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The new Iron Curtain

Russia’s war in Ukraine poses a grave threat to Nato’s eastern states. As Britain doubles its military presence in Estonia, the West is braced for conflict once again.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Their faces smeared with green-brown camouflage paint, the platoon from 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh arrived at Nurmsi, in central Estonia, under the cover of darkness at 4am. Now, some 12 hours later, they have reconnoitred the drop zone, set up an observation point and occupied the old trench systems where the open ground meets the boggy pine forest. A freezing wind whips across the former Soviet airfield. Then, over the trees in the distance, the grey hulk of an Airbus A400M military transport aircraft from RAF Brize Norton suddenly appears. It banks to the left then roars low overhead. A crate flies off the open cargo ramp at the back, its parachute opens, and it touches down softly on the snow.

“Working as a forward presence we could be separated by a long logistical supply chain,” explains Lieutenant Mason, who is leading the exercise. “So air-dropping vital supplies can get them quickly onto a forward location.” We stand roughly 90km from the Russian border. These British troops have been based in the country since September as the core of Nato’s “enhanced forward presence” (EFP) battlegroup. Their tour was extended following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, part of a doubling of the UK’s military presence in Estonia. In the dark eventuality they are here to deter – a Russian invasion of the Baltic states – the ability to air-drop food, fuel and medical supplies securely to advance troops in a fast-moving combat situation would be essential.

[See also: As the conflict in Ukraine grinds on, Putin escalates his information war at home]

Such reinforcements are now happening all along Nato’s eastern flank, from the high north of Norway through the Baltic states, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Turkey, for the event that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spills into the alliance’s territory or Russia attacks a member state such as Estonia in the future. Since the invasion began, some 20,000 additional troops have been deployed to the region. At an extraordinary Nato summit in Brussels on 24 March, leaders agreed that this would be just the start of a large, long-term adjustment to Europe’s “new security reality”. In a speech at Warsaw’s Royal Castle two days later, the US president Joe Biden asserted: “This battle will not be won in days or months… We need to steel ourselves for a long fight ahead.” From Murmansk in the Arctic to Istanbul on the Bosphorus, a new Iron Curtain is falling across Europe – 1,000km east of its Cold War predecessor. It will change the face of the continent. 

Direct delivery: An Airbus A400M Atlas transport resupplies British troops in Nurmsi, Estonia, with food and ammunition. Photo by LCoH McRitchie/The Household Cavalry Regiment/UK MOD

The recent scenes at Nurmsi Airfield would have been unthinkable not long ago. The end of the Cold War seemed to defang the risk of a Nato-Russia conflict. Defence spending across the alliance slumped. With the 1997 Nato-Russia Founding Act, Nato agreed to no “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces on the territory of new members”. Remarkably, seen from today’s world, it did not even have a contingency plan for the defence of the vulnerable Baltic states.

“It was 2014 that really changed Nato’s approach,” says Kristi Raik, the director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and de facto occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine led to several changes. Nato’s informal guideline that member states’ defence budgets should be set at 2 per cent of their GDP became a formal pledge. The Baltic air-policing patrols were stepped up. Most significantly, the EFPs were created: four battlegroups, each with a Nato “framework nation” providing its core, in Poland (US), Estonia (UK), Latvia (Canada) and Lithuania (Germany). The new forces were non-permanent, rotating in and out every six months. They were also small: about 1,000 troops. “The EFPs were never designed to prevent and deny a huge, mass-scale invasion,” says Colonel Dai Bevan, the commander of the Estonia EFP, which also includes French, Danish and Icelandic troops. “But in order for Russia to get to Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius it would have to go through a multinational Nato battlegroup, which would draw those Nato countries into a conflict. So it’s not Russia taking on Estonia; it’s Russia taking on Nato. It’s a tripwire.”

Historians will look back on the post-2014 years of the EFPs as an interim: the old post-Cold War assumptions of peace in Europe not quite dead, the new realities not quite yet acknowledged. As recently as November, Boris Johnson was telling the Commons Liaison Committee: “We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European landmass are over.” How outdated that statement looks now.

