Small Wars Journal

“Modern Guerrillas” and the Defense of the Baltic States

Sat, 01/13/2018 - 1:33pm

“Modern Guerrillas” and the Defense of the Baltic States

James K. Wither


The Soviet Union invaded Finland in November 1939. The Soviet force numbered 600,000 backed by thousands of tanks, aircraft and artillery. By comparison, Finland was a military minnow. Its army was less than half the size, had few tanks and aircraft and suffered chronic ammunition shortages. Nevertheless, the Finns inflicted up to ten times as many casualties on the attacking forces than they suffered.[1] Although Finland was forced to concede significant territory to the Soviet Union at the conclusion of the war in March 1940, determined resistance arguably preserved its independence.

Finland’s use of guerrilla warfare was a major factor in its operational success. The Finns exploited the forested, marshy terrain and intense cold to which its troops were acclimatized to target weaknesses in Russian military leadership, logistics and tactics. While conventional battles raged around the defensive “Mannerheim Line” in the south, elsewhere in Finland lightly armed, mobile units surprised Soviet columns in snow-covered forests, severed lines of communication and destroyed supplies. What the Finns called “Motti Tactics”, split Soviet columns into isolated groups that could be defeated piecemeal. The invading forces suffered enormous casualties and consequently a crisis of leadership and morale.

Finland’s contemporary strategy continues to draw inspiration from its history. Land defense is characterized as “…the activities which help safeguard society’s vital functions and carry out territorial surveillance over the land area making it possible to slow down and wear out the aggressor’s land attack in selected terrain and ultimately defeat him.”[2]  All services and civilian authorities prepare for territorial defense in depth that emphasizes delay, resilience, stealth and deception. Finnish Sissi Special Operations Forces (SOF) and border rangers (Rajasissi) are trained to fight guerrilla war behind enemy lines in the event of an invasion. The intention is to grind down an attacker by employing small combat teams armed with sophisticated anti-tank weapons supported by light artillery, mortars, and a highly mobile air defense grid.[3]

Faced with the renewed prospect of Russian aggression and determined to preserve their sovereignty, the Baltic States have started to devote greater resources to national defense. In addition to enhancing their modest conventional militaries, the Baltic States are also seeking to improve the capability of their territorial defense forces. The latter would play a crucial role in preventing the possibly rapid occupation of their territory by Russian forces. Estonia, which models its approach on Finland’s total defense concept, is preparing the Defence League (Kaitseliit) to fight guerrilla warfare.[4] Lithuania re-introduced conscription in 2015 and has revived training in insurgency techniques for the National Defence Volunteer Forces (KASP) and the paramilitary Rifleman’s Union.[5] Latvia is rearming its National Guard (Zemessardze) units, decentralizing weapon storage and improving interoperability between regular and irregular defense forces.[6]

Recent campaigns by non-state groups such as Hezbollah, Chechen boïviki and Islamic State fighters in Mosul have highlighted the ability of well-trained and highly motivated irregular fighters to confront powerful conventional militaries and deny them quick victories based on their superior fire power and technology. The purpose of this article is to examine the concept of “modern guerrillas”[7] and the extent to which the Baltic States could exploit guerrilla warfare in the event of Russian aggression. In this context, modern guerrillas refer to state forces that employ new technology and asymmetrical methods of warfare. These fighters are defined by their warfighting methodology and, therefore, could include regular armed forces and Special Operations Forces (SOF), as well as territorial defense units and local militias. It is envisaged that guerrilla units could be employed in all three phases of warfare in the Baltic States; firstly, during so called hybrid operations before the formal outbreak of war, during conventional warfighting following an invasion and finally during national resistance after the occupation of territory.

The Russian Military Threat

There is no current indication that Russia seeks an armed conflict with NATO given its perceived relative economic and military weaknesses.[8] It is more likely to continue its asymmetrical information warfare and cyber campaigns against the West rather than risk such a confrontation. But, Russian snap exercises, the harassment of NATO planes and ships and Russian military involvement in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine raise the possibility of an armed clash through miscalculation.  Strategists must also plan with a view to Russia’s improved military capabilities, as considerable modernization has taken place in the last decade to create a more flexible, technologically advanced and better trained force.  A recent RAND paper on the Russian approach to warfare also determined that “Russian military theorists retain a strong bias in favor of offensive action…if Russian leaders judged that a conflict was inevitable, there would be a strong impulse to seize the initiative and go on the attack.”[9]

As an authoritarian regime, Russia has an advantage in speed of decision making in comparison with NATO’s relatively cumbersome bureaucracy. Russia also has the military capability to capture territory from its Western neighbors before the alliance could fully mobilize in response, especially as a sophisticated deception and disinformation campaign would likely mask the scope, scale, character and timing of an attack.[10] In such a hypothetical scenario, Russian forces could seize territory in the Baltic States, then employ sophisticated anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems and potentially the threat of tactical nuclear weapons to deter NATO from mounting a counterattack. The prospect of a major war to re-take captured territory on the peripheries of the alliance may be politically unacceptable to the governments of many NATO countries. Such a development would destroy NATO as a credible military alliance and potentially enable Russia to achieve strategic hegemony in Europe.

