Fearing Russian invasion Estonia's civilians heed their country's call to arms

Fearing Russian invasion Estonia's civilians heed their country's call to arms
Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Hans von der Brelie
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EU member Estonia feels threatened by neighbour Russia. This year, the small NATO country will invest over 3% of its GDP to beef up its defence capabilities. It has also been hosting NATO exercises and training civilians in trench warfare, as EuronewsWitness reporter Hans von der Brelie discovered.


Indrek Jurtšenko is a trained opera singer. But today he takes me to a military manoeuvre in the Estonian forests. Armed civilians, part of the “Estonian Defence League” (EDL), are war-gaming together with professional soldiers: “In our exercise there are 500 people from Estonia, Lithuania and France participating”, he says.

The drill is called “Northern Frog” and takes place around a former soviet military airfield. Close to the landing strip, infantry troops from NATO-partner France fortify trenches. In the nearby forest, Baltic volunteers are gathering. They are armed civilians with professional military skills. It's quite an intriguing setting; Estonian milita forces and professional NATO-troops are mutually testing and upgrading their combat skills for trench warfare.

Local knowledge, local strength

From a French professional perspective, what is the advantage of such a militia force, I ask Captain Hubert. “They are operating in their own zone of living, in the region they belong to”, he tells me. “And that’s why they can react at once exactly when and where they are needed.”

Some 30,000 members signed up with the EDL. Workers, clerks, students or farmers spending their time off in military exercises; they receive no pay for this patriotic service. Many of them have their own weapon at home and they know how to handle it when things become serious.

To never ever again live under foreign rule, that’s Reet Saari motivation for joining. She’s a mother and sales manager at a hardware store. Today she leads a reconnaissance patrol – a heavily armed all-female combat unit. "Estonia is a small country, so everybody has to contribute to the defence efforts in one way or another. Some can fight at the frontline in the forest, like me. Others can help with support tasks and logistics.” In manoeuvres like this one Reet learnt shooting, battlefield medecin, infantry tactics and close combat.

Spend to defend

In the Estonian capital Tallinn I meet defence minister Hanno Pevkur. Estonia urges its NATO partners to increase their defence spending. Two percent of GDP is not enough, Pevkur insists: “The main threat will remain Russia. The dictatorship will grow”, he says on record.

In this context the Estonian Parliament voted to keep defence expenditure at three percent of GDP. This year it could be even more. What are the priorities for 2024-2027, I ask the Defence Minister. Pevkur: “We are buying self-propelled howitzers on wheels, new medium range air defence, a lot of anti-tank systems and a lot of new ammunitions. In the last two years we have bought more ammunition as we have bought in the past 30 years in total!”

Estonia is exposed to Russian destabilisation efforts through airspace violations, fake-news-campaigns, cyber-attacks and GPS signal jammings. Is Estonia really at risk, I ask former EDL commander Riho Ühtegi, who has also a background with Estonian special forces and intelligence. NATO membership is a solid safeguard, he knows, but “this empire feeling, it's not gone from Russia, they still have it. So, because of that, we must be ready”, Ühtegi warns.

All for one, one for all

NATO officers are full of praise for the fully-trained civilians in the Baltics. The militia fighters are able to improvise and to find solutions for bad surprises even in the midst of stressful combat situations, they say. Chains of command are working well, reconnaissance and communication flows are professional, I get told in a few background details on the ground.

Some voices from Ukraine are sending alarming signals: The Baltic States could be next on Putin's list, they say. However, article 5 of the NATO treaty guarantees to come to the aid of any member if it is attacked; one for all, all for one. An evocation shared by Indrek Jurtšenko, Reet Saari, Hanno Pevkur, Riho Ühtegi, Captain Hubert and many other people living in the western defence alliance.

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