In Tallinn I meet with Kusti Salm, the permanent secretary of the Estonian Ministry of Defence, to find out what has changed since the invasion. He spells out how the war in Ukraine has transformed Nato’s perceptions, both of geographic threats and those posed by the Putin regime’s nature and doctrine.

Geographically, despite its military setbacks Russia has still penetrated deep into Ukraine. Salm notes that, “Russia has advanced along a front line of about 400km in the south – about the distance from Budapest to Prague.” He is also concerned by Russia’s de facto military annexation of Belarus, which he says reduces the time Moscow would need to deploy troops for an attack on the Baltics “from months to weeks”. That could also make it easier for Russia to seize the “Suwałki Gap”, the 65km border corridor between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is the only land link between the Baltics and the rest of Nato. The sense that the war is creeping westwards was confirmed on 13 March, with a Russian strike on a Ukrainian base less than 25km from the Polish border.

Doctrinally, the picture is even more alarming. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed how reckless Vladimir Putin can be – with his slaughter of civilians and threats of using nuclear, chemical and biological weapons – but also how poorly he read the West’s willingness to support Ukraine. “The biggest attack since the Second World War was based on grave miscalculations,” Salm tells me. “There is no basis to rule out an attack on Nato.” The White House clearly now believes that Russia could take that step. On an Air Force One flight above Poland on 25 March, the US national security adviser Jake Sullivan was frank. “We do believe that Russian aggression in Ukraine shows a willingness by the Russians to disregard international borders,” he said. “It is important in this moment to send a clear message to Russia that the United States and Nato will defend every inch of Nato territory, and to deter any thinking that Putin might have about further Russian aggression into Nato.”

Already, the new Iron Curtain is hardening. The US alone has sent an additional 12,000 troops to Europe, taking its total forces on the continent to above 100,000 for the first time since 2005. Other allies are also stepping up. The UK has doubled its force in Estonia by sending a second EFP battlegroup and has provided Poland with its new Sky Sabre air defence missile system to create a “no-cross air line” along the Polish-Ukrainian border. Germany has sent an additional 350 troops to Lithuania and, along with the Netherlands, is providing Slovakia with Patriot missile defence systems. Meanwhile, the Baltic air-policing mission is now running around-the-clock patrols of Baltic airspace.

Longer-term shifts are also afoot. Germany and France will both finally hit the 2 per cent defence-spending target this year (the former is also looking at buying an Israeli-style missile shield), while Romania’s budget is set to hit 2.5 per cent and Poland is aiming for 3 per cent by next year. At the Nato summit on 24 March leaders agreed to double the number of EFPs, putting new multinational battlegroups into Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Full details of the new Nato posture and forces will be agreed at a landmark summit in Madrid in June, when the alliance will also agree its new “Strategic Concept”, or statement of principles and priorities. 

Polling suggests that voters approve of these shifts. In Germany, for example – long prone to a “Greater Switzerland” mentality – the proportion of voters saying they “strongly support” Nato has risen from 22 per cent in 2019 to 43 per cent in early March, and 69 per cent of voters back the country’s huge increase in defence spending. “A reappraisal is taking place within Europe,” says Eerik-Niiles Kross, Estonia’s former intelligence chief and now an MP. “Events are pushing Europe together. Nato’s eastern flank will really change.”

Recent events come as less of a surprise in Estonia than in many other Nato member states. Even amid the naïve optimism of the 1990s, people here did not lose sight of Russia’s aggressive, dangerous traits. “Whoever really wants to help Russia and the Russian people today must make it emphatically clear to the Russian leadership that another imperialist expansion will not stand a chance,” Lennart Meri, the country’s legendary post-Soviet president, told an audience in Hamburg in 1994. What may have seemed unduly sceptical then looks prescient now. And many in Tallinn, horrified though they are by Russia’s acts in Ukraine, feel a certain grim vindication. “The invasion confirms the way we read Russia previously,” says Raik. “We now have to spend less effort persuading others of our point of view.”