In 2016, NATO agreed to deploy multi-national battlegroups to the four most vulnerable NATO states. This was intended to reassure front-line allies and enhance deterrence. This initiative, known as Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), demonstrates that major NATO powers would be involved from the start in the event of any Russian aggression. The presence of EFP battlegroups and an additional, deployed US armored brigade might be enough to deter Russia or at least complicate its decision making. However, these modest forces would be overmatched in the event of war. According to a RAND war game in 2016, Russian forces from the Western Military District and the Kaliningrad oblast could deploy 27 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) for a short warning attack on Estonia or Latvia.[11] In the RAND scenario, Russian forces eliminated or bypassed all resistance and entered Riga and Tallinn between 36 and 60 hours after the start of hostilities. Of course, Russia could also achieve its political objectives by occupying a limited amount of territory well short of the Baltic States’ capitals.

Modern Guerrillas

The potential of using guerrilla warfare against invading Russian forces is not a new idea. Notable Cold War critics of NATO’s forward defense posture, such as Sir John Slessor and Ferdinand Otto Miksche, advocated defense in depth; a strategy that involved both mobile, conventional armored forces and a network of territorial defense militias.[12] These militias were to employ infantry anti-tank weapons, conduct demolitions and exploit their local knowledge to delay and disrupt the progress of invading Soviet forces. NATO also planned for SOF to operate behind enemy lines, primarily to gather intelligence, but also to mount sabotage operations and assist local resistance fighters.[13] Given the perceived value of stay behind operations, NATO set up its own International Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol School in Bavaria to train SOF units for these missions.

Some analysts have long argued that emerging technology favors the use of guerrilla tactics by state and irregular forces alike. The proponents of the 4th Generation Warfare (4GW), writing back in 1989, predicted a technology driven fourth generation in which advanced weaponry favored small, highly mobile, dispersed combat teams.[14] The US Army is currently examining similar ideas for so called ‘resilient formations” to fight future multi-domain warfare. Like guerrillas, these units are described as highly mobile, ready to combine and disperse rapidly and “…avoid detection and survive contact with the enemy; maneuver and fight for periods without continuous supply lines or secured flanks; and train cognitively to execute mission command in degraded conditions…”[15]

One of the original apostles of 4GW, T. X. Hammes, has described what he calls the “small, smart and cheap revolution” in military technology.[16] He argues that improvements in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology will favor the tactical defense. As the cost of such technology becomes cheaper, Hammes maintains that small states will be better able to defend themselves against more powerful adversaries. For example, he envisages swarms of inexpensive Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) being used to strike exposed, attacking armored vehicles and vulnerable logistics units.[17] Strategic analyst, Thomas G. Mahnken, also claims that trends in military technology favor a strategy of territorial defense for small states. He highlights the significance of advanced anti-tank guided weapons (ATGM), precision guided artillery, surface to air missiles and UAV.[18] As noted earlier, Jim Thomas advocates “modern guerrillas”, described as:

“…small highly distributed irregular resistance forces, prepositioned concealed weapons and clandestine support networks and auxiliaries. Modern guerrilla forces armed with short-range man and truck portable guided rockets, guided artillery, guided mortars can conduct very rapid and very lethal maneuvers, ambushes and sabotages”.[19]

In the context of the Baltic States, Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell have suggested that “even tiny frontline armies” employing modern weapon systems could make occupied territory “indigestible” to an invader.[20]  Pauli Järvenpää, a senior fellow at Estonia’s International Centre for Defence and Security also advocates the use of a large number of mobile platoon or company-sized units using “modern, simple to use, but powerful defensive weapons” to slow down and channel an aggressor’s forces.[21]

The battlespace environment of a war in the Baltic States may also force conventional military units to operate in a manner similar to guerrilla fighters. Russian doctrine puts an emphasis on destroying adversary command and control by kinetic or cyber means early in an armed conflict.[22] Russia has invested heavily in electronic warfare (EW) systems which, as demonstrated in Eastern Ukraine, can shut down communications and signals traffic across a broad spectrum of activity.[23] At the tactical level, EW may force units to operate with non-electronic navigation aids, minimal use of radio communications and smaller and more mobile tactical headquarters. As the MDB study predicts, chains of command will have to be flexible enough to allow subordinate units to operate independently for extended periods without direct communications. Combat in Eastern Ukraine has also demonstrated the contemporary Russian army’s ability to rapidly acquire and engage any concentrations of enemy armored units with a devastating volume and intensity of artillery fire.[24]

SOF Enablers

As envisaged during the Cold war, SOF could be critical enablers for local guerrilla units, being already trained to operate in small, self-sustaining teams in hostile territory. SOF provide expert light infantry, but can also field specialists with the medical, survival, engineering and weapons’ skills that stay-behind, local guerrilla fighters would need.   Assistance to indigenous resistance groups remains a core role for US SOF.[25] Deployed alongside local forces, SOF could have an impact out of all proportion to their numbers and firepower. This potential was noted in a recent article in SOF News, which advocated “insurgent warfare” facilitated by NATO SOF as the best defensive option for the Baltic States given the weakness of their conventional forces.[26] US and other allied SOF already conduct training and exercises with their Baltic counterparts to prepare local forces for stay-behind operations, a relationship facilitated by ties developed during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.[27]  NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) also acts as a facilitator to promote interoperability across the alliance and assists national SOF commands with concepts, techniques and training programs.

