WASHINGTON — In September, Russia and Belarus ran the latest version of the biannual Zapad training exercise. While training against an incursion from the fictional nation of Veshnoriya, the exercise was widely viewed as practice against NATO allies, with particular concern from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Among those closely watching Zapad was Col. Kaupo Rosin, Estonia’s chief of military intelligence. During a recent visit to Washington, Rosin sat down with Defense News to discuss lessons learned from Zapad and what Russia may do next.
What areas were you concerned about before Zapad? And since that exercise, what have you learned needs attention?
For us, since we are dealing every day with Russia, the Zapad is just one milestone in the development of Russian armed forces, where the Russians have tested some elements. There were some interesting [results], but it was just one event. You have to keep in mind the longer development line and direction, where the Russians are going — increasing troops, adding new capabilities, over development of the Russian forces, and so on.
Obviously the Russians knew everyone was watching this exercise. What were they trying to signal to the NATO nations?
The Russians knew it was publicly communicated from the West that everybody’s watching the events in Belarus. So they probably changed the plan a little bit. The Belarusian part was from the Belarusians. They cleared all the numbers, what was present in Belarusian territory, and it was pretty much true what they told everybody. But that involves only the Belarusian part.
Everything else that happened throughout Russia was not communicated at all. So, the point was to draw attention to Belorussia, show that everything is transparent. And I think they pretty much succeeded in that. But nothing about the rest of the big exercise [was transparent]. Belorussia was just, for me, a side effort of the whole scenario.
I would say if you took a look at the overall scale, that the main military effort was closer to Estonia and Latvia on the Russian side. The Arctic is always part of the European war theater, first; and second, we know that Russians are very much investing in modern military logistics there, opening bases. The Russians want to test their plans in the north and get ready to exercise their troops, exercise the command and control in the Nordic.
In a lot of ways, wasn’t that what Zapad was about, testing the command and control across the entire potential front?
Yes, you have to test your command control. You have to exercise the troops, how to deploy, how to operate, [become familiar with] the terrain, the elements of the plan. There were different types of problems. There are always problems. But overall, they were better after any exercise. Overall, I think the Russians were successful. The interesting [component involved] reforming warfare. The exercise basically [addressed] two factors. First, how to jam the enemy, which is logical; and second, how to operate [within those] conditions themselves. They of course know that an electronic field is both a challenge for them and a possibility, since Western militaries are very dependent on different electronic communications, reach back and so on.
They know that if they can attack it successfully, then they get the advantage in some fields; and they also know that the NATO is also technically advanced and has its own capabilities. So, the conclusion with Russians is they have to know how to operate under such conditions themselves. You need different skills, procedures and so on to conduct a successful war under those [circumstances]. You have to learn how to command your military with a paper map. So they did that, and I think they are definitely ahead of us [there].
One of the aspects we’ve heard Russia focused on was electronic warfare. Was there any EW aspect that surprised you?
The amount of jamming of their own troops surprised me. It was at a level we haven’t seen. And they did it in the different branches, so land force, Air Force. That definitely surprised us. The threat of the Russians is that if they are jammed, they can fall back into a civilian infrastructure on their own land, which gives them an advantage in operating in the vicinity of Russia. So, they have that advantage. They tested [their own troops] to learn how to switch into their own cable network and not to emanate anymore, but to deal with the problem. We have to approach the problem as a complex problem — not just jamming, but also what other means can we use in order to disrupt the Russian communication system. It probably includes some cyber activities. But we have to use them. Then of course we have to think: How do we protect our own communications? What are our solutions in cases of electronic warfare that then kick in?
Is that a technical challenge or a doctrinal challenge?
I think it’s both. We have to have technical solutions, and you have to have some doctrinal or mindset, let’s say, [to spur] changes. NATO’s operated in Afghanistan and Iraq [for] more than 10 years, so we are used to having, I would say, pretty good communications. The Taliban or whoever didn’t have such capabilities, so it was not a problem to be worried about. So now it is a problem, definitely. We have to deal with it somehow, to find new solutions and also train our leadership or officers in different ways of commanding the troops. If you have some limitations in communications, for example, how do you deal with that?
Should we expect to see Estonia attempting to invest in certain areas to deal with this?
I think so. I think we in Estonia, as a small country, have understood since a long time ago that it’s a problem for us. We have to find different types of solutions, [figure out] how to deal with it. Finding alternative methods to communicate with the troops using our own civilian infrastructure, telecommunications companies possibly, and using all we have in place in Estonia. Our advantage also is that we are fighting in our own country so we can use what we have. Also, again as a small, poor country, we can still command troops using a paper map. We have done that always. So for us I think it’s not that big of a problem. The problem will kick in with reinforcement troops from other countries which are far away from home and probably in higher echelons. When we are talking about the NATO command structure or different staff, then I think the problem will kick in.
