Story Stream
recent articles

When living on a shoestring budget, it is important to make your limited resources go a long way. Beans are cheaper than meat; rice is a great meal stretcher. While this analogy is simplistic, it could easily be applied to the way NATO security appropriations are made. For example, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently renewed the Trump administration’s calls for 2% defense spending commitments by European members of the alliance; but as German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel asserted, “more money doesn’t mean more security.”[1] Instead of simply meeting budgetary recommendations, an analysis of small state security potential and funding of smarter, more cost-effective contributions to the alliance is needed. Furthermore, using a few of NATO’s “minnows” as examples of how to make limited means count in the face of an expansionist Russia, it becomes apparent that the continued existence of the alliance is of paramount importance. Ultimately, conventional “hard power” alone is not an effective strategy for combating current Russian security challenge facing Europe. For the small, frontline states on NATO’s eastern flank, a focus on special operations forces and intelligence are a better use of limited resources.


Although Russia has re-emerged as the preeminent geopolitical foe for the NATO alliance, the nature of the threat is somewhat different than it was during the Cold War. Alongside its renewed conventional military build-up, Russia has increasingly employed methods detailed in the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine,”[2] otherwise known as new generation, hybrid, or non-linear warfare. This involves information operations, cyber warfare, and covert action combined with low-intensity military operations. NATO describes hybrid threats as an actor exploiting the “’full-spectrum’ of modern warfare; they are not restricted to conventional means.”[3] As military strategist Colin Gray argues, the use of asymmetries has long been employed to exploit the weaknesses of adversaries, which is why NATO must shift to counter Russia’s increasingly brazen use of hybrid methods.[4]

American conventional military power is yet unrivaled, and an assertion of that strength could be sufficient deterrence against incursions into NATO states that share a border with Russia.[5] A return of American armor to continental Europe has indeed already begun.[6] Ultimately, the U.S. military remains the only force capable of engaging and defeating Russia in a full-scale conflict. That said, Russia has had astounding success with its hybrid doctrine in Ukraine, and it is known that Putin has encouraged this approach in other countries in the Russian “near abroad” since the 1990s.[7]


Small states within NATO will never be expected to stop a Russian conventional incursion any more than they were expected to repel an advance on the Fulda Gap during the Cold War. But these states, specifically the Baltics and Norway, can play an important role in combating Russia’s asymmetric strategy. With a return of U.S. armor to Europe and increased NATO troop deployments in the Baltics, including a potentially open-ended U.S. Marine commitment in Norway,[8] NATO’s small states need not increase their financial commitment simply by throwing money at armored and infantry battle orders.[9] Rather, these states should focus their commitments on advances in intelligence and special operations – the areas where they can contribute most substantially.



In the U.S. and Western Europe, intelligence tends to be viewed as a comprehensive enterprise. Great powers take an all-source approach, with efforts encompassing OSINT (Open Source Intelligence), HUMINT (Human Intelligence), IMINT (Imagery Intelligence), SIGINT (Signals Intelligence), MASINT (Measurement and Signatures Intelligence), and CTI (Cyber Threat Intelligence). Billions are spent on technical analysis systems, ISR (intelligence surveillance reconnaissance) aircraft, etc. For a small state with limited resources, engaging at an all-source level is too costly, and guarantees a lack of expertise in any of the above fields.


Instead, small states should become intelligence specialists,[10] mastering a particular discipline and bringing that expertise to bear both at a national and a NATO level, where intelligence fusion is becoming more and more central.[11]

Estonia has already provided a path forward, developing a world-class counterintelligence (CI) service, the Kaitsepolitseiamet (“KaPo”), which is razor-focused on the Russian threat, utilizing language skills and cultural competency that only proximity can provide. The KaPo is considered by many experts to have the best CI operation in Europe.[12] The HUMINT and CTI capabilities needed by Estonia for the CI mission can also be employed towards broader a collection mission. These capabilities, in addition to serving a vital national CI function, can also be utilized more offensively, both for Estonia's national interest and for NATO-level efforts.


The Russian secret services have long made the large Russian-speaking minorities of the Baltics a key component of their hybrid strategy.[13] With an expanded focus on HUMINT, Baltic intelligence services could work to turn this vulnerability into an asset – not only by operating within these communities, but recruiting from them.

