Tallinn Is Burning

82nd Airborne prepare to drop from a USAF C-17

The following story by Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., the deputy editor at BreakingDefense.com, is a featured entry from the Art of Future Warfare’s “Great War” war-art challenge that called for a front-page style dispatch from the outbreak of the next major global conflict.


No Contact With US Troops, Estonians As Russians Attack
Chinese Escalate Airspace Violations Vs. US Allies
President To Address Nation Tonight

PENTAGON: Online, on TV, and on the phone, the capital of Estonia is a black hole. From space, though, you can see Tallinn burning.

Silence fell in the packed Pentagon press room this afternoon as Defense Secretary Michèle Flournoy clicked through photo after photo, all taken by satellites because surveillance drones have been shot down: the medieval Toompea Castle where the Estonian parliament meets on fire; the 14th-century town hall in smoking ruins; the Tallinn TV tower snapped in two. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – named for a Russian military hero – is intact but surrounded by armed men, with Russian Hind helicopters hovering overhead. Running people are visible in some shots, but in most, the streets are eerily empty except for crumpled bodies and armored vehicles. A lone cheer broke the silence in the press room only once, when a picture showed a Russian tank on fire: Someone down there is fighting back.

Did the Estonians kill that tank, one reporter asked, or was it the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, whose 3rd Brigade Combat Team deployed to the Baltics just days ago in a belated effort to deter Russian aggression?

“I can’t speak to that specific vehicle,” said the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “[but] as of our last contact with 1st Cav, they were decisively engaged with heavy armored forces.”

When was that last contact? “I can’t give you a precise time, for reasons of operational security,” the admiral said.

Does “last contact” mean we have no contact with them now? “That’s correct.”

While cyber attacks attributed to Russia have wreaked havoc with US and European websites since the crisis began, Greenert insisted the US military’s command-and-control networks remain secure. Instead, the loss of communications with 1st Cavalry results from “a massive, sophisticated jamming effort [by] Russian electronic warfare units,” he said. “If Russian hackers have gotten inside the brigade’s computers,” he added, “the intrusion has been confined to the tactical level.”

By contrast, “Estonian government and military networks seem completely compromised,” Sec. Flournoy said. “We’ve lost contact with them as well.”

US, Royal Navy, and Norwegian “low-observable aircraft” – presumably F-22s and F-35s – have been “attempting” to support the 1st Cavalry and Estonians with airstrikes, Flournoy said, declining to elaborate on their effectiveness. Non-stealthy airplanes are being held back because surface-to-air missiles based on Russian soil can hit anything they detect in Baltic airspace.

Flournoy and Greenert refused to comment on reports that at least three American F-35s have been shot down, despite their stealthy design. Nor would they estimate US and allied losses.

“What I can say at this time,” Sec. Flournoy told reporters, “is that both US troops and troops of our NATO allies have lost their lives at Russian hands.”

Does that mean we’re at war with Russia?

“These are flagrant acts of war,” Flournoy said. “As Secretary of Defense, constitutionally, I can’t – it’s not my place to go further than that. The President will speak for herself when she addresses the nation tonight.”

Greenert promised the military’s Cyber Command would assist the Department of Homeland Security in “an all-out effort” to ensure the President’s message is heard by as many Americans as possible. Ongoing cyber attacks on TV networks, radio stations, government websites, news sites, and social media have hamstrung efforts to publicize Russian actions, let alone build consensus on a response.

On Tuesday, the FBI raided a server farm in Plano, Texas to which many of denial of service attacks had been traced. That bought a few hours’ relief before the attackers activated botnets of hijacked computers around the country to continue attacking communications. However, the Department of Homeland Security says that, so far, other “critical infrastructure” such as banking and electrical power remains unaffected.

“The Russian cyber campaign – and let’s not kid ourselves, it is the Russians; they can deny it – the Russian campaign has been strictly an information operation,” Greenert said. “War is a clash of wills; they’re trying to attack our will.”

“They’re going to fail,” he added.

“Neither the Kremlin nor anybody else should doubt American resolve,” agreed Flournoy.

The Secretary specifically called out China, whose naval air forces yesterday simultaneously intruded into Japanese, Taiwanese, and Philippine airspace. It’s the first time in years of rising tensions that the Chinese have challenged all three neighbors at once. Beijing’s action is “opportunistic, not coordinated [with Moscow],” she said, “but it’s dangerous and irresponsible all the same.”

“I’m not unduly concerned about calculated acts of aggression in the Pacific,” added Adm. Greenert. “I’m very concerned about miscalculation.”

