Special Operations: Stalingrad On The Baltic


August 5, 2018: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (the “Baltic States” that were long part of Russia) are the easternmost members of NATO as well as the smallest. All three have adopted similar defense plans, based on the mobilization of the entire population to keep the Russians fighting for as long as possible until the rest of NATO can show up and force the Russians out. Each of the three Baltic States has a slightly different approach to dealing with the Russian threat but together are recognized as leaders in developing innovative defense policies to deal with the Russian military threat. This is important because Russia has been resourceful in developing new techniques for attacking and subduing neighbors. Russia has been doing this for centuries and the neighbors are well aware of it. The Baltic States, however, have developed defensive plans that seek to use some of the clever Russian plans against the Russians.

Most active in this approach is Estonia, which is the easternmost NATO nation and the Baltic state that is ethnically related to Finland, not the other Slavic nations of East Europe. Estonia and Finland speak a similar language and share many cultural characteristics, which has led to some different approaches to wrangling Russians. Until the early 20th century there were serious discussions of Estonia becoming part of Finland but that has faded. The main problem is that Estonia and Finland are separated by a narrow portion of the Baltic Sea. While still major trading partners and frequently providing welcome visitors for each other, Estonia is isolated on the south shore of the Baltic and thus more vulnerable to foreign occupation. Nevertheless, the Estonians and Finns share many of the same attitudes about national defense, which means how to keep the Russians out.

The Finns defeated the massive Soviet Army in 1940 and the Russians never forgot that. After World War II Russia decided not to try to make Finland one of its “satellite states” as was the case in most of East Europe. Note that Russian took over these East European government not so much with military occupation but with political and media manipulation (assisted by a little violence) to get a pro-Russia government elected, after which there were no more elections. There were no Russian troops based in Finland during the Cold War and both nations left each other alone. The Russians had decided that, while they could invade and conquer Finland, it was not worth the price militarily, politically, diplomatically and so on.

Now, with membership in NATO, Estonia sees an opportunity to do the same thing; scare Russia into staying out. Estonian defense policy is based on organizing the country for total resistance to any invasion. Everyone fights and keeps fighting as long as NATO reinforcements are on the way. Thus while military planners agree that it is possible for Russian forces to “overrun Estonia in s few days” the Estonians point out that overrunning and defeating are two different things. Moreover, nearly half the population lives in the capital (Tallinn) which is an ancient port city and 87 kilometers to the north, across the Baltic, is its Finnish counterpart, Helsinki. The Estonians are well aware of Russian developments in EW (Electronic Warfare) and Internet hacking. That is one reason why Estonia has created one of the best Internet and communications security capabilities in Europe. Estonia may be small but they know what is important. If the Russians come their bad behavior will be captured and broadcast (one way or another) as close to 24/7 as the Estonians can manage. Russia does not like its bad behavior exposed like that because even a lot of Russians don’t approve of that sort of thing. Broadcast the lies live and the lies lose their power.

The Estonian military forces reflect the total war attitude. The voluntary Eesti Kaitseliit (Estonian Defense League) has 15,000 active members and another 10,000 inactive (in peacetime). The military is based on the same model used by Israel, Switzerland and Sweden; conscription for a short period and then decades in the trained and armed reserves. Thus there are only 6,500 full-time Estonian troops but 60,000 in the reserves. The Defense League force concentrate on training for irregular warfare and spend more time at it than the average reservist. In wartime, the Defense League and reservists would work closely together to keep the invaders busy and off guard. The biggest problem facing any invader is that fact that nearly half the Estonians live in the capital and its suburbs. The Defense League and reservists understand that Tallinn must become, for as long as needed and at whatever cost, another “Stalingrad” with the Russians being the German invaders. Stalingrad remains a big deal in Russian military history, the city on the Volga River that tied down the invading, and seemingly unstoppable Germans for months until a counterattack inflicted a major defeat in early 1943 that led to a German retreat and ended with Russian troops taking Berlin two years later.

The lesson learned in World War II was to avoid fighting inside cities as much as possible. If you can’t take a city quickly, surround it and pass it by. The Russians can’t do that to Tallinn and the Estonians are taking advantage of that. The Estonians are also capitalizing on the “crazy Finns” reputation. In the past, the Estonians have proved a stubborn as their Finnish cousins up north but never had the numbers and territorial depth that enabled the Finns to defeat the Russians in 1940. Now, as a NATO member, Estonia has depth, in the form of NATO reinforcement and time is on the side of the Estonians because if Tallinn turns into a Stalingrad type battle the Russians have lost. The Russians know this and discuss it openly in their military journals. If the Russians have a solution they are keeping their own troops in the dark. That usually means the Russians are stymied, as long as the Estonians maintain their determination for total war and Stalingrad on the Baltic.

NATO is very familiar with urban warfare and has been for a long time and appreciates what the Russians would be up against in Tallinn. NATO has long considered MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) a major issue even after the end of Cold War and after the post-2001 fighting. In the future, there would be more fighting in urban areas (buildings and streets). The importance of MOUT was noted back during the 1980s when it was realized that a war with the Soviet Union in Europe would involve a lot more fighting in built-up (urban) areas than in the open. That was discovered when a staff study revealed that West Germany was rapidly urbanizing and the construction was largely cement and steel, creating structures that made better bunkers for defenders. Fortunately, NATO was preparing to play defense against an expected Russian invasion. About the same time, Russian planners noted the same urbanization trends in West Europe and realized that there was nothing similar in Russian occupied East Europe, which made the Russians more vulnerable to a NATO offensive. What was discovered after 2010 was that these two trends merged with a lot of the most difficult combat taking place in urban areas. Moreover, a lot (if not most) of the growth in urbanization took place in areas that were most likely to be future combat zones.

About the same time the U.S. Army Center for Lessons Learned (CALL) was established so U.S. commanders use it to determine what works in combat and what doesn't based on past (decades or last week) experience. This is more important than ever in the 21st century, where urban combat and counter-insurgency conflicts dominate, and new technologies appear at a rapid rate. In urban warfare and counter-insurgency, the potential for mistakes to be made is exponentially larger than in conventional, large-scale warfare.

Another major problem with urban warfare has been having a decent place to train for it. The U.S. Army and Marines began building and have built training areas for this, at great expense. What drives the cost up is the need to install equipment so you can video most of the action, the better to critique the troops after they are "killed." And special building materials are used to allow the use of low power training bullets and practice hand grenades. While having these facilities is great for the units that can be brought in, there is still the hassle of shipping infantry units to them.

One solution to the problem is portable urban combat trainers. Called "Mobile MOUT." Shipping containers were converted to modules that can be endlessly reconfigured for training. The containers are 2.44 meter (8-feet) wide by 2.75 meter (9-feet) high by 6.1 meter (20-feet long) and have movable walls that allow quick reconfiguration for whatever MOUT training is desired. The containers can also be joined side-by-side, or stacked to create multi-story buildings. There are also reconfigurable stairways (open or enclosed), allowing the troops to learn to deal with the tricky business of fighting up and down stairwells.

The containers can be covered with brick, stucco, cinderblock or other facades to enhance realism. Plywood interior lining is realistic and enables the use of short-range (low power) training ammunition for live-fire scenarios. You can do a lot of training with just one or two containers, or build your own little town with up to 30 or 40 buildings composed of 100 or more containers. All the containers come equipped with cameras, microphones, motion detectors, smoke and smell generators. Everything is recorded in a digital format, both video and audio, for the after action critique. For this, two containers can be put together, with one providing a control room in the rear and the other a 30-seat theater, featuring 61-inch displays, in front. The first two of these MOUT training containers were sent to Afghanistan by 2003. There was a lot of MOUT operations in Afghanistan, as Special Forces or infantry stage raids on compounds suspected of harboring Taliban or al Qaeda fighters. Each MOUT training container costs about $140,000 (if you buy a 15 container set).

As expected after 2001 there came a lot of combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan which made it obvious the importance of realistic MOUT training. As a result, additional training areas are being built all over the United States. One of the first ones was a U.S. Army urban warfare center in Alaska that covered 480 hectares (1,200 acres). Over 24 buildings were built initially, enough to allow an infantry battalion to practice street fighting and clearing buildings of hostiles. Nearby, a live fire range is being built, so that a company at a time can train with live ammunition. Down south in San Diego, the U.S. Marine Corps built a similar MOUT center.

As a result of all this, both the Army and Marines have developed new tactics for MOUT battles, and needed the specialized training areas to teach the troops how it's done, and to work on improving current tactics, and maintaining skills. One thing that was learned going into Afghanistan, was that you can't have too much practice when it comes to MOUT. It's a tricky business, with ample opportunity for getting ambushed, and for friendly fire losses. You must have well thought out, and combat proven, drills, and the troops must be well practiced in their use.

This led the Marines to spend $15 million on expanding its MOUT facilities at Camp Lejune, North Carolina. The expansion area will contain 75 buildings, most of them constructed to allow for repeated urban warfare training. Some of the buildings will be for training staff or trainee support. The new facility was ready by late 2009. The Army and Marines spent several hundred million dollars over five years, to construct these urban training areas. Even in Afghanistan, a lot of the fighting gets done in, or around, buildings. To get troops ready for this kind of combat, you need training areas that mimic the urban terrain that will be encountered in the battle zone.

It turns out that with the revived emphasis on fighting modern combat forces and using MOUT combat experience will prove invaluable for defending as well as attacking. The American solution is not to fight in the city like the Germans and Russians did in Stalingrad. Even during World War II, the Americans realized they had the firepower (bombers and artillery) to level any city that refused to surrender. This was how ISIL was driven out of Mosul and Raqqa. Even when forced into a MOUT situation the Americans developed weapons (tanks specially equipped for MOUT) and heavy use of smart bombs and guided missiles. The Russians learned the same lesson in Chechnya. In the early 1990s, they attempted to take the capital city (Grozny, or “dread” in English) and failed because the Chechens went full Estonian on them. The Russians came back in 1999 and took Grozny after they turned the city into a pile of rubble. That took months and the Chechens could not expect NATO or anyone else to reinforce them. The Estonians noted this with great interest, as did Chechnya southern neighbor Georgia. While independent after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Georgia got into a border dispute with Russia that resulted in a brief Russian incursion in 2008. The Russians were described as “overrunning the country in a few days”. The Russians did not. They occupied the bits of Georgia they wanted and did not advance on the Georgian capital which the Russians knew would be stubbornly defended by “crazy Georgians.” Josef Stalin was a Georgian and was still a national hero in Georgia not because he ruled the Soviet Union for three decades but because he got so many Russians killed.

Russian military planners are also well aware that NATO countries have a lot more practical experience in MOUT and can afford to build realistic MOUT training facilities. Estonia has access to all this, as well as unofficial assistance from its non-NATO neighbors (especially Finland, but also Sweden). That unofficial aid will be most valuable getting the video evidence of Russian activities out to the world. It’s not just vampires that cannot operate in daylight (although in East Europe there are legends of a type of vampire that can, so there you are).


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