Russia held large-scale military exercises with troops from Belarus earlier this year, during which Moscow claimed more than 12,000 soldiers took part in a variety of drills in both countries.
The Zapad 2017 exercises fell short of many of the sinister elements observers thought they might include, but one aspect of the electronic-warfare component of the drills elicited surprise among NATO officials.
"The amount of jamming of their own troops surprised me. It was at a level we haven't seen," the chief of Estonia's military intelligence, Col. Kaupo Rosin, told Defense News. "And they did it in the different branches, so land force, Air Force. That definitely surprised us."
Rosin said Russia has an advantage in that its forces can switch to civilian electronic infrastructure within its own territory should their military electronic networks get jammed or become compromised.
"They tested [their own troops] to learn how to switch into their own cable network and not to emanate anymore, but to deal with the problem," he said.
Zapad 2017, at the Luzhsky training ground during the main stage of the Zapad-2017 joint Russian-Belarusian strategic exercises. (Image from Moscow Kremlin)
Estonia and its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, have warned about increasingly assertive Russian action along their shared borders. Estonia in particular has noticed increased Russian espionage activity.
The country's intelligence service noted in its most recent annual report that:
The Russian special services are interested in both the collection of information and in influencing decisions important for Estonia. The Russian intelligence and security services conduct anti-Estonian influence operations, including psychological operations — in other words, influencing the defense forces and the general population of a potential enemy.
Rosin said NATO forces had a record of good communications, pointing to the bloc's experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he noted that Russia is more capable than opponents faced in those countries, so NATO needs to look for new solutions and different ways to train its military leaders.
"We have to approach the problem as a complex problem — not just jamming, but also what other means can we use in order to disrupt the Russian communication system," he told Defense News. "It probably includes some cyber activities."
Baltic and British officials have said there is evidence of persistent Russian hacking efforts against European energy and telecommunications networks, as well as disinformation campaigns. Estonia itself hosted NATO's biggest cyber-defense exercise this week, where "fictional scenarios [were] based on real threats," a Estonian army officer said.
Rosin also said a foe with more robust electronic-warfare capabilities would require new ways of training officers to approach their commands. "If you have some limitations in communications, for example, how do you deal with that?" he said.
The military-intelligence chief cited Estonia's military's rapid troop call-up abilities and its relatively small size as potential advantages in a conflict, but, he added, communicating and coordinating with troops from other NATO members countries would complicate operations.
"When we are talking about the NATO command structure or different staff," he told Defense News, "then I think the problem will kick in."
NATO has itself assessed shortcomings in its command structure. An internal report seen by German news outlet Der Spiegal concluded that the alliance's ability to rapidly deploy throughout Europe had "atrophied" since the Cold War ended.
The report recommended forming two new command centers: One to oversee the shipment of personnel and supplies to Europe, and another to oversee logistics operations in Europe. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in early November that the bloc's defense ministers were set to approve a plan to create those commands.
Despite that change, Rosin said there remained operational and strategic challenges to NATO capabilities as well as questions about the bloc's ability to deter threats.
Russia has advantages in time, personnel, and territory in which to operate, and Moscow would try to thwart a NATO military response, he said, noting vulnerabilities created by the Suwalki Gap and sea lines of communication.
"So the danger for us is if the Russians for some reason come to the conclusion that they might get away with some type of action in our region, then there is ... [the possibility that they] might do some miscalculation and start something, which we don't want," he told Defense News. "In order to keep that under control, then our military posture must be adequate and the plans must be adequate. [Russia is asking]: Is really NATO coming to help or not?"
Russian action in Ukraine in 2014 and its continued involvement there — and NATO's response to it — have been cause for concern in Eastern Europe, the Baltics in particular.
Ukrainian internal police at a massive pro-EU rally in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Ivan Bandura.)
Earlier this year, Lithuania's defense minister told The Guardian that his country was "taking very seriously" Russian threats to Batlic stability, drawing parallels between propaganda about Lithuania emanating from Moscow and events preceding Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
NATO has increased its troop and equipment deployment to the region in recent months to reassure allies there. (Lithuania has said it wants a permanent U.S. troop presence there.)
In June 2016, US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts practiced takeoffs and landings on an Estonian highway for the first time since 1984. Russian and NATO aircraft have also come into increasingly close contact in the skies over the Baltics in recent years.
Overall, Rosin said, NATO had improved is posture in relation to Russia. Asked about his 2015 comments that Moscow was playing hockey while everyone else was figure skating, he struck an optimistic tone.
"I'm not sure if we are in the same hockey league with the Russians. Definitely not yet," he told Defense News. "We are in a good way, but there is a lot of room for improvement."