SAAREMAA, Estonia — As a light snow begins to fall, the only sound is the buzzing of a Black Hornet drone. 

It’s measuring the coordinates of menacing, French-made Griffon armored vehicles manned by invading troops which have been forced to stop on the road by a makeshift landmine. The drone is asking for fire support from a back-up team consisting of Estonian and French troops.

It’s early on a frosty December morning, and in the Estonian forest enemy soldiers tramping through a thick layer of snow have already exchanged shots.

On the Baltic Sea island of Saaremaa, a strategic territory invaded over the past century by both Germans and Soviets, it’s the first time a French military unit has been deployed from France to take part in the Estonian Defense League’s (EDL) yearly military exercises. 

One team is helping a group of Estonian military-trained civilians, while another is playing an aggressive enemy force.

Their goal: to be ready in case Russian President Vladimir Putin expands his military ambitions from Ukraine to the Baltic countries.

“Russia wants to increase its power. In my opinion, there will be a next invasion. In our community, we don’t ask what if, we ask when,” said Lieutenant Kristjan Kaup, the EDL’s local chief of staff.

Russia’s EU neighbors are absorbing what’s happening in Ukraine and preparing for the worst. Since Putin illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the three Baltic states have ramped up defense spending and tried to warn Western Europeans of the danger posed by the authoritarian Russian leader.

Now, NATO allies are listening and strengthening the military alliance’s eastern flank.

France has been rotating troops through Estonia since 2017 under NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, with a joint tactical sub-group based in Tapa in central Estonia. After Russia’s invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron boosted the so-called Lynx mission to 300 soldiers. They operate alongside troops from the U.S. and the U.K. — which leads the NATO battlegroup in the country.

The French army is not there to train the EDL but rather to get used to high-intensity warfare with allies, said Captain Mathieu, who’s on the French team sent to Estonia specifically for the exercise (his last name can’t be disclosed for security reasons).

“The main challenge is the means of communications, as they use unsecured Motorola cell phones,” he explained.

Lieutenant Sander Pielberg, a ship-building project manager who joined the Estonian Defense League a decade ago | Laura Kayali/POLITICO

Strategic island

The EDL was created in 1918 as Estonia won its independence from a crumbling Russian Empire, and was reinstated in 1990 as Estonia restored its independence from a collapsing USSR. The organization gathers unpaid volunteers who want to defend their district in case of attack, with a total force of 18,000 under the control of the defense ministry. The volunteer soldiers keep rifles and machine guns at home and spend their weekends training in combat and survival skills.

In the district that includes Saaremaa, 2,400 out of 43,000 local inhabitants belong to the EDL — the highest ratio in the country. “It’s good to be prepared and it’s good to show we are prepared,” said Lieutenant Sander Pielberg, a tall, bearded ship-building project manager who joined the league a decade ago.

Saarema is one of a strategic group of Estonian islands in the Baltic Sea that provides access to the Gulf of Finland and, ultimately, to Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg.

The islands have long been a tempting prize for invaders.

In 1917, the Germans launched their military campaign to weaken the post-czarist Russian republic with an amphibious landing in Saaremaa — an effort dubbed Operation Albion. The island then passed to an independent Estonia before being occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. A year later, Operation Beowulf II saw Nazi Germany seize the territory. The Red Army reoccupied the island in 1944 and, as part of the USSR, Saarema spent the Cold War as an isolated military base. Access was denied to foreigners.

“Many things have begun in Saaremaa during the two world wars. We keep that in mind,” said Commander Arto Reimma, who was born on the island. “We have to be ready to defend ourselves and are very pleased that our allies are here to support us.”

A mock invasion starts in the Saaremaa island’s south east | Laura Kayali/POLITICO

The December war game had an invader equipped with heavy weapons and armored vehicles arriving via the island’s southeastern port of Mõntu to seize and control a peninsula linking the port with the rest of the island. The exercise is playing out in the island’s forests and roads, near inhabited houses.

On the other side, the EDL and their French back-up team need to stop the invasion and destroy the enemy radar. As the Estonians don’t have night-vision equipment — and as the sun goes down in the mid-afternoon — they have to rely on the French to guide them through the dark.

“We have more sophisticated weapons, but the [Estonian] local units know the terrain better and have more intelligence,” said Captain Florian, a military officer from the Lynx mission who leads the French mock invaders. Indeed, the Estonians are able to use a network of cameras on the island to monitor the enemy’s movements.

Pivot to Europe

Next year, different French military units will be deployed to join the EDL’s exercises.

An expanded presence in Estonia is part of a shift in French defense policy, as the military pulls out of increasingly hostile post-colonial African countries and pivots to Europe. Earlier this year, the French army created a land command for Europe.

France recently sent additional military equipment for its troops in Estonia, including 18 Griffon armored multi-role vehicles, AMX-10 RC light armored vehicles, and a firing platoon of four Caesar self-propelled howitzers.

Estonian Defense League members train to use weapons on the Saaremaa island | Laura Kayali/POLITICO

“The partnership is going well. French armies are settling in over the long term in Eastern European countries,” said Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ponzoni, France’s senior national representative in the region, who’s also representing the land command for Europe. “It was completely unknown territory for everyone, for all countries, not just France,” he added.

France and Estonia have defense ties going back to 2011. In 2018, Estonia sent troops to the ill-fated Barkhane operation, France’s flagship mission in the West African Sahel region, to fight jihadists.

For the French army, switching from scorching African deserts to the Baltic’s freezing shores requires some adjustment.

“We’ve learned to hide and live in the snow, to sleep with limited means,” said Captain Florian. The army’s equipment is being adapted to the cold and soldiers have received new boots, he added. Because of France’s mild climate, it’s usually only Alpine troops who are accustomed to operating in deep snow.

“All our troops will need to be seasoned,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ponzoni. “That’s what would happen if there was a conflict: We would come.” 

#Estonia #Frances #prepare #Putin #attacks #POLITICO

By David

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