NATO tries to reassure one of its most exposed members by sending 1,000 troops to the war games
By Ben Farmer, Lasan and Davis Blair
May 12, 2015

The 24-year-old sergeant is one of 13,000 soldiers mobilised by Estonia for the biggest military exercise in the nation’s history, joined by another 1,000 NATO troops from the US and Europe, including Britain.

In the air, American A10 tank-busters and RAF Hawks have flashed across the sky as Sgt Reinsalu and his comrades have practised resisting an invasion by a fictional enemy called “Aslavia” that looks very much like neighbouring Russia.

“I have been raised as part of a family that really values independence – it’s in my blood,” said Sgt Reinsalu. “Of course we are very worried about the situation with Russia.”

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine mean that “Exercise Hedgehog”, staged near the town of Lasna, is no longer a routine training mission for either Estonia or NATO.

The Baltic nation of only 1.3 million people has mobilised the bulk of its military strength for the manoeuvres, testing its readiness to repel what many fear could be a similar attack from Russia.

But Estonia does not possess a single tank or combat jet and the total size of its army – including every reservist, regular soldier and conscript – is only 26,000 personnel.

The exercise gives Nato an opportunity to reassure one of its most vulnerable members. Britain’s contribution included 120 soldiers from 2nd Bn The Yorkshire Regiment, who played the role of the invading enemy, and two RAF Hawk trainer jets.

But Estonia wants Nato to go further and permanently station combat units on its soil. Marko Mihkelson, the chairman of parliament’s defence committee, urged the deployment of a brigade with 5,000 troops to protect the Baltic states. “This is not because we see an immediate threat today, but this is to deter all kind of possible thinking in the future from our neighbour,” he said.

Yet NATO is still observing an agreement with Russia signed in 1997 which forbids the permanent deployment of combat forces in any country east of Germany. By staging more frequent exercises in the Baltic states – and speeding up the rotation of visiting units – NATO is trying to ensure that combat forces are present in countries like Estonia at any given time.

By avoiding a permanent deployment, however, the alliance is staying within the letter of its agreement with Russia.

Brigadier Ben Barry, the head of land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that exercises like Hedgehog also demonstrated NATO’s ability to reinforce its most exposed members. “The key question though for NATO and for the countries contributing reinforcements is whether the combat capability being deployed issufficient to deter Russia,” added Brig Barry.

Estonian leaders also worry that while their country meets NATO’s target of spending two per cent of national income on defence, other allies – including Britain – are retreating from this pledge.

“Some allies made significant strides in actually approaching two per cent; others have not, so the overall trend is not entirely encouraging, I’m afraid. It concerns me a lot,” said Sven Mikser, the Estonian defence minister.

Russian military spending has risen by 50 per cent since the war in Georgia in 2008; over the same period, NATO’s total defence expenditure has fallen by a fifth.

Mr. Mikser added: “I have said before that the Russian invasion against Ukraine is a reminder to all of us that Russia remains really aggressive especially in that region.”

Without any jet fighters of its own, Estonia relies entirely on NATO to guard its airspace. The alliance’s “Baltic Air Policing Mission” consists of 16 warplanes, including four RAF Typhoons, based temporarily at Amari airbase. On Tuesday, the RAF jets were scrambled to meet a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance aircraft probing Estonia’s airspace.