For Baltic Defense, Forget the ‘Forest Brothers’

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The image of the partisan unexpectedly striking at the enemy, inflicting casualties and damage in a hail of gunfire, punctuated by explosions, before melting into the deep forests is a powerful metaphor for national resistance, determination, courage, and patriotism. The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania exist in a state of permanent precariousness, and the legacy of invasions, defiance, and independence has shaped the strategic culture of the Baltics to idealize such forms of paramilitary warfare. The Soviet Red Army occupied the independent Baltic states in 1940 and 1941, and, after a period of German occupation, again in 1944 and 1945. The partisan resistance to these invasions, known as the “Forest Brothers” is remembered fondly as a powerful symbol of resistance and national unity against overwhelming odds. This legend continues to exert a subtle but definite influence on the minds of Baltic defense planners. The emphasis on defiance from the Baltic forests to the present day distracts from the realities of modern asymmetric warfare. This risks hobbling Baltic thinking on how best to defend their countries.

Dwarfed by their larger Russian neighbor, the three Baltic nations are on NATO’s frontline with Russia. Russia’s ambitions to restore its influence within its near-abroad, and in post-Soviet states in particular, offers a distinct threat to the sovereignty of the Baltics. These states were described by a 2017 RAND report on NATO’s flank as the “most strategically vulnerable” to Russian revanchism. Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the security of these three small nations has depended on deterrence and integration within the European Union and NATO alliances. With small budgets and limited capabilities, the domestic defenses of the Baltic states rest on the ability of their armed forces to continue the struggle for survival until NATO partners can assemble and intervene. It is generally accepted that NATO troops based in the Baltic states, in the form of the Enhanced Forward Presence, are essentially a tripwire element, forming a NATO statement of intent, rather than a substantial military deterrent. Each Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup is little more than a light infantry battalion augmented by small numbers of armored fighting vehicles. The relatively meager strength of the Enhanced Forward Presence pales in comparison to the combat power of a Russian air assault division or conventional mechanized brigade, both of which are regarded as the most likely Russian entry forces. Some commentators have raised significant doubts about the ability of an incipient NATO Response Force to mobilize and deploy in a timely manner. The challenge writ large is not the correlation of forces itself — in a hot war, the Enhanced Forward Presence elements would likely be quickly destroyed. The substantial challenge is mobilizing the NATO Response Force and moving it effectively into the Baltics.

The Modern-Day Siege

The Baltic states rely on their limited land forces as the core of defense. With such a reliance on the army, there is an idealized view of partisan warfare defending the land as the key to national survival. The episode of the Forest Brothers lies at the junction of fact, memory, and myth. It provides a nationalistic rallying cry offering reassuring certainty against the shadow of a possible future Russian incursion. But the primary challenge to this partisan ideal as a form of national defense is the rise of siege and urban warfare in contemporary conflicts. Although it is often disparaged as a barbaric form of medieval warfare, the siege has become an increasingly prominent part of modern conflict. Examples include the Second Battle of Fallujah in the Iraq War, the Syrian siege of Aleppo, the American siege of Mosul, and the campaign by the Armed Forces of the Philippines to retake Marawi in the Southern Philippines from the Islamic State and its associates in 2017. What these examples show is that the concept of guerrillas descending from the hills to fight is obsolete. Given the power, depth, and scope of modern offensive firepower coupled with the sophistication of intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition capabilities, the overwhelming lesson from recent asymmetric conflicts is that only an urban environment can enable a much weaker force to operate in the face of increasing asymmetries. Urban terrain is more likely to provide a weaker force the ability to move below the threshold of detection, and only urban terrain provides sufficient hardness and friction to negate the advantages of modern firepower and surveillance. The forests and wooded terrain typical of the Baltics provide none of these mitigations, which can tip the balance in the favor of a weaker defensive combatant. The perception of the Baltic forests and their utility as a defensive barrier is as flawed as allied assessments of the Ardennes Forest in both 1940 and 1944.



The Syrian conflict also illustrates the relevance of urban defense planning. It is evident that Islamic State strongpoints were situated not in open terrain but in urban areas, where Syrian, Russian, and anti-Islamic State coalition airpower had far less effect. The same applies to the Second Chechen War, where armored maneuver was restrained in urban terrain despite the area surrounding Grozny being “good tank country,” and the Ukraine conflict, where Russian armor found itself entangled in the ruins of Donetsk Airport in 2014 and 2015.

Despite having few major urban centers, the Baltic states may be forced into defending an urban environment because of their small territorial size. The current deterrent ability of Estonia, for example, relies on a large conscription-based force that is well versed in operating across a forested topography. Estonia, as a small state of just over a million people, is distinctly aware of the need to preserve its national identity, culture, and sense of self in ways that more populous countries rarely consider. Any large ground incursion by Russian forces is likely to force politicians into seeking to preserve human life either by defending population centers and waiting for allied assistance, or by seeking to evacuate people to friendly neighboring states. Other sparsely populated countries have faced this choice: such as Australia whose defense planners in World War II were alleged to have developed similar strategies of sacrificing the interior in order to preserve population centers. A large Russian force could cross the relatively small area of a Baltic state’s territory and reach its urban centers quickly, making urban fighting still more likely, opposition notwithstanding. The speed with which Russia could reach the capitals of the Baltic states also suggests a need to involve civil agencies and politicians in defense exercises so that there is contingency planning in case of the collapse of the state authorities.

