The Battle for Tallinngrad: New Ways to Fight an Old War
NATO is failing to respond to a revanchist Russia and must do much more to deter further aggression. An imbalance of force parity in the Baltics and a one-sided information war is sending all the wrong signals to Moscow. By examining a potential conflict ten years in the future, this article outlines the nightmare scenario facing NATO if steps are not taken now to win the goodwill of Estonia's Russian population, thereby thwarting Russian influence.
2026. Ten years have passed since the Warsaw summit. NATO-Russia relations remain strained but Putin's role in ending the Syrian Civil War has led to Russia's rehabilitation and an end to sanctions. Eurozone growth is stagnant and NATO remains underfunded while Europe continues to rely on Russian energy imports. An aging and delusional Putin sits in the Kremlin but his supremacy is increasingly challenged by popular young nationalists from within United Russia who are controlled by a faction of ‘Siloviki'. Economic mismanagement has caused prolonged recession in Russia and this new threat fuels Putin's growing paranoia and insecurity.
Meanwhile, in Estonia, a firebrand Russian nationalist has been elected mayor of Narva, the country's third largest city with 82% ethnically Russian population. This populist demagogue has made incendiary remarks about reunification with Russia, prompting demonstrations across the country. Russian security services foment counter demonstrations among Estonia's ethnic Russians and violent clashes occur in Tallinn and other cities. Unnerved by the upheaval, the Estonian government sends in police units to regain control and several ethnic Russians are killed in the ensuing violence. Russian state media contrives a frenzied campaign of outraged patriotism, demanding action to protect Russian ‘compatriots' abroad, and the country is wracked by paroxysms of ethno-nationalism.
Putin, under enormous pressure to act, seizes the opportunity to reassert his own dominance in a rerun of the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russian intelligence operatives in Narva hand out weapons and passports to ethnic Russians and ‘little green men' start to appear. One of Russia's many military drills is held across the border and overnight Russian forces cross into Estonia citing the "Responsibility to Protect" principle. They set up defensive positions in and around Narva, deploying newly built Armata tanks and the formidable S-400 SAM system. In the morning a hastily arranged plebiscite declares that much of Ida-Viru county in the North-East (70% Russian) will secede to Russia. These announcements are accompanied by Russian nuclear sabre-rattling with Putin declaring his willingness to use nuclear weapons to protect ‘Russian territorial integrity'. NATO would then have to choose between accepting this fait accompli and losing all credibility or risking World War III over Narva.
I believe this is the nightmare scenario which NATO is not addressing. Although it might seem farfetched, it has already happened in Ukraine in 2014 and Putin has frequently vowed to actively defend "compatriots" in the near-abroad. Russia's strategic calculus is increasingly unpredictable and NATO should do more to strengthen its defense through deterrence. This requires the use of both "hard" and "soft" solutions. "Soft" solutions focus on winning the goodwill and loyalty of Estonia's Russian population, thereby forestalling Russian interference. There are three key strategies to follow:
- Social spending is crucial to prevent the alienation and marginalization of ethnic Russians in Estonia. Currently, the Russian population suffers from higher levels of crime, homelessness and HIV rates than ethnic Estonians. Government schemes should work to alleviate these social problems, as well as reducing unemployment amongst the Russian population.
- Ethnic Russians should be economically incentivized to pass citizenship tests in order to fully integrate into society. NATO should seriously consider funding social projects and language tuition in order to tackle the root cause of potential unrest. It is well known that a lack of native Estonian language teachers has hampered ethnic Russian's acquisition of Estonian in Narva, and the fact that 6.1% of Estonia's Russians remain "stateless" is surely an invitation for Russian aggression. NATO must ensure the loyalty of ethnic Russians by fostering inclusivity and Estonia's community of Russian "Old Believers" who have been successfully integrated should serve as an obvious model.
- Combatting Russia's state sponsored "disinformation" campaign is key to making both Estonia and NATO more secure. The Kremlin's ‘weaponization of the media' is a crucial component of hybrid warfare which undermines European stability and Russian state media is widely watched in Estonia. NATO must act fast to avoid losing the information war; the best solution is to work with the EU to establish a Russian language broadcaster modeled on BBC Russia. The only way to compete with Kremlin propaganda is to provide an accurate, watchable and readily available alternative which could target Russians in the Baltics and beyond. Estonia's ETV+ is a start but its operations must be improved and expanded. In a world where a television may be mightier than a tank, NATO cannot ignore the information battlespace.
"Hard" or strategic solutions must also be implemented. Despite much fashionable naysaying, conventional military deterrence is alive and currently, the Baltics are woefully indefensible. A NATO general recently warned that the Baltics could be overrun in two days while RAND wargames suggest that NATO would need an armored brigade in each of the Baltic states to have a chance of repelling Russia. The four currently proposed battalions are simply not enough and would be little more than a speed bump against a determined invasion. I would argue that NATO should deploy three armored brigades, along with three infantry brigades and one Stryker brigade, as well as improving military infrastructure like railways, bunkers and runways which is currently inadequate.
Finally, NATO should establish a 3000-strong permanent garrison on Estonia's border with Russia. The military installation should be heavily defended and manned by a multinational NATO force, equipped with large quantities of MANPADS and MANPATS. This force would serve two purposes. Firstly, it would act as a tripwire which would make it abundantly clear to Russia that any invasion would be resisted and trigger a war with several NATO countries. Secondly, the force would be designed to delay Russian forces for a few hours and give NATO time to reinforce the battlespace.
These proposals carry a cost, yet money spent on deterrence would be justified by the possible avoidance of future conflict. Deterring Russian aggression has long been NATO's raison d'être and the alliance has been on the back foot since Crimea; it's time to take back the initiative.
Joss Meakins is a graduate student at Columbia University studying Russian and International Politics. He recently graduated from Cambridge with a BA in Russian and French.
This article has been submitted for category A "Preparing NATO for 2026" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories B, C, D.
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