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The Baltics: Analysis From Washington--Transforming Post-Communist Militaries

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 18 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Few tasks have proved more challenging to post-Soviet countries than transforming the military structures and personnel they inherited from the communist period into defense forces which conform to international norms.

All of them have suffered from the corruption and brutality endemic in the Soviet forces. Few have the time or resources they would need to build a completely new military from the ground up. As a result, they have had to draw on the structures and strategies from the past and on officers who grew up in that system even as they seek to change them.

Nowhere has that tension been greater than in the Baltic countries who have committed themselves to building national defense forces that conform to NATO standards but who have found themselves forced to draw on the services of Soviet-era officers who often perpetuate their own approaches through the training of their subordinates.

Each of the three Baltic countries has tried a variety of strategies to overcome this problem: dispatching junior officers to Western military academies, appointing emigres who served in Western armies as senior commanders, and creating career tracks designed to inculcate their officer corps with the values and styles of Western militaries.

But none of them has yet found a magic way to overcome a fundamental reality of military life: Even in the best of circumstances, the experience of all armies suggests, it takes 10 to 15 years to "grow" new field grade commanders and almost as long to train the non-commissioned officers -- sergeants and corporals -- who are the backbone of NATO-style forces.

Now, with the assistance of NATO and other Western countries, they have launched a new effort that appears to promise greater chances for success.

On Monday, studies began at the Baltic Defense College. Located in the Estonian city of Tartu, commanded by a Danish general, and funded by the United States, Germany, Denmark and other Western countries, this new academy will train senior staff officers from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at the brigade level according to NATO standards.

Joining the 26 Baltic officers in the first class are several individuals of equivalent ranks from Sweden, Denmark, the U.S., Germany and Hungary. They will study such subjects as "The Role of Defense Structures in Smaller Countries," and instruction will be in English, NATO's language of command.

While the number of Baltic officers may seem small -- 10 from Estonia and eight each from Latvia and Lithuania -- those receiving instruction at the Baltic Defense College in fact constitute a significant fraction of all officers at the brigade level in the three Baltic defense forces. And as in other countries, its graduates are the most likely to be promoted to senior ranks.

Many Baltic officials have been enthusiastic in welcoming the establishment of the Baltic Defense College, viewing it as yet another indication that NATO will eventually include their countries within its ranks.

NATO officials from General Wesley Clark on down have not dissented from that position. But they -- and particularly Danish Brigadier General Michael Clemmesen who serves as the head of the college -- have emphasized that this college is intended to help the Baltic countries transform their militaries and thus become better candidates for NATO membership.

They have cautioned that no one institution or course can make all the difference if the three countries themselves are not committed to changing the ways in which their militaries conduct themselves.

These comments have had a major impact on the thinking of senior Baltic officials. In the past, many of them focused on simply increasing funding for the armies, seeking to meet what all of them called the NATO standard of expending two percent of GDP on their defense forces. But now they are devoting more attention to qualitative changes as well. The Baltic Defense College is one sign of this shift, but there is another on the horizon that may prove to be equally or even more important. That involves discussions now going on about the possibility of creating a Baltic-wide non-commissioned officer training center.

Such an institution would train professional sergeants, the men on whom NATO armies most rely to guarantee both that soldiers are treated properly even as orders are carried out to the letter.

If the three Baltic countries are able to establish this second training center, their armies may soon have a new class of both commissioned and non-commissioned officers. And they thus will be able to break out of the vicious circle of having to move to the future while relying on the personnel of the past.