In addition to collection, small states should employ PSYOP (psychological operations) and information operations in these communities. Communications campaigns can be blended across the spectrum of war and peace, utilizing both covert PSYOP on the Russian side of the border, and engaging in overt PR-style messaging campaigns to influence their own Russophile population.

In lieu of investing millions in SIGINT and IMINT capabilities that the Americans, British and Germans will still do better, the Baltics could focus on developing world-class collection services, specializing in Russian-focused collection operations and in-area CI and covert action, protecting themselves and covering NATO’s eastern borders.


Maintaining conventional military forces is essential for territorial defense. The Baltics and Norway should possess armor, infantry and air forces capable of slowing down a Russian advance until NATO battle groups and the full force of the U.S. military can respond.

ORNAVSOC (Marinejegerkommandoen) operator during counter-terrorism exercise "Gemini" in Rena, Norway, 2014.

That said, attempting to keep up, even proportionally, with states such as Britain or France is a waste of both money and opportunity. Instead, given the concept of a treaty-guaranteed NATO-wide response to any foreign aggression, the Baltic concept of territorial defense should to evolve to reflect this reality. Instead, emphasis should be put on small formations of volunteer professionals and/or well-trained conscripts evocative of the Israeli model, with a focus on further developing special operations forces (SOF).

Since the beginning of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan, the alliance’s small states have contributed niche resources, delivering quality over quantity. This has come in the form of SOF, as well as other specialized personnel such as medics, dog handlers, chemical and biological warfare experts, and, most ubiquitously, antiterrorism/force protection troops, i.e. facility security. These troops are low in number and economical to sustain in theater. Practically, the support functions and inter-SOF operations of NATO’s small states have fostered a considerable amount of battlefield integration and interoperability, in addition to freeing up some of the burden of the larger contributing members. It has also been a proving ground for NATO’s younger special operations units.

Excellent progress has already been made in the SOF forces of NATO’s minnows. The Norwegian Marinejegerkommandoen and Forsvarets Spesialkommando have been around for decades, and have performed well in Afghanistan. The Baltic SOF units, while younger, have made impressive gains in their capabilities, and have also distinguished themselves in multiple Afghan operations.


However, given the nature of the post-9/11 threat, these units have focused predominantly on counterterrorism, direct action, and hostage rescue, much in the vein of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and the British Army’s Special Air Service. But the strategic skill set that would most benefit these small states is in fact what is termed in U.S. doctrine as UW – unconventional warfare. The remit of U.S. Army Special Forces, the “Green Berets”, in UW involves guerrilla warfare, sabotage, subversion, battlefield intelligence and reconnaissance, stay-behind operations, and the training and leading of partisans.

The reality is that small-state conventional forces will only slow down, not halt, a Russian invasion. With a Green Beret-style force focused on full-spectrum UW, NATO’s minnows can cause a great deal of damage to invading and occupying forces, not to mention prep the battlefield and gather vital intelligence for the conventional counter-offensive by NATO forces. Barring a conventional attack, UW forces can operate in conjunction with the intelligence services to counter Russian hybrid warfare, and engage in similar operations against Russia, putting Moscow on the defensive.

Lithuanians have already begun taking matters into their own hands, practicing counterinsurgency tactics, learning to identify Russian military weapons, as well as basic survival skills in the event of an invasion.[14] But more needs to be done: NATO’s small states should create a standing force dedicated to UW, modeled on U.S. Special Forces.


How can this be done? First, NATO should lower its 20% guideline for equipment expenditure and instead adopt a mix of armaments spending and the bolstering of intelligence communities. Furthermore, burden sharing could go beyond dollars and cents. This makes sense given that, despite most countries meeting that 20% goal and aiming for a 2% total GDP contribution rate, most NATO members cannot sustain out-of-area operations. In other words, smaller states should be focusing their attention on threats they can truly manage and let the stronger states handle conventional deterrence. This would be the greatest contribution Baltic and other small states could make to NATO’s collective defense.


