In the past few decades, there have always been recurring concerns that Nato was being undermined and pulled apart at the seams by a resurgent Russia. The military alliance, established to keep the Soviet bear from spreading communism by force of arms, had grown in strength gradually throughout the Cold War. After all, an attack on one would be deemed as an attack on all, triggering a global military, and potentially nuclear, response – the mere threat of which successfully kept the war decidedly in frosty temperatures, forcing the belligerents to engage in proxy wars instead.

However, since the end of the Cold War with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the emergence of the US as the preeminent global power in a newly unipolar world, the reason for Nato’s existence changed. With the Soviets no longer threatening the global order, the military alliance grew to include some former countries of the Warsaw Pact – the USSR’s doomed answer to Nato – and continued to expand. By way of illustration, the most recent member to join was North Macedonia in 2020.

But the Kremlin is no longer the beaten adversary it once was. Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Moscow has once more arisen to reclaim its status as a great power, coveting the respect it once had as part of a multipolar world. Putin first crushed any dissent to his rule domestically by destroying the Chechen resistance and installing a puppet governor in the form of Ramzan Kadyrov in 2007. He then cast his gaze toward his country’s former subjects, flattening Georgia in 2008 and invading and annexing parts of Ukraine in 2014, before engaging in interventions even further afield in Syria in 2015. This was all part of Putin’s grand strategy of seemingly making Russia great again, to repurpose a turn of phrase popularised by former US President Donald Trump.

A line in the snow

Yet, Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea seems to have encouraged a hubristic streak in the Russian leader – and inadvertently led to him reenergising the military alliance to ensure their collective security could no longer be threatened by the Russian bear that had finally awoken from its decades-long hibernation. In the run up to the invasion, Putin continued to cite Nato expansionism once again, and was roundly rebuked by Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg who said: “It’s only Ukraine and 30 Nato allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join Nato. Russia has no veto, Russia has no say, and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence to try to control their neighbours.”

Ignoring Stoltenberg, and believing that Nato, led by an increasingly isolationist and feckless US, would be too weak or divided to resist their designs, the Kremlin launched an ill-considered and ill-fated invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russia’s seeming intent was the toppling of the government in Kyiv in favour of a puppet regime, and annexing yet more land in the Donbas by establishing subservient yet ‘independent’ republics in Luhansk and Donetsk.

What transpired was, instead, a humbling and humiliating experience for the Russian strongman, whose forces have now been beaten back across several critical axes of advance, with the most embarrassing defeat occurring in Kharkiv. While not Nato members, Kyiv’s forces were able to achieve these hard-fought feats of arms through extensive assistance from the alliance, particularly in the form of FGM-148 Javelin anti-armour missile systems and M142 Himars multiple rocket launcher that left Russian armour and supply depots smouldering in burning craters.

Far from proving Nato was now incapable of defending itself and reversing its membership expansion, Putin’s actions in Ukraine actually encouraged both Sweden and Finland to make urgent applications to join the military alliance. Kyiv itself also made a bid for Nato membership, although considering the present state of active hostilities, this is unlikely to proceed. With Nato continuing to expand, and military aid continuing to flow to the Ukrainian defenders, it is safe to say that the chances of further Russian military action in Europe has receded as Moscow fights to salvage something from the Ukrainian quagmire it now finds itself in.

Never alone again

But, as Major General Veiko-Vello Palm of the Estonian Defence Forces explains, this does not mean that his country’s forces, nor those of the wider alliance, are being complacent – or indeed only just woken up to the threat posed by the Kremlin. “The Russian aggression on Ukraine hasn’t really influenced our defence policy,” Palm says, adding, “It is not as though we woke up on 24 February – which just so happens to be our national independence day – and realised the world had changed and Russia was suddenly on our borders. Russia, and the threat posed by Russia, has long been a core consideration of our defence posture.”

“It is not as though we woke up on 24 February […] and realised the world had changed and Russia was suddenly on our borders.”

Major General Veiko-Vello Palm


The number of active personnel in the Estonian Defence Forces, as of 2021.

International Institute for Strategic Studies

And Palm should know all about the Russian threat to the east. He not only began his military career shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has also attended Nato courses after his country’s accession to the organisation in 2004, while steadily rising through his nation’s ranks until he was appointed deputy commander of the Estonian Defence Forces in 2021. If there is someone who understands what the alliance is facing and why Nato cannot be allowed to wither away, it is Palm.