SOF are particularly well suited to the ambiguities of hybrid warfare environments where an aggressor exerts overt and covert pressure below the level of a formal armed conflict. In the Baltic States, this could involve a mix of subversion, sabotage, infiltration and low-level violence involving Russian SOF (Spetsnaz), military advisory teams, locally recruited militias and private military contractors.[28] NATO SOF, in support of local security forces, can apply tailored force when the situation requires it with direct action strikes or small scale, local offensive action. The MDB concept, for example, envisages SOF working through friendly populations during a hybrid warfare phase to conduct covert operations to kill or capture adversary proxy force leaders and enemy SOF operatives.[29]

Espen Berg-Knutsen from the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment has argued that SOF should form the “core of a new multidisciplinary unit acting as a grand strategy enabler for a small nation, guiding and coordinating its counter-hybrid warfare efforts.”[30] He envisages national and international SOF interagency networks, leading small joint teams including members of the intelligence services and relevant government departments. These SOF led units would support local home guard units, provide situational awareness and training in guerrilla warfare. A recent project by The Fletcher School for the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) advocated a similar leadership role for US SOF in the Baltic States in order to build capacity to resist hybrid attacks. Recommendations included the further development of local SOF capabilities and support for potential partisan networks.[31] The above recommendations are, however, too ambitious for the limited SOF assets available. At the end of 2016, there were only around a dozen US SOF in each of the Baltic States.[32] Despite the expansion of NATO SOF, US SOF, in particular, are already severely overstretched. Only 16% of the latter, for example, are currently stationed in the European theater.[33] Nations also retain operational command of their own SOF during wartime and it is questionable whether significant numbers of NATO SOF would be available in the event of a short-warning crisis in the Baltic States. The small, if highly competent, Baltic SOF might have to face the challenges of resisting Russian aggression largely unaided by their NATO peers.

Total Defense and National Resilience

A defense policy based on guerrilla warfare and territorial defense requires a state to prepare for what is usually referred to as total defense. This concept requires robust physical and psychological foundations that create a national will to resist and the willingness to accept the inevitable sacrifices involved in a war fought amongst the population. Total defense policies seek to build the necessary national resilience through whole of government and society approaches that institutionalize collaboration between government ministries, civic organizations and the general public. Estonia, for example, describes total defense as follows: “…the mental, physical, economic and other potential of government structures, local governments, defence forces and the entire nation must be in a continued state of preparedness to manage a situation of crisis and to act as one in order to prevent and avert danger of attack and to preserve the nation.”[34] Estonia includes five components in total defense: psychological defense, civil defense, economic defense, civil preparedness and military defense.[35] As noted above, Estonia models its approach on Finland’s long standing total defense policy.[36]

The classic, historical example of a total defense concept was Switzerland during the Cold War. As a neutral state, Switzerland prepared for possible invasion and occupation by Warsaw Pact (WP) forces by mobilizing the entire country, including local government, civil society, the private sector as well as the military. Switzerland’s aim was to deter aggression by creating a situation where the country was indigestible to an aggressor, not least due to the ability of Swiss forces to conduct guerrilla warfare in enemy occupied territory.[37] Notably, the Swiss did not rely on irregular forces alone, but rather integrated their territorial units and resistance organizations into a large conventional military force, comprising four army corps and 625,000 men on mobilization.[38]

Russia’s information warfare campaign against the West has prompted NATO to emphasize member state population and institutional resilience. A declaration at the Warsaw summit in July 2016 pledged the alliance to “…work to ensure that our national and NATO military forces can at all times be adequately supported with civilian resources, including energy, transportation, and communications”.[39] NATO views resilience as a means of ensuring that the civilian sector can and will support the military in times of war. Such civil support would be essential for the small-unit warfare that is an integral part of total defense. Separately, US Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) has sponsored a “resistance seminar series” since 2014. These sessions have assembled a multinational team of academics, interagency and SOF practitioners to plan for national level resistance in the event of the occupation of a NATO state. A Resistance Operating Concept (ROC) has been produced to assist governments and potentially shape future policy.[40] This document puts considerable emphasis on the need to build national resilience, which it defines as “The will and ability to withstand external pressure and /or recover from the effects of that pressure or influence”.[41] The ROC stresses that resilience must be developed in a pre-crisis environment when there is time to prepare the population for future active resistance measures through both physical and psychological measures.