“No one should imagine the US can’t honor both its European treaty commitments and its Asia treaty commitments simultaneously,” Sec. Flournoy said. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

But didn’t the previous Administration back away from the long-standing requirement that the US be able to fight two nearly-simultaneous “major theater wars”? Hasn’t budgetary gridlock only weakened the military since? Didn’t the Secretary and the Chairman testify to Congress about “a growing readiness crisis” just two months ago?

“I wish we were better prepared,” said Greenert. “I think any commander always wishes they were better prepared. But…. I have tremendous faith in the ability of our servicemen and women to rise to the challenge.”

“I think Vladimir Putin has miscalculated badly,” Sec. Flournoy added. “I hope Xi Jinping is smarter than that.”

How We Got Here

Amidst the dizzying escalation of the last few weeks, it’s worth trying to figure out how we got here. Arguably, the global crisis began not in the Baltics three months ago but in Hong Kong three years ago. If there was a Gavrilo Princip behind the current catastrophe, it was an unemployed migrant laborer named Zhu Hongdeng.

Zhu is maddeningly mysterious. Born in Qinghai, where GDP per person is comparable to Turkmenistan, he moved to the thriving coastal provinces at age 15 and drifted from one dead-end job after another. Zhu seems to have sunk out of sight in the year before his death. We don’t know why or when he went to Hong Kong. We don’t know how he was treated there at a time of rising tension between natives and mainlanders. We don’t know his motives or his mental health on the day he died.

What we do know is that on May 17th, Zhu Hongdeng charged a crowd of pro-democracy protestors and stabbed 11 people with a broken butcher’s knife. Then a masked male demonstrator, still unidentified, cracked his skull with a metal pipe. Zhu and three of his victims died.

Officials tried to hush up the incident, but too many witnesses had uploaded cellphone video within minutes. The attack and attempted cover-up shocked new life into Hong Kong’s anemic pro-democracy movement. Hundreds of thousands protested to demand an investigation and greater autonomy from Beijing.

In response, state media tried to paint Zhu as a tragic figure, a simple, honest mainlander driven past the breaking point by the Westernized, unpatriotic people of Hong Kong. Instead, Zhu became a hero.

Among China’s quarter-billion migrant workers, there were millions of frustrated young men who saw Zhu Hongdeng as one of their own who’d finally said “enough!” Unable to find good jobs because they lacked education or connections, unable to find wives or girlfriends because of years of selective abortions under the one-child policy, these young men saw Zhu’s acts of violence as inspiring, not appalling, an revenge fantasy come to life.

Sometimes spontaneously, sometimes with official support, memorial rallies for Zhu erupted all over China. On the mainland, they often turned into protests against abusive employers or even lynchings of corrupt officials. In Hong Kong, they turned into violent clashes with pro-democracy protestors. Soon tens of thousands of the angriest young men – the ones most worrying to Beijing – poured from the mainland into Hong Kong to join the fighting. Who paid for their train tickets remains a mystery.

Calling themselves “Martyr Zhu’s Army,” “New Boxers,” or – the name that stuck – “New Red Brigades,” the pro-Beijing protestors threw Hong Kong into chaos. Within weeks, President Xi Jinping declared martial law in the island city, sent in the People’s Armed Police, and dissolved its autonomous government forever.

The crackdown in Hong Kong sent the unsteady global economy back into recession. Politically, it provoked condemnation around the world. The most significant response, however, went almost unnoticed in the United States: The Taiwanese parliament passed a non-binding resolution saying Beijing had trampled the principle of “one country, two systems” and set back the cause of reunification.

It was not the formal declaration of Taiwan’s independence that Beijing – and Washington – had long warned against. In the charged atmosphere of post-Zhu China, however, it was enough. The New Red Brigades burned Taiwanese businesses, killed at least 30 Taiwanese, and demanded government action. Within days, Chinese military aircraft and warships started systematically violating Taiwanese airspace and sovereign waters.

Xi Jinping may have been reluctantly appeasing the ultra-nationalists or eagerly using them as an excuse for actions he had always wanted to take. Whatever his motivations, his new hardline policy was wildly popular. Even better, as China became more aggressive towards its neighbors, the New Red Brigades increasingly focused on foreign enemies instead of domestic discontents.

China seemed to have found its own form of the deniable proxy warfare pioneered by Vladimir Putin: 23 young men commandeered a fishing boat in the name of the New Red Brigades and landed on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands – claimed by China as the Diaoyus — to plant the Chinese flag. The Japanese Coast Guard besieged them on the uninhabited rocks for months before they accepted medical evacuation back to China, starved to skeletons but hailed as heroes.

At least 50 Brigadists landed on islets in the Spratlys claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. The two who drowned evading Filipino marines became martyrs. Their compatriots back in Beijing stormed the Philippine Embassy while police stood by.

Exactly 88 young men somehow acquired advanced cold-weather mountaineering gear, travelled through tightly controlled Tibet, bypassed border patrols, and trekked into a disputed portion of the Himalayas that China and India had gone to war over in 1962. The embarrassed Indian army encircled the Red Brigade camp. Then the weather turned deadly and the People’s Liberation Army came to the rescue – live on Chinese TV. The ensuing standoff escalated until Indian Su-30MKI fighters and Chinese Su-30MKKs were playing chicken in the thin air over the Himalayas.

Putin briefly tried to act as a neutral mediator between his two best customers for arms. But Russia ultimately pushed through a Security Council resolution that let the “Lucky 88” and their PLA escorts withdraw without a word of apology to India. As important as India was geopolitically, Russia depended on China economically: The new global recession had sent oil and gas prices tumbling again, Europe was increasingly importing North American energy, and the newly opened Russo-Chinese pipeline had become Russia’s economic lifeline.

Years of declining energy revenues had undermined Putin’s popularity as half-hearted Western sanctions never cold. Years of conflict in Ukraine had drained the Kremlin’s coffers as well. Once the initial exultation of annexing Crimea had worn off, Russia was left subsidizing an isolated peninsula cut off from both mainland Ukraine and European trade. The separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine likewise hung on only thanks to Russian aid that the Kremlin could increasingly ill-afford. Meanwhile the on-again, off-again fighting with the government in Kiev kept sending Russian “volunteers” back home in coffins. Glory faded; bills grew.

Nevertheless, every time Putin defied some Western sanction or sent thinly disguised reinforcements into Ukraine, his ailing popularity got a short-term shot in the arm. The majority of the Russian people seemed hooked on nationalism, and like any addict they kept needing a bigger hit. So when firing rockets across the Ukrainian border began to pall, the Kremlin looked to Estonia.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US had put air and ground forces into the Baltic States as a deterrent, but they were long gone: The annual budget crises in Washington and Chinese aggression in the Pacific led the Administration to use the few units still combat-ready to shore up Asian allies instead. Promised commitments by European nations dribbled away as well, casualties of endless wrangling over burden-sharing and austerity. What remained was a stockpile of so-called “prepositioned” equipment – enough for a US armored brigade – and the untested promise to deploy the troops to use it when a crisis came.

By contrast, ever since Russia’s dramatic hacker attacks on Estonia in 2007, the country had strong defenses in cyberspace, including NATO’s Cyber Center. This time, as in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2012, the main effort needed to be deniable, physical force.

So this May, while the world was distracted by the now-annual “Martyr Zhu” commemorations and riots in China, ethnic Russians staged a protest march in downtown Tallinn. The marchers left their authorized route, riot police stepped in to stop them, and someone threw a Molotov cocktail. Three policemen were badly burned – one later died – and the riot was on.

Both Russian state media and social media broadcast every image of an Estonian policeman beating a Russian protester they could find. Putin demanded an international investigation with Russian representatives, which Estonia refused. The riots escalated, the Russian Army staged exercises just across the border, and the Estonian troops monitoring them started taking fire from snipers on their own side of the frontier. By early July, Estonia was fighting daily battles with well-armed guerrillas claiming to represent its oppressed Russian minority.

On August 6th, the Estonian government formally invoked Article V of the NATO charter, saying it was under “armed attack” – though it did not officially say by whom – and asked for aid. To many observers’ surprise, it came. The President announced she would deploy an Air Force squadron and an Army brigade to the Baltics.

There is now furious debate in this country and in Europe whether the US deployment provoked the very invasion it meant to deter or simply sped up what Putin had been planning all along. What is certain is that Russia tried to stop the Americans coming, with some success. US military logistics networks developed mysterious faults. Partisans wrecked Amari Air Base’s runway with mortar rounds before the F-35s could arrive (ironically saving them from later being overrun on the ground). An attempt to sabotage Tallinn’s civilian airport failed, however, when a conscience-stricken ethnic Russian worker revealed his colleagues had rigged a fuel tanker to explode.

Despite delays, the 1st Cavalry soldiers landed in Tallinn and moved out to pick up their prepositioned equipment. Yesterday, as a deliberately public exercise in deterrence, they began breaking their tanks out of storage on live TV.

Then the transmission went dead.

Image: US Air Force