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James A. Rice speaks on Estonian defense strategy in the wake of Russian aggression

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n February 16, 2021, Mr. James A. Rice, an IWP alumnus, appeared as a guest speaker for an Intermarium Lecture Series event entitled, Estonia’s “Total Defense” Principle: Learning from History. As Legislative Director for U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mr. James Rice informs Senator Grassley on foreign policy matters, particularly considering Senator Grassley’s co-chair position in the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus.

According to Mr. Rice, understanding Estonia’s history is vital to understanding Estonian society and government today. Estonia greatly values its NATO and EU membership, as well as its bilateral relationship with the U.S.

Estonian military strategy contains elements of a society-wide, national resistance concept dating back to the Estonian War of Independence and the anti-Soviet, armed resistance period following World War II. The Forest Brothers was a Baltic resistance force during the Soviet occupation of the three Baltic states, both during and after World War II. After realizing that liberation was not imminent, the Armed Resistance League was established in the 1940s and created a more centralized command structure among bands of Forest Brothers. Operations included attacks on Soviet shipments of goods and subsequent redistribution of these items to farmers. The spirit and impact of the Forest Brothers ultimately encouraged Estonians to restore their independence in 1991.

Since its independence, Estonia has been a small nation surrounded by aggressive, great powers, and therefore, unconventional warfare has long been part of Estonia’s strategic calculus. Although Estonia’s geopolitical position has since improved substantially, with its EU membership and obtaining Germany as an ally, concerns have nevertheless arisen due to Russia’s aggressive behavior in the region, such as the 2008 occupation of Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Consequently, Estonia has updated its defense policies to address Russian aggression, with NATO playing a central role in defense planning.

In the case of a Russian invasion, Estonia’s current strategy is to delay initial response for as long as possible until a larger NATO ally can assist. However, a 2016 report by the RAND Corporation indicated that NATO was unprepared to defend the Baltics against a Russian attack, with Russian forces able to reach the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, in 60 hours. More recent reports by the Jamestown Foundation and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments also concluded that considerable increases in conventional forces are needed to deter Russian aggression.

Given its history of people-led resistance, Estonia’s defense planning does not rely solely on conventional military defense. After independence, Estonia’s first defense chief issued General Order No. 1, calling on all Estonian defense forces to provide active resistance to any aggressor, without waiting for orders, unless ordered otherwise by the president. While American strategic thinking is focused on conventional military defense, due to its size, geography, and history, Estonia’s National Security Concept embraces a “total defense” principle, involving the whole of society both to deter aggression and raise the cost of action. With this, all male Estonians from the ages 16-60 have a constitutional obligation to participate in national defense.

According to Estonia’s National Defense Strategy, “the basis of Estonia’s national defense is the Estonian population’s strong will to defend their country,” and Estonia will “defend itself in all circumstances and against any adversary, no matter how overwhelming.” Polling data also illustrates that Estonian citizens are willing to fight if needed. In fact, the Estonian Defense League, a voluntary national defense organization, has seen an increase in the number of volunteers following recent Russian aggression.

In sum, Mr. Rice asserted that U.S. policy should take the Baltic unconventional warfare strategy into account to ensure Baltic security. In this, U.S. military assistance planning will appropriately consider different training and equipment necessities of the Estonian Defense League, as the principle of “total defense” provides a level of deterrence beyond conventional military capabilities.

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