Resilience in wartime requires a strong sense of national identity and values. In these respects, the Baltic States appear well prepared as significant numbers indicate their readiness to actively defend their countries and freedoms in the event of an attack.[42] It is not surprising that the example of the “Forest Brothers”, guerrillas who fought Russian occupation for several years after 1945, has been used to inspire a new generation of potential resistance fighters.[43] Lithuania has taken this furthest by issuing its citizens with a manual to instruct them on how to resist a Russian invasion and occupation. But national resilience will be severely tested as Russia has developed sophisticated methods to exploit state vulnerabilities and encourage social and political cleavages in society. It has already demonstrated the ability to target military personnel directly in information warfare campaigns by subjecting soldiers in NATO front line states to false and intimidating messages via social media intended to influence their behavior and morale.[44]

Conventional Forces or Modern Guerrillas

The assumption of much of the discussion above is that a Russia military fait accompli in the Baltic States could be deterred or physically prevented by a defense concept that includes modern guerrillas supported by a robust national will to resist.  The basic premise is that an invader would suffer attacks on vulnerable lines of communication, logistic hubs and isolated military detachments that would cause severe delay and disruption to operational plans and schedules. Consequently, total national collapse could be prevented and time bought to allow NATO reinforcements to arrive in theater.

Much of the discussion of modern guerrilla warfare has focused on the impact of advanced technology to empower small, dispersed combat teams. However, it has largely ignored the significant, practical challenges to operationalizing the concept. Over time, as the MDB model surmises, the impact of emerging technology may cause regular state militaries to structure and organize themselves in a manner similar to SOF or non-state guerrilla fighters. But currently states are not planning to base their defense strategies entirely on guerrilla-style warfare. Even those analysts who most strongly advocate modern guerrillas acknowledge that conventional military forces will remain necessary as part of a total defense posture.[45] The Swiss and Finnish models of total defense, for example, traditionally relied on large numbers of both regular and irregular troops and Finland can still muster over 300,000 troops on full mobilization.[46]

All three Baltic States have made significant increases to their defense budgets since 2014, but this comes after years of neglect and will be unlikely to rise much above the totem 2% of GDP prescribed for member states by the alliance.[47] For example, prior to 2014, Lithuania and Latvia prioritized a modest contribution to NATO expeditionary operations at the expense of territorial defense.[48] The Baltic States are putting the bulk of increased financial resources into improving conventional military capabilities and training in order to be interoperable with other NATO forces stationed in the region. This may be sound politically as it demonstrates clear resolve to other alliance members, but it diverts limited resources from territorial defense assets that arguably may prove more important in the event of a Russian invasion.

The current Estonian National Defence Development Plan includes the establishment of two rapid-response mechanized brigades, an armored maneuver capability and strengthened anti-tank defenses.[49] Estonia relies on conscription supplemented by volunteer territorial units. But its regular forces number just 6,400 of which only 3,200 are professionals. The Lithuanian government’s stated main priorities are reinforcements for the “Iron Wolf” mechanized brigade and the establishment of an additional infantry brigade to assist NATO forces to defend the critical land corridor that connects the Kaliningrad oblast with Belarus.[50] With the procurement of Boxer Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) and modern self-propelled artillery, Lithuania will have some capacity to undertake combined arms maneuver warfare, although it will still lack armor. Latvia has the weakest conventional forces in the region, able to field just one infantry brigade. Even with re-equipment to turn this formation into a mechanized brigade, it could do little more than help gain time for national mobilization in the event of a Russian incursion.

All three Baltic States have a declaratory policy of total defense and, as noted above, are making efforts to expand and increase the capability of their territorial defense forces to fight guerrilla warfare. Estonia has 60,000 reservists, 21,000 of which can be rapidly mobilized, and 16,000 in the territorial Defence League, which it plans to increase to 30,000 by 2022.[51] Jane’s World Armies assesses the Estonian infantry as “well-trained and equipped for small unit conventional defensive operations” and, backed by the Defence League, capable of mounting guerrilla warfare operations.[52] Lithuania has around 4,500 members in its National Defence Volunteer Forces (NDVF) and a further 8,000 in the paramilitary Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union available for territorial defense. According to a report by the Fletcher School, Lithuania has made more progress than its neighbors in establishing “partisan networks”.[53] Jane’s assessment is also favorable stating that the Lithuanian Army and NDFV have the level of integration and interoperability, territorial distribution and anti-tank capabilities to effectively “facilitate counter-strike guerrilla-style strategies.[54] The Latvian armed forces became fully professionalized in 2007. Recent events in the region have not changed this approach. However, Latvia’s regular and territorial units are integrated and interoperable so the country’s primary defense could take the form of mobile guerrilla warfare involving surviving regular troops and the National Guard.[55] The Guard is currently being enhanced to increase mobility and anti-tank capabilities and the government plans to increase the territorial force to 12,000 by 2020.[56] Unfortunately, the Baltic States face a common demographic challenge as efforts to expand the size and capacity of territorial forces may be thwarted by a shortage of young, skilled recruits, especially as seems likely, members of the large ethnic Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia are unwilling to take part.[57]

It appears from the above discussion that each of the Baltic States will have the capacity to engage in guerrilla operations if attacked. But what is not clear is how effective these activities will be in delaying and disrupting an aggressor’s forces and ultimately preserving national sovereignty and independence. Given their limited resources the Baltic States will find it difficult to both enhance their conventional forces and provide adequate training and equipment for their territorial units. Guerrilla units will need effective anti-tank weapons and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), including the means to neutralize UAV. But the most advanced systems are likely to go to regular mechanized brigades, leaving territorial defense units with older or less effective equipment. For example, Carl Gustav recoilless anti-tank rifles are still effective weapons, but line-of-site anti-tank weapons leave the firer vulnerable. The more sophisticated Javelin and Spike anti-armor missile launchers being procured will likely remain in short supply for territorial units.

