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.

Poland's volunteer WOT militia
Poland's volunteer WOT militia
Alexandre Lévy

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.

Weekend warriors

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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A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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