Sitting on the frigid shores of the Baltic Sea, Russia looms ominously across the eastern bank of Lake Peipus, which separates it from Estonia. A former imperial power, Russia dominated its smaller neighbour from the days of Tsar Peter the Great, and then later again under the Communists, who had cut a deal with Nazi Germany to take over Estonia as part of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This has had a lasting impact on not only Estonia’s defence policy, but also in how it views alliance-building.

“Our national trauma was in 1939,” Palm explains. “We surrendered to the Soviet Union without firing a single shot, thinking it would be less painful if we gave up. From my personal perspective, it was the wrong decision – we lost our independence and our people. Now, though, ‘never alone again’ is a slogan that is ingrained in Estonians and is deeply rooted in all decisions we have made in the last 30 years.”

All for one, one for all

Along with other Baltic states such as Lithuania, and Scandinavian nations like Norway and soon-to-be Nato ally Finland, Estonia is something of a forward defence outpost for Nato – and they are under no illusions that Russia is still a significant threat. “We have a direct contact line with Russia,” Palm explains, stressing that Russia is “definitely not a ten-foot tall giant, but equally it is not a [dwarf]. Its armed forces are still very capable of taking action.”

Part of Estonia’s defence plans, therefore, rely on coordinating with its allies and also using its natural terrain and climate to its advantage. Perhaps hearkening back to Finland’s astonishing defence of its territory against the encroaching Soviet Union in 1939’s short-lived Winter War, the Estonian general spoke about how geography would be used to their advantage in case of Russian aggression. “When you look at our environment and the climactic conditions from Finland to Estonia, and beyond, these are the most painful conditions for the Russian military to operate in,” Palm explains. “But we don’t expect a situation where we are confronting Russia in face-to-face battle.”

Instead, Palm anticipates his nation to be “on the frontline of info operations, cyber warfare, and actions short of actual combat”. This is in large part because Palm believes that Nato as a military alliance is a sufficient deterrent that Moscow will not risk provoking a direct confrontation with any of its members – rather, it is seeking to deter potential new members from joining the fold. Yet, according to Palm, that will not happen either. “Ukraine is not a member of Nato. But they want to share our values, our principles and our worldview. We will therefore continue to provide it with as much support as possible,” Palm says.

But this does not mean that Estonian commander believes that Nato should neglect its hard power capabilities. “Unfortunately, we have seen Western militaries get smaller and smaller in the past 10–15 years. For example, the British army is miniscule compared with what it used to be,” Palm explains, lamenting how crucial armoured platform numbers are also going down due to the sheer economic expense – something he is at pains to indicate his small country simply cannot afford in large numbers.

They are therefore looking at further cooperation with neighbouring allies, including through the development of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) such as the Piorun system – designed and manufactured by Poland – that aims to provide the vital capability at a cheaper unit price. Estonia is also looking to harden its defences with the acquisition of Himars for its own forces – a piece of equipment no Russian logistics officer would be happy to be dealing with, if the currently unfolding debacle in Ukraine is anything to go by.

However, none of this hardware is currently in the Estonian inventory. Even when they are, Palm insists that they will not reduce their reliance on Nato itself. Rather, interoperability is where the general thinks Nato ought to focus considerable efforts in attaining. “I have to say, Nato is extremely poor when it comes to interoperability and integration. Our systems integrate poorly together, as do our procedures – we are really, really bad at this,” Palm says.

The solution? According to Palm, the alliance needs to start taking multi-national land operations against a conventionally armed opponent more seriously. “Interoperability and coordination is better in the aerial domain and maritime domain, but we need to get smarter about the land domain,” he says. “Ultimately, land is where most wars are fought, and we cannot just rely on airpower or long-range fires from the navy and artillery.”

While Russia is currently embroiled in Ukraine, and thousands of its troops have been killed, Palm believes it would not take the Kremlin more than two years to reconstitute and retrain its forces. This means that Nato is itself on a tight deadline to learn how to hit smarter as well as harder. After all, you simply never know when the Russian bear will finish licking its wounds, ready for another round.

1 millon

The number of active personnel in the armed forces of the Russian Federation, as of 2021.

International Institute for Strategic Studies