The Challenges of Total Defense

Territorial defense in the Baltic States relies largely on conscripts and volunteer reservists. Part- time soldiering has been embraced by many young people in the Baltic States, but enthusiasm is no substitute for professional training to inculcate good tactical and weapon handling skills, fire and communications discipline, and operational security measures. Although the exercise tempo and training are being increased, according to a 2015 report, territorial defense force volunteers only serve for 10 – 20 days each year.[58] Estonia and Lithuania rely on conscripts to boost numbers in regular and territorial units, but they serve full time for less than a year and their quality and readiness have been questioned.[59] Given that territorial units may find themselves up against Russian SOF, they will have to rely on cadres of SOF and regular soldiers to mentor part time soldiers in combat and ensure unit cohesion and survival. It is not clear the extent to which these will be available during wartime conditions if regular units take heavy casualties during a conventional warfare phase of operations. Extensive preparations will also be required before a crisis to prepare for total defense. Supplies such as weapons, ammunition, medical and communications equipment need to be acquired and stored. Hides and weapons’ cache sites will have to be surveyed and prepared and remote sensors deployed. NATO partners are already assisting the Baltic States to address these challenges.[60] But readiness will require sustained government and public commitment at a time when Russian propaganda may be targeting such measures as provocative “NATO warmongering”.

Guerrilla warfare is naturally more suited to certain types of terrain. Finland, for example, was able to make effective tactical use of bottlenecks between lakes and dense forests in its wars with the Soviet Union.[61] The common assumption is that, being largely flat and too small to offer defense in depth, the Baltic States offer good prospects for mechanized forces to advance rapidly. However, this is a generalization that overlooks the fact that these states do have geographical features that can be exploited by well-prepared irregular fighters. The region has 7,000 lakes, numerous peat bogs, marshes, swamps and a multitude of rivers. A third of the land is forested, which in Latvia alone covers 54% of its territory.[62] An earlier analysis of Baltic States’ defensibility noted that “Densely wooded areas, lakes, streams and marshlands often make the off-road movement of mechanized units difficult, sometimes even impossible.”[63] As the name suggests, “Forest Brothers” guerrillas after World War 2 exploited the dense Baltic woodland to provide concealment and secure arms caches.  However, forests no longer provide the same level of security. Contemporary surveillance and target acquisition systems, particularly persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) UAV are likely to hinder guerrilla units’ ability to hide, maneuver, concentrate and deploy undetected. During defensive operations guerrilla fighters have sometimes benefited from well sited field fortifications and tunnel complexes that provided relative security from air attacks and artillery fire. In the case of Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006, an extensive network of connected bunkers provided the group with firing positions, operations rooms, arms and ammunition stockpiles, and facilities to keep a significant number of fighters underground without re-supply for a considerable time.[64] Such complexes are neither practical nor appropriate in the Baltic context, not least because their locations would be rapidly betrayed to Russian intelligence during construction and they would be readily identified and targeted during wartime.

As advances in technology make it easier to identify guerrilla bases in rural terrain, urban operations have become more important. As urban populations rise, guerrilla fighters around the world exploit the complexity of urban terrain to survive and fight. According to the World Bank, 67% of the population of the Baltic States lives in urban areas.[65] Determined urban guerrillas could potentially tie down an aggressor’s forces for extended periods and prevent occupied territory from being consolidated. However, preparation for urban combat requires political will and support from the population in peacetime. Local authorities have to be consulted and prepared. Exercises need to be held, requisitions identified, and potential strong points and demolition sites reconnoitered. The prospect of Russian sympathizers among the ethnic Russian population in major urban areas may also disrupt such preparations. Critically, the bulk of the ethnic Russian population is in the border areas, which would be the likely target of a limited Russian incursion. The Estonian city of Narva, for example, is 82% ethnic Russian.[66] Considerable political courage will be required to ready sites for urban resistance, as these measures will involve the deliberate destruction of infrastructure and may require the part or total evacuation of the civilian population. Political and military leaders contemplating urban guerrilla warfare have to face the likelihood of severe civilian casualties.  During the second Chechnya war, Russian forces avoided closing with guerrilla fighters in urban areas. Instead, Russian tactics involved “…devastating and almost indiscriminate firepower”[67]. The obliteration of villages by artillery and air strikes made locals reluctant to join or support the rebels. Massive bombardments of urban areas destroyed the guerrillas’ defensive cover and supplies, particularly in Grozny.[68] Most recently, the Russian air force showed no restraint in bombing civilian targets in urban areas held by rebel fighters in Syria.

