 500-man infantry battalion to Estonia and 150 support troops to Poland. UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said

“It aims to deter Russia from any further aggression. Eastern NATO countries feel enormous pressure from Russia doing large exercises on the border, flying over their airspace and so on.”

If a prize were offered for military misjudgement, Fallon would be clear favourite to receive it. One of the consequences of the EU having given Europe a half century of peace—the longest it has ever known—seems to have warped our government’s sense of proportion, not to mention this country’s abilities.

Both Suez and the Falklands War proved that the UK was no longer a real global power. While both could be argued a military victory, Suez was one of the worst blows to British prestige ever suffered and, despite pluck and heroism from the (weak) forces engaged, a few more properly fused Argentinian bombs would have turned the Falklands campaign into a disaster.

Since then, British forces have only ever been asked to fight local brush-fire wars (Sierra Leone; Serbia) or alongside the US’s well documented “shock and awe” juggernaut. Not since 1919 have British troops fought the Russians and that was against a fledgling Red regime with support from the Whites.

Ever since the Cold War and the disintegration of the USSR, there have been rumblings all along Russia’s southern borders. On the back of Russia seizing  Crimea and its key naval base of Sevastopol, disputes regarding the Russian majority in eastern Ukraine erupted into open war that still continues. This, plus Russia’s historic habit of annexing chunks of Eastern Europe when opportunity arose has made both former Soviet republics and former Warsaw Pact allies understandably nervous, especially when a sabre-rattling president like Putin is in office and clearly needs to prove something.

Now Russia has been proved a giant with feet of clay before. Its massive numbers of men and tanks did not prove much worth in 1941 when a far more professional Wehrmacht came close to overwhelming the entire country. Nor in the aftermath of the fall of communism was the apparently powerful Russian Army really the force it appeared, riddled with poor morale, rigid command structure and obsolete weaponry. Dramatic pictures from the First Gulf War showing the hundreds of burning Russian T-72s of Hussein’s Republican Guard underscored this latter.

But the NATO general who imagines four battalions deployed along Lake Peipus and the Byelorussian border have any military significance beyond provocation needs to be sent homeward to think again. For, while the Russians may be a great and important people, they are neither Western, nor are they pliant. Like many other great nations, they are passionate and proud. And, given seventy years of total isolation, followed by thirty with a controlled press, most of the 142,423,773 of them harbour deep suspicions about a West still gloating that “they won” the Cold War.

We seem to still be locked in that Cold War attitude of Russia as the aggressor. Certainly they don’t think like the West. But if we had a folk memory stretching back centuries that included invasion by Mongols and Tartars from one side and Swedes, French and Germans from the other, we’d be rather more paranoid. The dominant Russian objective has long been to secure its frontiers. Its main tactic to do so has been to absorb and/or control weaker near neighbours. Recent aggression in Georgia, Chechnya or Ukraine is all part of this.

But, in an echo of the discredited American ‘domino theory’ that took them into the morass that was Vietnam “because all of South-East Asia could fall to the Commies“, Russian forces massing on the Dneipr does not necessary lead to them massing on the Rhine, or even the Channel. Even Putin remembers the entrenched hostility of Budapest in ’56, Prague in ’67, Solidarity in the eighties and their own Vietnam when they had their nose bloodied at the hands of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the ’80s.

Many Russians have a strong memories of the Great Patriotic War when they lost some 8.7m soldiers and 17.9m civilians during the Wehrmacht‘s visit. Add in a stolid constitution born of centuries of surviving in a harsh climate of extremes and a taste for strong rulers (of which Putin is only the most recent example), we have a potent recipe for what was coined in the film Cool Hand Luke as “a failure to communicate”. Massing forces on their frontier just makes them nervous.

Four battalions are a gesture, a brigade-sized force of only 3,000 men. They only make military sense if they were shoring up a credible front line. Pivot of that front line is Poland, which has 120,000 troops and 1,000 tanks on active service. Good though those four NATO units may be, they are spread along a 1,500-mile frontier and represent just a 2% augmentation of the defence north of the Pripyat.

Consider what would happen if Russia were to start a frontier war, as it did in Ukraine. But this time, NATO forces (against everyone’s better judgement) gets involved. Of all countries, Britain is least able to escalate: we have cut our forces to the bone, scattered them globally and neither aircraft carriers nor Trident subs cut much ice in supporting troops locked in inland combat around Pskov.

Especially as that combat could be very one-sided. Since receiving rough handling in Georgia in 2004, Putin has been working diligently to weed out incompetence, train for modern warfare (not just Red Square parades) and boost professionalism. In short, they are no Ruritanian pushover, no Iraqi conscripts in a Kuwaiti desert.

Under Defence Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, major structural re-organisation began in 2009. Key elements of the reforms included reducing the armed forces to a strength of one million by 2018, organised into five armoured, forty mechanised infantry and nine special forces brigades (roughly 160 active battalions).These are equipped with 15,398 tanks, 31,298 AFVs, 5,972 SPGs and almost 9,000 other artillery pieces. There are also 2.4m trained reserves.

In contrast, today’s British Army strength stands at 87,000, currently organised as 31 infantry and 9 armoured active battalions with support troops. These are equipped with 407 tanks, 5,948 AFVs, 89 SPGs and 180 other artillery pieces. The army reserve stands at 29,000.

Taking nothing away from the high quality, the courage and the professionalism of British troops, deploying an isolated battalion to defend Estonia from an aggressive Russia could be considered military insanity. Let’s assume the rest of the British Army was not over-committed elsewhere and its entire strength could be deployed, supplied and supported behind Lake Peipus, it would still be:

  • outnumbered four to one in infantry
  • outnumbered 38 to one in tanks
  • outnumbered 55 to one in artillery

Given that over 80% of casualties in ground warfare are caused by artillery fire, it would seem that even having the entire British Army defend Estonia against a determined Russian assault should also be considered military insanity.

So, questions that demand answers in this situation are:

  1. “How can deploying a single battalion in Estonia make any sense at all in military terms?”
  2. “Given how outraged we would be if the Russians deployed an equivalent force in Eire, why is this not considered unjustified provocation?”
  3. “If the border brush fire currently burning in Eastern Ukraine leaps all diplomatic firebreaks and starts burning in the Baltics or Byelorussia, given the above stats, is NATO daft enough to start another European war over it?”

This whole affair appears to be yet another example of Britain ‘proving’ it “can sit at the top table” or that it “punches above its weight“. In reality, it shows as much judgement as a child playing with fireworks in a petrol dump.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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