What Nato calls the “new security reality” is very tangible in Estonia. Ukraine’s blue-yellow flag is everywhere, flying next to the EU and Estonian flags at Tallinn’s airport, on lapel ribbons pinned to the chests of soldiers and politicians, flying above official buildings and in doorways. At night many buildings in the small, prosperous Baltic capital are lit up in those colours. 

The Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament in the Toompea Castle complex at the heart of Tallinn’s old city, is no exception: the Ukrainian and Estonian flags stand together in its classicist White Hall. I am there to visit Marko Mihkelson, chair of the Riigikogu’s foreign affairs committee. He has just finished a video call with his counterparts at the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament in Kyiv, and tells me they are upbeat about their country’s counter-offensive in Irpin and Bucha. I ask him about the mood here in Tallinn: “The stress level is high, but that is true everywhere,” he replies. “There is a strong feeling of solidarity.”

The Estonian government has just spent the equivalent of more than 2 per cent of GDP as a one-off extra investment in arms, including ammunition stocks, howitzers and mortars. (“We’re making sure we have more ammo than the Russians have tanks,” as Salm puts it.) This comes on top of an already-accelerating procurement programme including anti-ship missiles, sea mines to block harbours and the Gulf of Finland, and a new “multiple launch” artillery system that can fire volleys of rockets. Military exercises now follow a relentless schedule. And the Estonian Defence League, a partisan volunteer force attached to the professional military, is growing – 1,000 Estonians signed up in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At Tapa, where the EFP is based, work is under way to adapt the facilities to much larger numbers of troops and to shelter and service the new tanks. Alongside the doubling of the UK presence, France is sending an additional company and the US has sent six F-16s to bolster the Baltic air-policing mission. Colonel Bevan says the invasion has focused his troops’ minds: “They watch the news. They can see what is going on. So there is an absolute sharpness to their purpose at the moment. They clearly see why they are out here and there is a fever to their training which is driven by the speed of events in Ukraine at the moment and the speed at which Nato is adjusting to the really fluid security situation.”

Estonian leaders are reassured by this and by the evidence from Ukraine that Russia’s forces are not nearly as formidable as previously thought. Leaders here do not want “help” from their allies – their country’s defence budget will soon exceed 2.5 per cent of GDP, and to protect the Baltics is also to protect the whole of Nato. But two main concerns dominate in Tallinn today.

The first is the possibility that Putin emerges from his Ukraine conflict with the impression that he has “won”, or at least made some gains. “It is really important for Estonia’s security that Russia is defeated in Ukraine,” Raik argues. “If the West makes concessions to ‘de-escalate’, that could embolden Putin to go after the Baltics in the future.”

It is not hard to understand why this scenario alarms policymakers in Tallinn. Russia’s state television regularly features commentators calling for an invasion of the Baltics. On the TV channel Rossiya-1 in mid-March a retired colonel even presented a whole battle plan: it began with a “radio-electric strike”, followed by the seizure of the Swedish island of Gotland and the closure of the Suwałki Gap from Kaliningrad. Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis, a vice-president at the European Commission, spoke for many Balts when he warned: “If you look at Russia’s… increasing anti-Baltic rhetoric – well, in Ukraine, it also started with increasing anti-Ukrainian rhetoric.” The Estonian government has launched a poster campaign warning of Russian spies who have infiltrated the country to obtain intelligence on border and military installations.

[See also: Ukraine is haunted by the ghosts of wars past]

Estonia was the first country to send Ukraine lethal aid (howitzers and ammunition, in December). Today it has exported some $200m worth of arms, more than any country but the US and UK, and an astonishing quantity for a nation of just 1.3 million.

The new danger is prompting new thinking. “The Nato ‘tripwire’ plan in essence was to be able to retake the Baltics from [bases in] Poland in the event that Russians invaded,” says Kross. “Only now are we seeing a shift in mentality towards actually seriously defending the Baltics in the first place.” At the defence ministry, Salm agrees that the tripwire strategy would mean accepting “parts of the Baltics occupied and cities wiped off the face of the Earth”. He argues that Nato needs to shift to an approach of “deterrence by denial”, or credibly showing Russia’s military planners that they cannot occupy the Baltics: “We need permanent boots-on-the ground, large-scale exercises, a war-fighting division-level command, reinforcement and reserves, and a full air combat power to ensure air supremacy.”