Guerrilla movements are often crushed with savagery.[69] Resistance in the Baltic States after World War II was brutally repressed with mass deportations and enforced collectivization.[70] The Russian approach to insurgencies eschews efforts to win “hearts and minds”. During the Afghan war in the 1980s, the Soviets depopulated the countryside and destroyed the rural economy.[71] In Chechnya, Russian operations in both wars were characterized by massive human rights violations including concentration camps, torture and “disappearances”.[72] Having taken the enormous gamble of invading NATO territory, there is no guarantee that Russian forces, especially irregular and proxy troops, would show restraint towards the civilian population if confronted by determined resistance from stay-behind forces during a war in the Baltics.


The best prospect to deter or if necessary defend an attack on the Baltic States remains armored and mechanized brigades backed up by considerable artillery, air defense, EW and other assets. Currently, NATO lacks the political will to field such a force in the region. The light, armored, NATO conventional forces stationed in the Baltic States would put up a determined, if brief, fight, but would be defeated or brushed aside by numerically superior advancing Russian forces. NATO reinforcements would neither be available nor able to arrive in time to prevent the occupation of territory.

Given this scenario, the Baltic States will have no choice to preserve their independence but to fight a guerrilla war against occupying forces. Regular units, SOF and territorial forces will need to be ready to employ guerrilla tactics from the onset of hostilities, including during any hybrid phase, in order to deny Russian forces a fait accompli. The Baltic States’ territorial units would be capable of imposing delay and disruption on Russian forces. But to be truly effective modern guerrillas, these units will need more and better equipment and greater mobility. Training would also have to be intensified and a greater operational emphasis placed on urban areas. The latter would be a challenging course of action for governments in the region.

The Baltic States will also need to increase defense spending considerably above the NATO mandated 2% of GDP if they are to prepare both regular and territorial forces to the level required to mount an effective total defense. Such a level of expenditure is always a challenge for liberal democracies in peacetime, but the Swiss model does not come cheap. National resilience will also be essential for effective total defense, especially if the Baltic States are forced to mount a protracted resistance campaign. Resilience is an intangible factor, but ultimately the will to continue the fight might only be sustained if resistance fighters and the population believe that the Baltic States have not been abandoned by their NATO partners. Let us hope this is never put to the test.

End Notes

[1] Casualty figures for both sides vary depending on the source. For an analysis see for example: Markku Valten, “V.M. Molotov and the Casualties in the Winter War”, Axis History Forum, 11 June 2006. Accessed January 4, 2018

[2] Prime Minister’s Office Publications, Government’s Defence Report 2017, 7/2017, p. 34. Accessed January 2, 2018

[3] Iskander Rehman, “Lessons from the Winter War: Frozen Grit and Finland’s Fabian Defence”, War on the Rocks, July 20, 2016. (accessed January 4, 2018) and “Special Forces in Focus: Sissi Guerilla Warfare Specialists”, The Baltic Post, June 26, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2018

[4] Ministry of Defence (Estonia), National Defence Development Plan 2013 – 2022. Accessed January 4, 2018 and Andrew E. Kramer, “Spooked by Russia, Tiny Estonia Trains a Nation of Insurgents”, New York Times, October 31 2016. Accessed January 4, 2018

[5] Nic Roberson et al. “Lithuania issues manual on what to do if Russia invades”, CNN, October 26, 2016. Accessed January 4, 2018

[6] The National Defence Concept, Riga 2016, para. 62.,%20koncepcijas/2016/AIMVAK_260516_EN_2.0.ashx Accessed January 4, 2018

[7] The term “modern guerrillas” was used by strategist Jim Thomas in Octavia Manea, “Protraction: A 21st Century Flavor of Deterrence”, (Interview with Jim Thomas) Small Wars Journal, September 11, 2015. Accessed January 4, 2018

[8] See for example: Rod Thornton, “The Russian Military’s New Main Emphasis”, The RUSI Journal, Vol. 162, No.4, August/September 2017, p. 21.

[9] Scott Boston and Dara Massicot, “The Russian Way of Warfare: a Primer”, RAND, 2017, p. 3. Accessed December 14, 2017

[10] Traditionally referred to as maskirovka in Russian operational and strategic thinking. See: Dmitry Adamsky, “Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy”, IFRI Security Studies Center, November 2015, p. 24. Accessed December 8, 2017

[11] David A. Schlapak and Michael W. Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics”, RAND, 2016, P.4. Accessed January 4, 2018  The scale of the Zapad 2017 exercise suggested that even larger forces could be rapidly deployed against the Baltic States.

[12] For a discussion of these ideas see: Horst Mendershausen, “Territorial Defense in NATO and Non-NATO Europe”, Rand Report R-1184-ISA, February 1973, pp. 37 – 41. Accessed January 4,. 2018

[13] See for example: Richard J. Aldrich, “Intelligence within BAOR and NATO’S Northern Army Group”, The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, February 2008, pp. 106 – 108. These operations were distinct from the CIA sponsored secret civilian resistance movements under the “Gladio” program in a number of NATO states.

[14] William S. Lind et al, “The Changing Face of Warfare: Into the 4th Generation”, Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989, pp. 22-26. Accessed October 6, 2017

[15] Multi-Doman Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century 2025 – 2040, Version 1.0, October 2017, p. 24. A short summary of the study is provided by Patrick Tucker, “How the US Army is Preparing to Fight Hybrid War in 2030” Defense One, October 9, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2018

[16] T.X. Hammes, “Cheap Technology Will Challenge U.S. Tactical Dominance”, Joint Force Quarterly, Vol. 81, 2nd Quarter 2016, pp. 76 - 85. Accessed January 4, 2018

[17] Ibid, p. 80. 

[18] Thomas G. Mahnken, “Small States Have Options Too: Competitive Strategies Against Aggressors”, War on the Rocks, January 27, 2016. Accessed January 4, 2018 

[19] Manea, op cit.

[20] Jakob Grygiel and Wess Mitchell, “A Preclusive Strategy to Defend the NATO Frontier”, The American Interest”, December 2, 2014.

[21] Pauli Järvenpää, “Can Estonia Be Defended?” ICDS, 22 February 2016 Accessed January 4, 2018

[22] Boston and Massicott, op cit, p. 7.

[23] Asymmetrical Warfare Group, “Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook” Version 1, December 2016. p. 17. Accessed January 4, 2018

[24] Boston and Massicot, op cit, p. 2.

[25] FM 3-05 130, Army Special Operations Unconventional Warfare, 30 September 2008, p 1-2. Accessed January 4, 2018

[26] SOF News, “Special Forces, Unconventional Warfare and the Baltics”, January 5, 2017. Accessed December 11, 2017

[27] See for example: Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Lending Support to Baltic States Fearing Russia”, The New York Times, January 1, 2017 and Joseph Trevithick, “US and NATO Special Ops Just Fought a Fake Guerrilla War in West Virginia”, The War Zone, April 6, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2018 

[28] Asymmetrical Warfare Group, op cit, p. 4 and Boston and Masicott, op cit, p. 9.

[29] Multi-Domain Battle, op cit, pp. 30 - 31.

[30] Espen Berg-Knutsen. “From Tactical Champions to Grand Strategy Enablers: The Future of Small Nation SOF in Counter-Hybrid Warfare” in Frank Steder & Leo Blanken ed. Countering Hybrid Warfare: The Best Uses of SOF in a Pre-Article 5 Scenario, Combating Terrorism Exchange (CTX), November 1, 2016, p. 61. Accessed January 4, 2018

[31] Victoria Barber et al. “Russian Hybrid Warfare” The Fletcher School, Capstone Report prepared for US SOCOM, June 2017, pp. 88 – 89.

[32] Schmitt, op cit.

[33] W. J. Hennigan, “The New American Way of War”, Time, November 30, 2017. (accessed December 11, 2017) and Tara Copp, “Mattis: Conventional Forces Will Assume More Special Operations Forces Roles in 2018”, Military Times, December 29, 2017.

[34] Estonica Encylopedia about Estonia, February 2012. Accessed January 4, 2018

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ministry of Defence, Finland. Accessed December 4, 2017

[37] Kevin D. Stringer, “Building a Stay-Behind Resistance Organization: The Case of Cold War Switzerland Against the Soviet Union”, Joint Force Quarterly, 86, 3rd Quarter, July 2017, p. 111. Accessed January 4, 2018

[38] Ibid, p. 111, p. 113.

[39] NATO, Commitment to Enhance Resilience, Press Release, 8 July 2016. Accessed December 5, 2017

[40] Otto C. Fiala and Kevin D. Stringer eds. Resistance Operating Concept [ROC] v. 2, 30 October 2017. The ROC concept goes beyond the scope of this paper as it also considers a range of passive and non-violent measures undertaken by the population in an occupied state.   

[41] Ibid, 1 – 3.

[42] See: Jan Osburg et al. “Si Vis Pacem, Para Resistentiam – If You Want Peace, Prepare for Resistance”, The National Interest, November 26, 2016. Accessed January 4, 2018, Vaidas Saldziunas, ‘New Survey Revealed Who, How Would Defend Lithuania: Numbers to be Pleasant Surprise, Vilnius Delfi, (Open Source) 17 November 2017 and  Imants Vīksne, ‘Resolve of Estonians Always High’, Says Head of Defence League, ERR, 26 September 2014. Accessed December 13, 2017

[43] See for example: Robert Beckhusen, “NATO Reenacts Baltic Guerrilla War”, War is Boring, July 13, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2018

[44] Keir Giles, “The Next Phase of Russian Information Warfare”, NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, 2016, p. 14.

[45] See for example: Järvenpää,op cit, SOF News, op cit and Stringer op cit. 

[46] Military Periscope, Finland, 1 June 2016.

[47] Rod Thornton and Manos Karagiannis, “The Russian Threat to the Baltic States: The Problems Shaping Local Defense Mechanisms”, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2016, pp. 331 – 351, 347. 

[48] Ibid.

[49] National Defence Development Plan, op cit.  

[50] Ministry of National Defence Republic of Lithuania, Defence Policy 2017.  Accessed December 12, 2017

[51] Statistics are from Jane’s World Armies, Estonia-Army, 12 October 2017 and Accessed January 6, 2018

[52] Ibid.

[53] Barber et al, op cit, p. 88.

[54] Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment, 22 September 2017.

[55] Jane’s World Armies, Latvia – Army, 14 February 2017.

[56] Piotr Szymaṅski, “The Baltic States’ Territorial Defence Forces in the Face of Hybrid Threats,” OSW Commentary, No. 165, 20 March 2015, p. 4. Accessed December 11, 2017

[57] Szymaṅski, op cit, p. 5, Jane’s Sentinel, Latvia, 14 February 2017 and Marta Kepe and Jan Osburg, “Total Defense: How the Baltic States Are Integrating Citizenry Into Their National Security Strategies”, Small Wars Journal, September 24, 2017. Accessed January 3, 2018

[58] Szymaṅski, Ibid, p. 8.

[59] See for example: Thornton and Karagiannis, op cit, p. 347.

[60] See for example: Schmitt, op cit.

[61] Petteri Jouko, “Development of Finnish tactics after the Second World War”, Baltic Security and Defence Review, Vol. 12, Iss. 1, 2011, p. 201.

[62] All statistics are from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed December 13, 2017

[63] Lars Wallin & Bengt Andersson, “A Defence Model for the Baltic States”, European Security, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 2001, pp. 94 – 106, p. 99.

[64] Nicholas Blandford, “Deconstructing Hizbullah’s Surprise Military Prowess”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, Terrorism & Insurgency, November 1, 2006.

[65]  World Bank, Urban Population. Accessed December 13, 2017

[66] Thornton and Karagiannis, op cit, p. 342

[67] Eugene Miakinkov, “The Agency of Force in Asymmetrical Warfare and Counterinsurgency: The Case of Chechyna”, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 35, No. 5, October 2011, p. 667.

[68] Ibid, p. 669.

[69] See for example: Adam Elkus, “The Hezbollah Myth and Asymmetrical Warfare”, Small Wars Journal, August 17, 2010. Accessed January 4, 2018

[70] In Lithuania where the Forest Brothers’ movement was strongest, 20,200 partisans were killed, 140,000 people were sent to concentration camps and 118,000 civilians were deported. Source: Darius Bernotas, “Lithuanian Freedom Fighters: Tactics Resisting the Soviet Occupation 1944 – 53”, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, February 2012, p. 7

[71] C. J. Dick, “Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War”, Conflict Studies Research Centre, A 102, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, January 2002, p. 6.   

[72] Stephan J. Blank, “Russia’s Homegrown Insurgency: Jihad in the North Caucasus” Strategic Studies Institute” US Army War College, October 2012, p. 130 & p. 138. Accessed January 4, 2018


About the Author(s)

James K. Wither is Professor of National Security Studies and Director Fellowship programs at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. He is a retired British Army Officer and former researcher in 20th Century Warfare at the Imperial War Museum. He has published widely on the subject of warfare and terrorism and taught or presented terrorism related subjects at a wide variety of institutions, including the FBI Academy, the UK Defence Academy, the NATO School, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the Afghan Army Staff College. His publications include book chapters, monographs and journal articles. The latter include papers for RUSI Journal, Defence Studies, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Small Wars Journal, European Security and Parameters. Professor Wither is co-editor of the book Combating Transnational Terrorism, which was published in January 2016.  

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall Center, the government of the United States of America or the Federal Republic of Germany.



Mon, 01/15/2018 - 12:14pm


Your article addresses a lot of valid points regarding irregular warfare, total defense and overall resilience in the Baltic States. All three states certainly have a history of resistance warfare and strong national will.

It is imperative to integrate law enforcement, volunteer defense, home guard and civilian networks in key close, deep, support, and security areas. Every citizen needs to be educated and prepared for their role in "hybrid defense" and must enable inter-organizational resilience across the operational variables and continuum of conflict spectrum.

The greater dilemmas include the role of NATO during irregular warfare operations and activities in a NATO state or region.

How will NATO first, integrate with resistance warfare on the Baltic side and secondly, how will the joint force conduct simultaneous conventional and asymmetric operations in a NATO member state or region? These dilemmas involve combatant targeting approval (asymmetric proxy forces), rules of engagement, and battlespace ownership transitions. As you mentioned national and multi-national SOF have a key role during all stages of an escalating political or hybrid warfare strategy.

When key terrain is restored, the conflict is manipulated across the other instruments of national power and protracts what then? How long will NATO forces occupy member states charged with critical national infrastructure protection, intelligence operations and limited targeting of asymmetric proxy actors? The adversary's strategy extends beyond the major joint operation plan and hinges on limited warfare activities and frozen conflicts as desired end states.

Second and third order effects involve threat shifts to sanctuary, national rehabilitation and reconciliation dilemmas, economic crises, rise of populism and divergent policy in NATO member states.

The actual resilience stems from legitimate and transparent governance, effective government penetration that mitigates core population grievances and disenfranchisement, and a comprehensive (cross-domain) national and regional defense plan.

All three Baltic states should continue to synchronize their cross-domain defense efforts through their existing regional infrastructure and human enablers: training centers and defense academies, centers of excellence and world-class civilian and academic institutions.