The writer is commander of Estonian Defence Forces
By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated beyond all doubt that he is prepared to use military force — including the threat of nuclear weapons — to attain his geostrategic aims. The inevitable conclusion is that for the people of Ukraine, deterrence has not worked. Attacking them was clearly a crazy thing to do, but Putin still went ahead. From now on, only one thing matters: we need to be militarily prepared for any scenario. Strong defence is the only way to change the Russian calculus.
In the days and weeks leading up to the invasion, the threat of economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts of Ukraine’s supporters failed to prevent Putin from sending his troops over the border. Russia’s threat to the European security order has led to a new political and military reality, where aggression against Nato allies cannot be ruled out.
It is not that the west has necessarily done something wrong. We assumed that Russia, while having an aggressive stance towards its neighbours, had entered the 21st century and accepted the autonomy of other countries and the free will of their citizens. We had assumed that if we talked to Putin and demonstrated a certain level of military strength, Moscow would consider the price of invasion to be too high.
In retrospect, the only reasonable and realistic action would have been rapid and large-scale military assistance to considerably strengthen Ukrainian defence capabilities. Many Nato allies, including the US, Canada, UK, and Estonia were engaged in training of Ukrainian forces in the years before the invasion. A wider effort might not have succeeded in preventing the war, but it could have halted the invasion in its earliest stages and thus saved many Ukrainian lives.
However, it seems that with every Russian military engagement over the past 30 years, the Kremlin’s threshold for aggression has fallen ever lower. As Moscow’s desire for self-assertion has increased, the west’s response has often been too soft or accommodating.
For Nato allies, deterrence has worked so far and we have not experienced military aggression. But since Putin is not prepared to play by the same rules as the rest of us, we have no guarantees. We need a fundamental shift in approach: we need to move from deterrence by punishment to deterrence by denial. In other words, we me must be ready to prevent Russia taking a single inch of Nato territory, rather than simply trying to reconquer occupied enclaves. We need to rethink our objectives — first and foremost, we must prepare stronger defences.
In light of the changed security environment, we need to double the speed and scale of our efforts to boost our military posture across the alliance. The overall aim is to be able to put in place a credible defence capability anywhere on Nato territory, from the very beginning of a conflict. We cannot wait for another massacre such as the one in Bucha to happen before taking action.
To do this, Estonia and its fellow Nato members need to shape up. First, governments must trust military personnel to build readiness. Not in drawing up defence or security policy, but in proposing the best solutions according to military science. Those with practical experience on the battlefield can decide how best to invest the allotted money to defend their country.
Second, states must invest wisely. There is no point in acquiring the most modern technology if you don’t have the people, the skills or the funds to sustain it, or enough ammunition to use it, in case of a conflict. Unfortunately, these foundations do not sound exciting, and cannot easily be displayed to adversaries. How do you present at a parade the amount of training, ammunition, communication systems or equipment maintenance you have undertaken, which are all critical in warfare?
Third, Nato and its allies need to prepare much more comprehensively for swift and viable deployments at the first signs of aggression. We must deny Russia any military success anywhere on the alliance’s territory.
The aim is not to intimidate: when deploying forces to Nato countries, we should not measure how much deterrence those aircraft, ships or tanks are providing. Instead, we must assess how ready the forces are to fight in case of need. And if it is not sustainable to keep the necessary number of forces to counterbalance Russia permanently stationed in frontline Nato countries, then we need to have a credible defence plan for emergency deployment.
Finally, we must demonstrate our military readiness, not through rhetoric, but through actions, with a clear explanation of what we are doing and why. Real defence capabilities would speak to the Kremlin far louder than our words have done.