Patriot missiles are needed in the Baltic states to deter a Russian invasion, Estonia’s defence chief has warned.
As Nato agonises over proposals to deploy four battalions in eastern Europe concerns are growing that the measure will not be enough to provide a credible deterrent to future Russian aggression. The deployment of a force of no more than 4,000 personnel would be the first permanent basing of alliance troops in the region since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Lieutenant General Riho Terras, Estonia’s commander-in-chief, said an inadequate air defence capability made the Baltic region vulnerable to a Russian lightning attack. Nato needed to consider increasing the number of warplanes it has based in the region, and plan for the deployment of Patriot batteries.
“Of very great importance is our self-defence capability . . . what we need [for that] is air defence capability,” said Gen Terras. “We need to be ready and we need to look at what we need to do. Russia behaves opportunistically. If they have the opportunity, they’ll jump through the window to take it.”
Nato chiefs are set to finalise a package of measures aimed at boosting eastern European defences at the alliance’s biennial summit, to be held in Warsaw in July.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are widely seen as a prime target for Russian revanchism, should relations with Nato deteriorate further. The Baltic countries are linked to the rest of Nato territory by a narrow strip of land that runs between Belarus, one of Moscow’s staunchest allies, and Kaliningrad, the heavily militarised Russian coastal enclave.
“The Baltic states can be seen as an island,” said Gen Terras. “The gap is small . . . there’s one railway and two roads going through it.”
Basing new battalions there was a strong first step, said the general, but Nato also needed to develop its own anti-access aerial denial, or A2AD, strategy such as powerful surface-to-air missile systems — that the alliance has long feared Russia could use in the region.
Nato military chiefs say Russian missile systems in Kaliningrad have carved out an “A2AD bubble”, making it hard for the alliance to manouevre its forces anywhere in the area, even deep within its own territory.
For example, it would be too risky to deploy the Spearhead rapid response force, the 5,000-strong brigade established in 2014, in most of Poland or anywhere in the Baltic region in the event of a conflict with Russia, alliance generals believe.
The Baltic states cannot develop an A2AD capability on their own, said Gen Terras and need Nato to do so. “At the least, we need to be trained to get [Patriot missiles] here quickly . . . and to know where to position them, if not to have them based here [permanently] like it was the case in Turkey,” he said.
Any such development would draw an angry response from the Kremlin, which has already threatened “retaliatory measures” to the proposal to deploy four battalions. It would also up the ante in the stand-off between Russia and the US over missile defence. Patriot batteries are capable of intercepting tactical ballistic missiles but not of striking down intercontinental systems.
Stepping up Nato’s air power in the region could be an easier alternative. An existing Nato Baltic air policing arrangement involves a rotational deployment of alliance fighter jets. Four British Typhoons and four Portuguese F16s are on high-alert ready to intercept suspicious Russian aircraft. Shifting it to an air defence mission would involve a far larger deployment with combat capabilities.
Such decisions would be contentious, said Gen Terras, who was confident they would be made. “The crucial thing, whatever happens, is the unity of Nato. The centre of gravity for us is that unity,” he added. “Without it, we all lose.”
Get alerts on Nato when a new story is published