Estonia has been one of the leaders in the alliance on this front, establishing a Cyber Defense League to combat threats to its networks, which contributes to both Estonian national defense and to NATO-wide systems defense. And as active Russian information operations, cyber warfare and covert action abound, so too should NATO’s collective response.[15] But what the U.S. administration fails to understand is exactly what Foreign Minister Gabriel argues, namely that not all contributions need to be monetary. Instead, the fostering of a robust intelligence community in states whose conventional power potential is limited would go a long way to reassert the contention that NATO is an indispensable alliance, and should be flexible in the face of modern security threats.

Justin McCauley is an analyst for Gulf State Analytics based in Dubai, specializing in terrorism, geopolitics, and security affairs in the greater Middle East and the post-Soviet space.

Joseph Rollwagen is an intelligence analyst based in New York City, where he focuses on security affairs in Europe and Russia.


[1] Birnbaum, Michael, “Tillerson clashes with NATO allies on defense spending at Brussels meeting,” Washington Post, 31 March 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/tillerson-clashes-with-nato-allies-on-defense-spending-during-brief-meeting/2017/03/31/0d34906c-1618-11e7-924b-58851f3a675d_story.html?utm_term=.3d5201e3a264

[2] Farah, Douglas, “The Gerasimov Doctrine,” The Cipher Brief, 5 January 2016, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/gerasimov-doctrine

[3] Van Puyvelde, Dr. Damien, “Hybrid war - does it even exist?” NATO Review, 2015, http://www.nato.int/docu/review/2015/Also-in-2015/hybrid-modern-future-warfare-russia-ukraine/EN/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Baev, Pavel K, “Russia is not strong. And Putin is even weaker,” Brookings Institution, 8 June 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2015/06/08/russia-is-not-strong-and-putin-is-even-weaker/

[6] Vandiver, John, “1st wave of Army tanks, other gear arrives in Germany,” Stars and Stripes, 6 January 2017, https://www.stripes.com/news/europe/1st-wave-of-army-tanks-other-gear-arrives-in-germany-1.447684

[7] Kaas, Kaarel, “Russia Does Not Just Keep an Eye on Estonia - It Keeps Three,” Rahvusvaheline Kaitseuuringute Keskus - International Centre for Defense and Security, 14 November 2012, https://www.icds.ee/publications/article/russia-does-not-just-keep-an-eye-on-estonia-it-keeps-three/

[8] Neubauer, Sigurd, “The Plan to Deploy U.S. Troops to Norway: How Oslo and Moscow Could Respond”, Foreign Affairs, 9 November 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/norway/2016-11-09/plan-deploy-us-troops-norway

[9] According to NATO estimates, Estonia spends 2.18% of its GDP on defense, with Latvia and Lithuania spending 1.46% and 1.49%, respectively. Were Latvia, Lithuania to meet their 2% goals and Estonia maintain its current contributions, the total defense spending for all three states put together is just shy of $2 billion.

[10] Laml, Roman; Novak, Miroslav, “Intelligence options for a small country,” Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs, 2010, http://cenaa.org/analysis/intelligence-options-for-a-small-country/

[11] It bears noting that this fusion mostly occurs on the Secret and sometimes Top Secret level, and generally pertains to military, not political intelligence. Due to the inherent risks associated with large-scale intelligence sharing, NATO states still prefer to limit access to their top tier strategic intelligence, and are typically only comfortable sharing on a bilateral basis.

[12] Weiss, Michael, “The Estonian Spymasters: Tallinn’s Revolutionary Approach to Stopping Russian Spies,” Foreign Affairs, 3 June 2014, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/central-europe/2014-06-03/estonian-spymasters

[13] Grigas, Agna, “Russia’s Motives in the Baltic,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 7 December 2015, http://www.fpri.org/article/2015/12/russias-motives-in-the-baltic-states/

[14] Gera, Vanessa, “Baltic states are training in extreme survival skills to prepare for ‘Russian invasion’,” The Independent, 1 December 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-eastern-europe-lithuania-vladimir-putin-estonia-latvia-a7449961.html

[15] Blair, David, “Estonia recruits volunteer army of ‘cyber warriors’,” The Telegraph, 26 April 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/estonia/11564163/Estonia-recruits-volunteer-army-of-cyber-warriors.htm

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles