Special Forces, Unconventional Warfare, and the Baltic States

Map of Baltic States

Special Forces and Baltic States – Unconventional Warfare is an option for the East European security dilemma. If ever an unconventional warfare (UW) mission cried out for attention it is in the context of the security situation of the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. One could add Poland to the mix as well. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is putting out quite a bit of publicity about its military preparedness to defend the Baltic States against aggression (that, of course, would be Russia). The Russians have invaded and annexed Crimea, have a past history with Georgia, and are busy with their insertion of “little green men” into eastern Ukraine in support of a separatist movement that is Russian-leaning. It is no surprise that the Baltic States are somewhat apprehensive about their biggest neighbor. Complicating this security situation is the number of ethnic Russians living in each country.

Quick Russian Conquest. The reality is that the Russians could occupy those three small countries with military forces rather rapidly. The small military’s of each of the countries would no doubt put up a valiant fight but would soon be overwhelmed by the vast numbers of the Russian military machine. Russia can easily mobilize and move up to 70,000 troops within a few days and have them positioned to cross the border into each of the countries.

What Can NATO Do? The response by NATO will be insignificant and futile. Plans to have a NATO battalion pre-positioned in each of the four countries (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland) are admirable but they serve only as a trip-wire. Once the wire has tripped there really are few options where NATO can militarily respond. They will be presented with a situation that is not easily reversed. Positioning a truly significant number of NATO military forces in the region as a deterrence may very well be looked upon by Russia as a provocation and could easily slip the region into an increased level of conflict (or war) as well.

Insurgent Warfare? One option is for the conventional forces of the four countries in danger of invasion to train up in insurgent warfare. While their small conventional armies are next to useless in stopping the Russians the threat of a long-term insurgency acting against occupying Russian forces could provide a strong deterrent. There is a history of the Baltic States employing guerrilla warfare. From 1944 (after the Soviets invaded) to the mid-1950s all three countries conducted an organized resistance to the Russians. [1]

‘Resistance Manual’. Lithuania has recently distributed a ‘preparation manual’ to instruct its citizens on how to resist a Russian invasion and occupation. [2] In addition, it recently re-established a national conscript requirement for military service.

‘Nation of Insurgents’. The Estonian military is very small – its 6,000 members would be quickly defeated by a Russian invasion. However, it is very likely that some members of the Estonian population of 1.3 million would resist an occupation. The Estonian Defense League has over 25,000 members who take part in weekend training sessions that provide instruction in insurgent warfare. [3]

Can NATO Assist? Is there a readily available resource from which these small nations could re-learn the art and science of insurgency?

What About U.S. Special Forces? The United States Army has a unique capability in its seven Special Forces Groups that are well-versed in the art of Unconventional Warfare. Part of the initial training for Green Berets is the Robin Sage exercise where the aspiring SF students are thrust into a resistance force environment working with a guerrilla force in a denied area. More advanced training events like the old FLINTLOCK exercise conducted by the 10th Special Forces Group in the 1960s-1970s prepared the SF Soldiers for working with resistance forces fighting a Soviet block invasion and occupation of Western Europe. While it would take a concerted effort with the participation of NATO Special Operations Forces (most likely led by U.S. SOF) it is possible to train up the military of each of these four countries in insurgent warfare to the extent that the Russians would take notice. The threat of insurgent warfare against occupying Russian forces may very well be the deterrence needed for the eastern Europe security situation. There already has been a very small U.S. SOF presence in the Baltic States – this presence could be expanded in size and focus. [4]

Further Readings:

For additional info on the inability of NATO to defend the Baltic States against Russia read Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics, RAND Corporation, 2016, 16 pages.

For more on this topic read “Insurgency and Deterrence on NATO’s Northeastern Flank”, by Alexander Lanoszka and Michael Hunzeker, Modern War Institute, December 21, 2016.

See an article describing local volunteer militias in Estonia. “NATO’s Jittery Baltic Members Move to Beef Up Own Defenses”The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2017.


[1] For a little history on the Baltic States resistance after the Soviet invasion of 1944 see an entry by WikipediA.

[2] Read “Baltic States are training in extreme survival skills to prepare for ‘Russian invasion'”Independent (UK), December 1, 2016.

[3] See “Spooked by Russia, Tiny Estonia Trains a Nation of Insurgents”The New York Times, October 31, 2016.

[4] General Swartz (COMSOCEUR) and General Thomas (USSOCOM) have each visited the region in the past few months. In addition, each country has seen small SOF detachments deployed there for training on a temporary basis. See “U.S. Lending Support to Baltic States Fearing Russia”, by Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, January 1, 2017.

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