The second major concern in Tallinn is that Putin might launch non-conventional attacks on Nato’s eastern states to test the alliance’s resolve, unity and its Article 5 collective defence clause. Cyber-attacks are one possibility; in 2007 Estonia was hit by a denial-of-service strike crippling the country’s parliament, ministries, media and banking system. Other hybrid risks include Russia shutting off energy flows to the Baltic states, pushing large numbers of migrants over the border (as Belarus did into Poland last year) or attempting to flood their societies with disinformation. “Putin may calculate he can bend Nato unity,” says Salm. “He will be looking for opportunities everywhere to break it apart.” A sensitive point for Estonia is its Russian-speaking minority, especially around the border city of Narva. This community is generally well integrated but, says Raik, “some Russian speakers in Estonia, especially in the older generation, live in the Russian information space”.

It is not hard to picture how such an attack might play out. A fake or false-flag “atrocity” is committed against Russian speakers in eastern Estonia. Putin makes a speech lambasting the “neo-Nazis” in Tallinn. He sends Russian “peacekeepers” into Estonia’s border region to see how Nato reacts. Kross says: “I can imagine some politicians in the West saying: ‘It’s just Narva. It’s a Russian-speaking city right on the border, only 60,000 people. We can’t risk nuclear war over that.’”

Soviet reunion: Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR (left), and East Germany’s Erich Honecker greet each other in East Berlin, October 1979. Photo by Alain Mingam/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

How the West sees the  threat from Moscow, and therefore how the new Iron Curtain evolves, will of course depend on events both in Ukraine and within Russia itself. Currently Russian forces are being pushed back in Ukraine. “I don’t see the Putin regime surviving in the long term,” says Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But young Russians dislike both Putin and the West.” The one big, fixed event on the horizon is the Madrid summit in June, which is shaping up to be the most consequential Nato gathering since the end of the Cold War. “Madrid is the critical moment,” says Marko Mihkelson.

That gives the West limited time to answer several big questions. On what will the increased defence budgets be spent and how will that be coordinated? Which countries will contribute to and lead the new EFPs? What improvements need to be made to Nato’s missile defence? Should member states reintroduce Cold War-era conscription policies? Will Finland and Sweden, as now seems increasingly conceivable, give up their traditional non-aligned stances and join Nato? Should Nato put permanent troops into its eastern member states?

In Tallinn, Colonel Bevan asserts that the weathervane is turning. “There is a spectrum from deterrence to defence,” he explains. He compares deterrence to warning someone verbally that, if punched, one will punch back. Defence, by contrast, is a step further: raising one’s fist in preparation to retaliate. Nato is moving along that spectrum, he argues, and raising its fist.

The weight of this change can be felt from Nurmsi. As we watch the British A400M perform its drops over the airfield, a member of the Estonian Defence League tells me about the history of the site. It was built by Soviet Naval Aviation during the Cold War as an auxiliary base from which to operate in the event of a Nato attack on Kaliningrad. Having begun life east of the old Iron Curtain, now it has a role just to the west of the new one. I am reminded of Tempelhof Airport, close to where I live in Berlin – formerly the main base for Nato aircraft in West Berlin, close to the line of the Wall. Now it is a park, and the Wall is gone. 

If there is a West Berlin equivalent in today’s Europe it is surely the Baltics, almost cut off from the rest of Nato and highly vulnerable to aggression from Moscow. “The frontier used to be within Germany,” reflects Liik. “But now Europe has been shaken up.” A new Iron Curtain is taking shape, disinterring long-buried memories, doctrines, contingency plans and fears from the Cold War. The continent is sundered once more.

[See also: Ukraine is better prepared for a long war than Russia]

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain