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TAPA, Estonia – At the NATO military base in Tapa, central Estonia, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked a strong sense of purpose among the troops.
On a recent weekday, and despite heavy snowfall, there were plenty of signs of activity in and around the frontline camp — only 160 kilometers from the Russian border — as soldiers wondered what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s future plans might be.
In the town of Tapa, north of the base, armed Estonian conscripts practiced street patrols, methodically checking secondary roads for potential invaders. Closer to the main camp, a civilian police vehicle skidded to a halt to block oncoming traffic before a convoy of eight hulking military trucks rushed in for a training exercise. Armored vehicles could also be seen following the edge of a forest further off-road.
Inside the camp, Colonel Andrus Merilo, who as head of Estonia’s 1st Infantry Brigade serves as base commander, said Moscow’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of one of its neighbors had focused people’s minds on the task at hand here: national defense and the potential threat that Russia might pose to Estonia.
“Vigilance is the key,” he said. “We must exercise it now, so that we do not miss any indication that the threat will be directed towards Estonia.”
He said his troops had long been preparing for such a scenario based on the lessons of Estonia’s history – it was occupied by the Soviet Union for 48 years – and Russia’s aggression. against its neighbors in recent years.
“Our system is built in such a way that we have already foreseen this situation,” Merilo said. “Ukraine is currently under Russian invasion, but we have prepared for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the entire Baltic Sea region to face the same type of military incursion.”
Indeed, Baltic leaders have been signaling the risk of Russian aggression in the region since at least 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia.
Former Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, now EU commissioner, said this week that Putin would likely target the Baltic states to expand his country’s access to the Baltic Sea, if he achieves his military goals in Ukraine.
Baltic leaders have called for NATO troops to be stationed permanently at bases such as Tapa, but for now they remain on a permanent rotation system.
Outside Merilo’s office, at the edge of the parade ground, British troops could be seen manning what looked like a batch of new rocket launchers, testing the sights and familiarizing themselves with the kit.
The flags of NATO, Estonia, the UK, EU, France and Denmark – all of which have troops here – fluttered on poles above their heads.
Sense of mission
Across the parade ground, at the headquarters of the British Royal Tank Regiment battle group camp, Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Worth, the commanding officer, suggested that if his troops had ever wondered why they had been assigned in rural Estonia, Russia’s new attack on Ukraine had definitely answered that question.
“Right now, the strategic context and the continuous news feed they see means there is no explanation needed as to why this is so important,” he said. “A sense of purpose is an amazing thing.”
At a storage facility on a potholed road in Worth’s office, an engine roared and a crane lifted an engine into an armored vehicle as engineers called to each other.
A British Challenger 2 tank parked outside stood ready for its next training exercise. The tank commander in charge said he felt his soldiers had put their months in Estonia – his battle group arrived in Tapa last September – to good use by learning to operate the vehicle in more soggier, more densely wooded and colder than they had been used to.
Temperatures here fell to minus 26 degrees in December, forcing the battle group to quickly adapt its approach, Commander Worth said.
“Just live in this [environment] is hard, so fighting is even harder,” he said.
A precursor to the Tapa base was built by the Soviet Red Army during its occupation of Estonia, which lasted between 1940 and 1941 and again between 1944 and 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The departure of Soviet forces took several years and the commander of Camp Merilo – who enlisted in 1992 – said his first job as a conscript was to guard an Estonian base in case the Russians decided to attack instead. than to withdraw.
Along with the other two Baltic states, Estonia joined the EU and NATO in 2004, consolidating its position among Western nations.
Since then, bases like Tapa and Adazi in Latvia have been upgraded and expanded, but Baltic concerns over the return of Russian forces have never gone away.
After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, the Baltic countries called on NATO to deploy troops to its eastern edges. In 2016, at a summit in Warsaw, NATO leaders decided to rotate troops permanently through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Now Baltic leaders say NATO troops should be stationed here permanently with more and better equipment, as they fear Putin’s ultimate goal may lie beyond seizing power. in Ukraine.
Merilo said he thought taking over Ukraine was just an “intermediate goal” for Putin and that NATO needed to be prepared for him to go further.
Merilo said he sleeps well, but not because he thinks trouble doesn’t come.
“What we’ve been preparing for for decades is happening, there’s nothing left to wonder about,” he said. “We should rest now, while we can.”