From The Baltics To Poland, Militias Rising Against Russian Threat
The arrival of Russia-friendly Donald Trump in the White House has heightened concerns that Moscow is ready for its next move after Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
TALLINN — Their emblem seems to show a dog baring its teeth. But take a closer look, and you'll notice it's actually a wolf. In Poland, the civilian volunteers making the brand new Territorial Defense Force (Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej, WOT) want to make an impression — and, most of all, to be taken seriously.
Since Jan. 1, this militia is officially and legally integrated into the country's defense system, alongside the army, the air force, the navy and the special forces. Eventually, it's expected to gather some 35,000 men — the Polish press even talks of 50,000 — across 17 brigades, positioned essentially in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
The Polish authorities are very open about it: These measures are a response to "Russia's aggressive intentions," as the country's Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz explained. A threat that has grown significantly since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the subsequent simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In a country that's been led since the end of 2015 by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which gladly fans the flames of xenophobia, the existence of this paramilitary force can raise eyebrows. But by legalizing the WOT, Poland is merely following the example set by its neighbors, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which all turned their voluntary organizations into a cornerstone of national defense.
These small Baltic states, NATO member states just like Poland, currently feel even more vulnerable. They're convinced that they could be sacrificed at any moment if it helps good relations between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. And the nomination of Rex Tillerson, known for his contacts with the Kremlin, as Secretary of State has only reinforced certainty across the region that they now have to be prepared for the "worst-case scenario" when it comes to Moscow — namely to be left to their own devices.
The view looks similar from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a country of just 1.3 million inhabitants. "We still count on our allies," says Estonia's former Defense Minister Hannes Hanso. "But we also have to be able to defend ourselves, and to do so, we need to use all available resources." With a professional army of barely 5,000 troops, Estonia can count on some 30,000 volunteers regrouped under the Estonian Defense League (Kaitseliit).
"They call us "weekend soldiers,"" Brigadier General Meelis Kiili, who leads the Kaitseliit, says with a smile. "But it's also what makes our strength: The men and women who join us do it solely out of conviction. What's more, they are mature people who come with their experience, their capabilities and their networks. Their contribution to the country's defense is invaluable."
In neighboring Latvia, the Latvian National Guard (Zemessardze) operates under similar circumstances. The two volunteer groups regularly organize joint "war games," for instance the annual Spring Storm military exercise. In the latest exercise, the Latvians were playing the aggressor in a scenario that could easily be mistaken for events actually happening in Ukraine: a sabotage and infiltration operation, guerilla warfare and finally conventional warfare with armored vehicles and artillery.
"Our exercises have become more intensive and, even more importantly, more realistic," says the young Latvian commander Karlis Dambitis, who by day is a historian for the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga. Established across the country, and with members from all areas of society, these volunteers are preparing for the possibility of being on the front line, in case of a Russian aggression. National defense, they say, is "everybody's concern."
Further to the south, in Lithuania, the authorities started to publish in 2014 a booklet with instructions to the population in case of an invasion. Despite the fact that Lithuania is the only Baltic country with a decent army (more than 20,000-strong), volunteers still went and joined the ranks of the Lithuanian Riflemen's Union (Sauliu Sajunga), a patriotic organization known for its resistance to Soviet power through the 1950s.
But could these "weekend soldiers" really stand up to one of the world's most powerful armies? The Polish don't seem to harbor too many illusions. "The WOT against Russian Spetsnaz? That'd be massacre," the Warsaw-based Newsweek Polska wrote in December.
In his book War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command, published in October 2016, British general Sir Richard Shirreff described with precision what a Russian intervention might look like: half of Ukraine and the three Baltic countries invaded in fewer than three days, missiles in Kaliningrad pointed towards the capitals of a paralyzed Europe and Western troops incapacitated before the nuclear option ...
The author knows, in theory, what he's talking about. He used to lead the NATO's Rapid Reaction Corps until being named Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. But his book reads like a thriller where good eventually prevails thanks to the combined boldness of one of her Majesty's soldiers and ... a group of Latvian volunteers. "This is fiction, but it is fact-based, entirely plausible, and very closely modeled on what I know," the author writes in his preface. You have hereby been warned.
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