To preserve liberal democracy, look East

‘The Baltic democracies accomplished what their allies to the West still have not: they hardened their societies without undermining their democratic institutions’

After 2014, I began spending a lot of time in the Baltic states. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine had sent a clear message to the West: our multi-trillion dollar war machine would be powerless to stop their indirect methods of subverting national sovereignty. Nato, after years of neglecting European defence, was left scrambling for a plan.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had long been seen as Nato’s Achilles heel, and the circumstances on the ground were unpromising. More than a quarter of Estonia and Latvia’s citizens were ethnic Russians (albeit of sharply different backgrounds and outlook). As small, open countries, the Baltics were a tempting target for foreign manipulation. And Nato’s attention was focused elsewhere—in Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Yet after six years of consistent and hostile media bombardment, political subversion and cyber attacks, the Baltic states remain sovereign. With ingenuity and determination, these small liberal democracies accomplished what their allies to the West still have not: they hardened their societies without undermining their democratic institutions. It was a defence miracle to accompany the political and economic ones they achieved starting in the late 1980s, and it is a success of which Washington and London should take note.

The Soviet occupation of the three countries was both a devastating setback, and a spur to development. When independence was restored in 1991, it came to a population that had been brutally subjugated for half a century by a neighbour more than 100 times its size. They vowed it would never happen again. 

Each country is different, but the Estonian example is illustrative. The resilience has both military and civil dimensions. Even before the formal restoration of independence, Estonians had resurrected the Kaitseliit, or Defence League, an organisation of part-time volunteers akin to a home guard whose mission was to resist foreign occupation by any means necessary. Tracing its ethos to the heroic (but ultimately futile) Forest Brothers resistance against Soviet occupation, the Defence League holds an esteemed place in Estonian society.

While the active duty Estonian military numbers just over 6,000 soldiers, the Kaitseliit, when mobilised, numbers nearly 30,000. Similar forces exist in Latvia’s Zemessardze and Lithuania’s National Defence Volunteer Forces, and in the state-supported but independent Rifleman’s Union. Governments in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius have all invested heavily in resistance as a means of national defence. 

And despite being woefully outnumbered by Russian forces in conventional terms, Baltic military leaders are not intimidated by the disparity. When asked by reporters what would happen if Russian troops invaded Estonia, the current Defence League commander replied, bluntly, “They will die in Tallinn”.

Western military commanders could use some of this grit. After small groups of poorly organised irregulars humbled the most powerful conventional army in the history of the world in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should be no surprise that the Russian military wants no part of a hardened, organised resistance in the Baltic states that would have the full support of the Western alliance.

This was why I, as a western army officer, spent considerable time in all three countries, to work with these organisations and assist in the hardening processes embarked upon by their democratically elected governments. The small contribution I made remains the greatest honour of my military career, because Baltic governments did not allow the transformation to undermine their liberal institutions. Estonia ranks better than even Canada in the Press Freedom Index, and all three Baltic states rank above the United States and France in the Freedom House Democracy Index. Such statistics illustrate the stark contrast between the Baltic states and the Russian Federation.

But the military aspect of this phenomenon is only one half of the equation. After Russian cyberattacks crippled many parts of Estonian society in 2007, the country took action. Now, 13 years later, it is one of the most digitally connected countries on the planet, with cyber security measures in place that cast those of much larger nations in the shade.

In fact, the Küberkaitse Üksus, the Estonian Cyber Defence Unit, is part of the Defence League, the same volunteer force of men and women trained to conduct resistance operations in the event of foreign invasion. So effective has the cyber hardening of Estonia been that malware epidemics of recent years which seriously damaged other Western economies left Estonia virtually untouched.

Similar efforts are underway in Latvia,  and in Lithuania, where the self-styled “Elves” has recruited thousands of civilians to combat the “Trolls” (Tolkien fans, who abound in the Baltics,  will get the allusion) who spread disinformation and other malignities. Lithuania is the coordinator of the European Union’s programme for mutual assistance in cyber security, and a Nato-affiliated centre of excellence for cyber-security is based in Tallinn.

Across the spectrum, whether for pre-conflict resilience such as cyber security, or in preparation for resistance against hostile occupation, the Baltic states are leading the West by adapting to the norms of 21st-century conflict while preserving their democratic foundations. 

For 30 years, the Baltic states looked West for guidance as they emerged from the darkness of the 20th century. And in the wake of the seizure of Crimea, there is no doubt that we helped. One important move was the establishment of Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence: a British-led deployment in Estonia, matched by a Canadian presence in Lativa, and Germans in Lithuania. Another, less public role in safeguarding Baltic sovereignty was played by the missions of Allied special operations teams. But the decisive factor was the local commitment to build resilience across all parts of society: government, business and civil society.

So as America enters another election year, and western Europe still struggles to defend itself against Russian efforts to subvert its democratic institutions, the paradigm has shifted. 

For the means to preserve liberal democracy in 2020, we should look East.

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