Channeling the Invaders to the Cities

Conventional maneuver warfare theory teaches that potential holdup points such as cities should be generally bypassed, encircled, and then isolated. In contrast, during recent urban conflicts, such as Mosul and Marawi, the Islamic State has followed a “seize-hold-and defy” strategy. While it is possible that an invading Russian force may also seek to bypass the Baltic cities and push to establish a line against NATO reinforcements, the Baltic states could still be forced into urban conflict. Firstly, transport links in the Baltics are highly channeled. For example, all transport links run through Riga, the Latvian capital. This transport pattern may force invaders into urban chokepoints. Secondly, the terrain of the Baltics juxtaposes cities, bridges, substantial rivers, and low-lying bog areas. These also have a resultant “channeling” effect: One need only examine the Estonian war of independence and the 1944 Russian offensive in Estonia for evidence. Such a situation compels an invader to contemplate the seizure of some urban areas.

Western defense analysts might be tempted to consider urban conflict in the Baltics by referring to Russia’s experience in urban war with the siege of Grozny (1994 to 1995), or the possibility of hybrid war within Baltic cities that contain significant Russian-speaking minorities. However, it may also benefit Baltic defense commentators to take special note of non-Western examples, such as the Marawi campaign. The campaign by the Armed Forces of the Philippines to retake Marawi in the Southern Philippines from the Islamic State and its associates between May 23 and Oct. 23, 2017, combined intense urban fighting with a distinct form of information warfare. The effectiveness of the Islamic State in Marawi can be measured by one single fact: The remnant of approximately 50 Islamic State fighters were able to hold out against the combat power of two Philippine brigades for almost a month. The Marawi conflict demonstrated that conventional militaries need massive direct and indirect fire support to suppress urban insurgents. The complexity of fighting in difficult urban terrain was also underscored by the Islamic State’s use of a system of tunnels and sewers.

The lesson to be derived from Marawi for the outgunned and outmanned Baltic militaries is clearly this: It is not the tactics, techniques, and procedures of the Armed Forces of the Philippines that should form the primary focus of study, but rather those employed by the Islamic State in the rubble of Marawi.

Urban Insurgents, Not ‘Forest Brothers’

A key lesson for the Baltics to consider from this campaign is the struggle between the Philippine government and the Islamic State for control of the narrative. The Philippine government was simultaneously involved in a conflict for the control of information, which demonstrates how non-kinetic warfare has emerged as a major determinant of ultimate victory, alongside conventional kinetic means. Both sides sought to target audience opinion and encourage recruitment. In this respect, the Islamic State has its own particular modus operandi. Seeking to retain urban holdouts allowed the Islamic State to portray a narrative of symbolic defiance. Conventional doctrine holds that an encircled force should surrender, but in the modern digital era, there is a greater informational advantage in constructing a narrative of resistance that can portray the opposing side as callous and indifferent to the wider population. Future urban conflicts are likely to continue this trend of combining conventional armed struggles with a battle to control the narrative via social media.

Baltic defense and deterrence capabilities could therefore be improved by developing plans to wage an information war concurrently with any Russian incursion. It should be noted that such an information war would not be waged by those physically fighting in the urban environment. For one thing, in a besieged city, the lack of power and other infrastructure mitigates against this happening in situ. In the case of the Islamic State in Marawi, the war of the narratives was undertaken by Islamic State information operations elements located away from the fighting and operating online. We expect this might also be the case with the Baltics, perhaps led by a computer-savvy Baltic diaspora.

Modern examples of small-state capitulation have further reinforced for the Baltic political class the importance of retaining independence. The examples of Panama (1989) and Kuwait (1990) being invaded by a larger power show how vulnerable small states can be when faced with overwhelming force. Baltic defense planners need to recognize that deterrence and defense can be strengthened by accepting the possibility of urban operations. The Forest Brothers-ideal presents a more palatable and more emotionally acceptable prospect, than taking lessons from the Islamic State as defenders in an asymmetric conflict. Yet, the Forest Brother myth neglects how such a form of paramilitarism is likely to be operationally obsolete, and as militarily ineffective as it was in 1949. Baltic defense planners and allied members of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence need to consider the possibilities for future urban-based resistance. Clinging to the Forest Brothers ideal will only reinforce a collective unwillingness among Baltic states to contemplate the likely threat posed to the populations of the three nations. In 2020, nostalgia for a paramilitarism of national resistance may strengthen the bonds of national unity. But it is poor preparation for defending against an aggressive larger power.



Kevin Blachford is a lecturer of international relations at the Baltic Defense College. His work has been published in the European Journal of International Relations, the Journal of International Political Theory, and Comparative Strategy. 

Ronald Ti is a visiting lecturer at the Baltic Defense College. He recently transferred to the Australian Army Reserve, where he wears the rank of colonel. 

The views and opinions in this article do not represent those of the Baltic Defense College or the Australian Department of Defense and are to be considered the authors’ personal viewpoints only.

Image: U.S. Army