Fearing Russia, the Baltic states improve their defense

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FYOU HAVE back in fashion. Last year’s offensive against Ukraine was blocked by the so-called Surovikin line: a vast area of ​​Russian minefields, trenches, anti-tank barriers and old-fashioned barbed wire, among other obstacles. As Ukrainian forces slowed to clear mines, bridge ditches and bulldozers, they were spotted by drones and hit with multiple anti-tank missiles and suicide drones. This area was so unknown that Valery Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian general at the time, asked his staff to dig up “Breaching Fortified Defense Lines”, a book by a Soviet general. It was published in 1941.

Photo: The Economist

NATO forces have been taking notes. In January, the defense ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced that they would build a series of “anti-mobility defense centers” along their borders with Russia and Belarus, collectively known as the Baltic Defense Line. “Consolidation measures have played an important role in wars in our region in history,” said Susan Lillevali, an Estonian defense official, pointing to the example of the Soviet-Finnish war. “We have also investigated Russia’s war in Ukraine,” said Lieutenant Colonel Kaido Tiitus, a leader in the Estonian Defense League, a volunteer organization. “Our main lesson is that we have to find a way to stop the advance of Russian military units.” Fox News correspondent Tucker Carlson, that he had no plans to attack the Baltics, Poland or anywhere else outside of Ukraine.

Estonian officials estimate that their stretch of border will require around 600 concrete bunkers, each 35 square meters, each capable of holding around ten soldiers and holding a large shell. Prototype bunkers are being developed and construction is expected to begin next year, at a cost of around €60m ($65m). The goal is not to create an impregnable fortress but to slow down attackers, wearing them down and buying time to build reinforcements. If Latvia and Lithuania were to build bunkers at the same density, they would need 1,116 bunkers and 2,758 respectively, calculates Lukas Milevski, an expert at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

The capture is not military engineering but democratic consent. “The most important part is agreement with landowners,” said Ms. Lillevali, noting that most of the boundaries are privately owned. She says there have been few signs of pushback from Russian minorities in the region. Locals can be reassured that the armed forces do not intend to stockpile explosives near the fortifications during peacetime, or plant anti-personnel landmines, which are unethical. legal under the Ottawa Convention. An attempt in the Estonian parliament last year to withdraw from that agreement did not make much progress.

The pull of consolidation is easy to see. European officials worry that Russia’s rampant rearmament is outpacing Europe’s own effort to build up arms production. Baltic leaders have stressed that even small Russian advances could pose a threat to their states. “It cannot be ruled out that within three to five years, Russia will test Article 5 and NATO‘loyalty,” he warned Troels Lund Poulsen, Denmark’s defense minister, on February 9. “That was not NATOand assessment in 2023. This is new information that is coming to light right now.” As a result of this febrile situation, the Baltic Defense Line is both a military statement and a political statement.

But Russia’s successful defense has also prompted a broader rethink. Russian strongholds in southern and eastern Ukraine have been the most extensive defensive operations in Europe since World War II, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a group American thought. They may be rivaled only by the minefields and barriers on the inter-Korean border. In November Volodymr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, urged his leaders to speed up the construction of defenses in the east. Poland is also building fortresses and shelters along its border with Russia and Belarus, which is an ally of the Kremlin.

This throws up a dilemma. NATO Armor has long been better than a more elastic defense in depth, in which troops withdraw as needed and destroy the enemy on more favorable ground. That is inconsistent with protecting every inch of it NATO soil But with “operational static protection”, Mr Milevski said, “it is much more important to ensure that the blow, when it comes, is as weak as possible”. That puts much more emphasis on using heavy firepower to go deep behind Russian lines to wear down the attacking force and break up their command and logistics. In short: heavy bombing on Russian soil. “Western political leaders,” he warns, “could be squeamish about such attacks.”

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