Opinion Watch Out for Little Green Men

When Moscow-backed troops appeared in Crimea earlier this year, the media dubbed them the "Little Green Men." Now NATO members should ask themselves how they will respond if the soldiers begin appearing in Estonia and Latvia too.


"Little green men": Pro-Russian soldiers are seen marching near a Ukrainian army base in Perevalne, Crimea, on March 19.

"Little green men": Pro-Russian soldiers are seen marching near a Ukrainian army base in Perevalne, Crimea, on March 19.

The Ukraine crisis has seen an interesting phenomenon: the appearance in Crimea and eastern Ukraine of seemingly professional soldiers in Russia-style combat uniforms with Russian weapons but without identifying insignia. Ukrainians coined the term "little green men" when such soldiers first manned roadblocks and seized strategic points on the Crimean peninsula.

NATO should think through what this could portend for Alliance security, specifically, how to react if little green men appeared in Estonia or Latvia.

The little green men turned up in Crimea at the end of February. When asked at a March 4 press conference about the soldiers and their Russian-style combat fatigues, President Vladimir Putin denied that they were Russian, calling them "local self-defense units."

The truth soon came out. On March 28, Putin congratulated Russian officers in the Kremlin for their conduct of the Crimean operation. The Russian Defense Ministry issued a victory medal for the "return of Crimea." In a May 18 telethon, Mr. Putin acknowledged that the troops in Crimea were Russian.

In the same telethon, the Russian president denied that the soldiers who in April had begun seizing buildings in eastern Ukraine were Russian. While many of the armed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk undoubtedly are local, some have looked and handled themselves a lot like the little green men/Russian soldiers who so efficiently took control of Crimea. Will Mr. Putin at some later date confirm that Russian personnel have in fact been involved in eastern Ukraine?

Would Putin Challenge NATO Security and Solidarity?

Whether he does or not, NATO should think through the implications of the little green men phenomenon, in particular for the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. Ethnic Russians in each of those countries comprise about one-quarter of the population. While most seem content -- relatively few ethnic Russians have chosen over the past 20 years to depart those countries and return to Russia -- many do not hold citizenship.

This may not be a high-likelihood event, but it certainly is not a zero probability. Moscow regularly complains about the treatment of ethnic Russians in the Baltics, and Putin has asserted a right to intervene in other states to defend ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, regardless of their nationality.

Putin, moreover, openly displays a strong sense of grievance against NATO. He might find attractive the idea of a plausible-denial operation that could challenge the security of a NATO member and undermine Alliance solidarity and credibility. The relatively limited investment that Moscow has made in fueling armed separatism has certainly sewn chaos in eastern Ukraine.

NATO members should be discussing now how the Alliance would respond if, say, soldiers without insignia assisted by locals were to seize a local administration building in eastern Estonia, just across the border from Russia. The first question would be whether NATO would consider this an internal problem for Estonia to handle itself or treat it as an Article 5 contingency, requiring that allies consider it an attack on all.

Preventing Contagion

Alliance members likely would not come to a firm decision on how to respond absent a real situation. Still, a preliminary discussion of the considerations that would guide a decision would be useful. That could speed a NATO decision in a real-world crisis. A fast response would be important to quickly contain (and end) the seizure, before things degenerated and seizures spread to other locations, as happened in eastern Ukraine.

This will not be an easy discussion. Some allies could well take the position that, absent compelling evidence of Russian involvement, such a crisis would be an internal security matter, to be addressed by Estonia's own police and security forces. That might disappoint the Estonian government, but it would be useful for Tallinn to know.

If, on the other hand, NATO allies were inclined to consider this kind of case as having Article 5 implications, the Alliance should discuss what response would make sense and plan accordingly. That includes how NATO might assist Estonian security forces.

One option that Ukrainian security forces apparently lacked the capacity for, particularly after local police force structures essentially collapsed, would be a police operation backed by special forces. The point would be to isolate the seized building; move possible crowds of demonstrators away from the area; cut electricity, gas, water and sewage connections; and then wait out the occupiers.

Local forces in Estonia (or Latvia) might well be capable of carrying out such an operation on their own. But NATO pre-planning and involvement would augment their capabilities. It would also send important political signals: first, a message of support to governments that could find themselves victims of a little green men attack, and second, a message to the Kremlin that the tactic would not work against a NATO member.

Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a former US ambassador to Ukraine.

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Mockingbird 07/07/2014
1. The Jokes on You Germany
“Little Green Men”. Did they have snow on their boots? If they had snow on their boots they were Russian. Why does Der Spiegel diminish itself by publishing such drivel. A rather pathetic attempt to whip up fear against Russia. The country that Germany should fear most is the country that has taken its gold and laughed in its face when Germany asked for it back. Its the country that still stores large quantities of nuclear weapons on German soil, which German politicians (and its media) should remain silent about. Its the country that spies on Germany aggressively 24/7. To put no finer point on it, treats Germany like a piece of garbage. And German politicians just “suck it up”. And the media bitches print and publish the propaganda they are told. For Christ's sake, fined your backbone, you're becoming a laughing stock.
fireflyva 07/08/2014
So what will we do when the little green men come calling in the Baltic countries? Will we sit back, like we did in Ukraine, and watch it happen while raising protests but doing nothing? Putin knows that the European countries are keen at observing but reluctant to do anything fearful of getting their hands dirty. Putin will exploit this lack of European leadership and resolve just like he did in Ukraine NATO or no NATO.
John_Banister 07/08/2014
3. Article 5 isn't the only one
NATO intervened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, and provided support for Turkey on the border with Syria, all without invoking article 5. If one of the Baltic countries needs security help because it's internal stability has been threatened, I expect that timely help will arrive, and perhaps NATO can also help them rent the use of some empty cells in Guantanamo Bay for the little green men.
Richie Cartman 07/08/2014
Putin has to be stopped NOW !
geogkel 07/08/2014
5. Pifer´s
Spiegel´s article on the Ukraine to-day is not up to the expected journalistic standards. It turns out that Pifer was a USA ambassador to Ukraine, and the article is nothing but confusing propaganda. How come Spiegel gives it such a prominent place? With the end of the Soviet Union, international agreements were made to the effect that Russia guarantee the national sovereignty of Ukraine, but retain its Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol, with the right to keep up to 26.000 soldiers in Crimea. At the time of the February coup in Kiev there were just around 14.000 Russian troops in Crimea. Green men?? Part of the agreement was that NATO abstain from expansions into former "spheres of interest" of the USSR - a promise we have since been breaking systematically. As I see it Russia had to put down its foot at some point - seems to be here. Besides they are way better at playing chess than the ones running Foreign police for Europe.
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