February 10, 2023 - 1:00pm

Russia is capable of exerting “credible military pressure” on its Baltic neighbours, the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) claimed in its annual report this week. According to the EFIS, Estonia’s equivalent of MI6, while Russia is currently focusing its military efforts in Ukraine, it still poses a medium- and long-term security risk to the Baltic states, which also comprise Latvia and Lithuania. All three are members of NATO and the European Union, and have ramped up their military spending since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

“Russia’s belligerence and foreign policy ambitions have significantly increased security risks for Estonia,” the report states, acknowledging that the Baltic nations are “the most vulnerable part of NATO, which would make them a focus of military pressure in the event of a NATO-Russia conflict”. Indeed, “in the case of diplomatic and/or military success in the Ukraine issue, Russia will intensify political and military pressure on the Baltic states in the mid-2020s.”

Fears are growing due to the increasing number of Russian military exercises on the country’s western border. Russia’s upcoming ‘Zapad 2023’ strategic exercise has been brought forward by two years, and the EFIS suggests that the country’s military presence could be “quantitatively restored in the immediate vicinity of the Estonian border in up to four years”. Prior to the invasion, Russia had as many as 30,000 troops on its western flank, though many have since been re-located to fight in Ukraine. Still, its military presence remains a threat. Giving an interview in Tallinn this week following the publication of the report, EFIS Director General Kaupo Rosin said

“We will likely see forces near our borders, we will see naval and air force activity on the Baltic Sea. The aim of the exercise is probably to put military pressure on the West. It’s unusual in that it’s outside the scope of the usual schedule.” 
- Kaupo Rosin

In a separate interview, Rosin claimed that the “Russian Federation’s ambition is to create a completely new security situation in Europe”. One of Putin’s methods in gaining influence abroad is by way of the Russian Orthodox Church, which the EFIS chief labelled a “propaganda tool” that is used to stir up anti-Western feeling in branches of the Church in the three Baltic states, as well as Poland. “[The church’s] activities are quite crafty,” Rosin added.

Last year’s EFIS report predicted that Putin was “ready for war with Ukraine”, and that an invasion would come in February 2022. While Rosin argued in the 2023 report that “Russia has so far failed in its war of aggression”, he also conceded that “there is still enough fuel for the war machine — Russia will not soon run out of cannon fodder”. This is in striking contrast to the insistence of Sir Jeremy Fleming, the head of GCHQ, last November that Putin’s army was running out of both munitions and troops. 

The threat posed to the Baltic states, and the rest of Europe, is not likely to diminish when Putin’s time in office ends. Rosin writes in the EFIS report that “a new Gorbachev […] does not appear on the horizon. The democratic world should not create illusions that post-Putin Russia will soon embrace democratic values”. 

Should Russia achieve its strategic aims in Ukraine, the likelihood of conflict with NATO member states would be greatly increased. Estonia and its neighbours are expected to be the first point of contact for this potential conflict. It is clear, Rosin writes, that “Ukraine’s victory in the war against Russia would also improve regional security”.

Speaking to UnHerd today, an EFIS representative said:

Putin wants to sit at the negotiation table in a position of strength. To him, compromise would be a sign of weakness. Talks about negotiations and remarks made by the Russian leadership about their willingness to talk is just a smokescreen. For Putin, negotiations are just part of his tactics to win time, test the coherence of Western countries, pressure Ukraine, and mislead the rest of the world.

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.