So, what lessons can you take away from Zapad that applies to the broader NATO alliance and how it might have to operate or learn to operate?
We know the problems of NATO. I think that the main point of NATO deterrence, as such, is our capabilities and our intents. If you are talking about different domains, let’s say sea or air, there is also room for improvement. Of course, the Russians are calculating or collecting intelligence and doing assessments. So the danger for us is if the Russians for some reason come to the conclusion that they might get away with some type of action in our region, then there is, depending on the overall world situation, [the possibility that they] might do some miscalculation and start something, which we don’t want. In order to keep that under control, then our military posture must be adequate and the plans must be adequate. [Russia is asking]: Is really NATO coming to help or not?
But that’s a strategic challenge. A second challenge I would say is at an operational level. For any military operation, do I have the right troops in the right time in the right place? That’s always the question. The Russians have always the advantage of time and space and troops. The question is: Are we able to keep up with the speed?
The Russians are doing everything to prevent that with the different means that they have. And we have the geographical challenge with the Suwalki gap, with the sea lines of communication. So I think that’s the biggest challenges for us: Will NATO get there in time and are there really troops available that are capable to deploy? That’s the big challenge.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to make the move into Ukraine, do you believe it was a long-term strategic plan or simply that he saw an opportunity and took a gamble?
It may be about the Russian leadership mindset. If you look at the background of the people who are in power, these are very operational guys with an intel operator background. People like us think a little bit different. We are trained to seek different ways in order to get there. We are constantly scanning and assessing the situation, and if we see a window of opportunity or a place when we can breach in, then we will use it in a rapid manner. So, if we zoom it out to a strategic level, it’s actually the same. If there is a window of opportunity, there will be action conducted very rapidly.
So how do you prepare to deal with that in Estonia?
Based on our assessment, we have conducted some changes in the law, in legislation and in the plans, so to say. We are a reserve-based military, and we have conscription and reserve Army. So the system is built up in a way that we are able to mobilize very rapidly. The legislation allows us to conduct, let’s say, reserve exercises in 48 hours’ notice. So we can call in reservists. And the different ways of communication with the reservists are legally binding. So, we can send an SOS or email or conduct an announcement in the public media. It’s still legally binding, and since everybody knows to which unit he belongs, he knows if he is called up, where to go and what to do.
Last year we tested the system with about 300 people, with a time limit of 48 hours. But in 24 hours we had about 88 percent of the reservists coming, from civilian life. Some people coming back from Finland and so on. So we think it works, actually.
Regardless of the type of attack, how confident are you that you’d know if something was coming?
I am pretty confident. An advantage of a small country is that we can cooperate very effectively with each other and act. We have a big picture, a good picture. Of course, always the tricky point in every country: how to do the transformation from the core situation into political decisions. You have to make very hard decisions. You have to put your country into war mode. If you mobilize, if you conduct a large-scale mobilization, then it will take people away from the economy and it costs you money every day to keep up a large force. How do you get your politicians to make fast decisions then?
And for that, again in the Estonian case, we have conducted government-level exercises where we have the whole government sitting ― playing an exercise scenario where we have an intelligence briefing, decision-making involving different services from different ministries so that everybody has a feeling how it would be. They know what people will walk into the room and what they will tell you and what they will ask and what that means then for the country.
Have you worked with your neighbors, the Balts or around NATO to run some of these exercises as well?
We have conducted in Estonia a national exercise, and there is also the NATO-level crisis management exercise where there are different countries involved. Of course, it would be nice if all the NATO governments would be included. It will never happen, but I think the ambition is to do a Nordic-Baltic government-level exercise. But it’s quite tough to take away a week from politicians.
How closely are you watching what Russia’s doing in Ukraine to understand concepts, doctrines, the little green men aspect? And what about Syria?
Ukraine is a very good place to study Russian tactics, techniques and procedures, definitely. The war in Ukraine is kind of in our face. The doctrine part is clear. Probably there are other countries who have a much better picture of what is going on in Syria. We are far away. I think in Syria the most interesting piece is the use of so-called security companies, which is not official military but, let’s say, structures which are officially outside of the military system but which are conducting military operations. This is definitely what we have to keep in mind when we are talking about Russia ― how the Russians are using such fighters or organizations in warfare.
Summing up, in 2015, you famously said that Russia is playing hockey and everyone else is figure skating. Is that still true?
I think it’s much better. Let’s say we are in a good [place] to start to play hockey also. I’m not sure if we are in the same hockey league with the Russians. Definitely not yet. We are in a good way, but there is a lot of room for improvement.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.