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Britain halving number of troops in Estonia

Britain halving number of troops in Estonia

Hundreds of British military personnel currently based in Estonia are to be home by Christmas, roughly halving Britain's military presence in the region. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said that an additional battlegroup sent to Estonia earlier in the year was always intended to be temporary, at least so far as the deployment on the ground goes.

A source told The Times that "many European nations" feel that the British Army has over-stretched itself with the NATO eastern flank commitment, while another source told the 'paper that those troops would still be earmarked to constitute a brigade-sized force and heading to Estonia where needed, rather than being based in-country.

The Times reports that some countries have also concluded that Russia has been weakened in the seven-month-long war in Ukraine, to the extent that there is no threat of an invasion of Estonia or the other two Baltic States, though sources in all three of these countries state that Putin does not and has not followed western-style logic to date, while setbacks in Ukraine might lead to a lashing-out in other directions, it is argued.

A 700-strong battalion based in Estonia since February is returning to the UK in December, with no plans to replace it, sources familiar with the situation told the Times.

Ben Wallace said: "The additional battle group was always a temporary deployment. Our commitment to NATO in response to Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine is total," The Times reports.

The NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup based at Tapa, around an hour's drive from Tallinn, has been in place since early 2017 and is UK-led, with Danish and French components regularly contributing to rotations.

The core unit recently saw an exchange, with the outgoing Royal Welsh handing over to the incoming King's Royal Hussars (KRH), an armored regiment which has been on rotation in Tapa in the past.

This eFP was joined by the Agile Task Force, formed around infantry unit 2nd Battalion The Rifles, whose Royal Colonel, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, visited last week, while the Royal Tank Regiment extended its original tour, which had started in 2021.

The Estonian government had previously hoped that around 2,000 British troops would have remained in-country indefinitely, augmented by "a few hundred" more personnel, The Times said.

Britain's Defense Minister, Ben Wallace, reinstalled to the post following the change in UK prime minister earlier this month, had previously pledged to boost the number of British soldiers in Estonia to up to 2,000, as part of broader NATO plans to increase its presence in Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of Russian aggression, while pledges of a doubling in the pre-invasion total had already been made, days before February 24 when the current phase of Russia's war on Ukraine began.

This also entail large movements of vehicles and material, such as the 65-tonne Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks, transported by sea to the Port of Paldiski.

From the new year, as things stand only the roughly 900-strong KRH-led Battlegroup will remain, from the UK contingent.

The Times reports that tensions between Russia and the west have risen in recent days, with threats of nuclear retaliation coming from the Kremlin, while a source told the 'paper that troop withdrawal at this point sends the wrong message to the Russian leadership.

Britain's army is set to shrink to around 72,500 people, which The Times said is the smallest since the Napoleonic era – when the country was primarily a naval power, a status it retained well into the 20th century.

At the same time, Prime Minister Liz Truss says defense spend will rise to 3 percent of GDP by the end of the decade; Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, himself a former Captain in the Scots Guards, has been particularly vocal over the need to increase spending and military size following decades of cuts, hitting out at previous Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak for dismissing Wallace's call for an integrated review, ie. rise in defense spend.

The original Times piece is here.

UK official: The additional battlegroup was always intended as a temporary deployment

A UK official said Wednesday afternoon that: "The additional battle group was always a temporary deployment. At the NATO Summit in Madrid, we committed to assigning the balance of a brigade in the UK at high readiness to the Baltic region. We are also reinforcing the current eFP Headquarters, which will be led by a UK brigadier from 2023. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced in June that the lethality of our battlegroup would be enhanced with advanced capabilities including helicopters and artillery systems, as part of an increased UK contribution to NATO."

"That is exactly what we are doing. There is no change," the official added.

"Our commitment to NATO in response to Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine is total. As well as temporarily doubling our deployment to Estonia this spring and extending that by a further six months in June, we committed a comprehensive package at the NATO Summit which also includes expanding our headquarters in Estonia and planning brigade-level exercises there next year," the statement concluded.

A planned NATO divisional HQ in Estonia is due to become a reality next year; this would not mean that an entire NATO division would be based in-country at all times, but instead, agile units would deploy where needed and inter-operate with those elements already in Estonia. Estonia's own defense forces are formed around two heavy infantry brigades.

The NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission based at Ämari is a separate entity.

West must prepare for possible terror tactics from Russia

Behind every step the Russian Federation takes lies strategic considerations, leading Estonian politicians said on Wednesday's edition of politics panel show 'Esimene stuudio' during a week which has seen a major gas leak from the undersea Nord Stream pipeline.

The politicians also discussed a recent media report that British soldiers currently based in Estonia will be leaving at year-end, leaving roughly half the current complement, in personnel terms.

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform), said the departure from Estonia of a British Army unit reported by UK daily The Times Wednesday was neither unexpected nor final.

"The Brits promised in the spring that they would be sending an additional battle group [to the existing enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup] due to the situation. This was deployed with the prior knowledge that it would be here until the summer," Pevkur added.

"Subsequently, the bilateral decision was made that its deployment would be extended until the end of this year. We are now in a similar situation to that before the initial extension. Yes, the British have indicated to us that they have the desire to move them back [to the UK]. Our task is to explain that even, if this rotation goes back, it should return here as soon as possible," the minister went on, adding that it is also important to focus on NATO's new regional defense plans.

Leo Kunnas (EKRE), who sits on the Riigikogu's defense committee and is a reserve army officer, said that as a major power, Britain has global interests, meaning Estonia has to work hard to get its desired result among these competing interests.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said that US troops were also needed in Estonia, noting that at the end of Mikhail Gorbachev's time in office (in late 1991 – ed.) there were 300,000 US troops based in Europe, compared with 70,000 on the eve of the current phase of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, starting February.

He said: "Our message is two-fold, the first being that the military presence of the US in Europe must grow significantly. The second, that the military presence in different categories must be diverse and must be within the territory of Estonia and in our region in general, as it is a separate question of both deterrence and defense postures."  

Pevkur said that the UK is Estonia's primary NATO ally in, while Estonia must also make efforts towards this and make investments which will welcome allies. 

He said: "At the moment, we have more firepower than we have had ever before. We currently have more than 40 tanks in Estonia (in both British and Danish service – ed.), the most modern tanks, and we have British Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS).

"This firepower and tech that Estonia has is greater than ever before. Let's not start to form up a feeling that we have no allies here, or somehow fewer of them. There are enough of them, though, do we want more – certainly, yes."

Also appearing on "Esimene stuudio", Raimond Kaljulaid (SDE) said that Estonia has raised several issues in foreign policy which have been very visible, such as the tourist visa ban or the Riigikogu statement on a flight ban over Ukraine but which have not yet been met internationally.

Reinsalu, a former defense minister, said that choosing the right battlefield also applies in foreign policy, noting that Finland's tightening up of its border with Russia after Estonia had already done so was testimony to some of Estonia's foreign policy achievements.

Center Party MP Neeme Väli called talk of war fatigue in Europe "pointless", while in fact, since Russia has already lost the war, the focus of discussion should not shift to how to rebuild Ukraine and to address what a "North Korea"-like bloc emerging in the middle of Europe.

Kaljulaid said that Russia would very likely resort to terror tactics against the west, meaning that the latter's guard should not be let down, even as Ukraine is winning the conflict, while Kunnas agreed that anything goes so far as Russia is concerned, while types of action not seen before could be included in that.

The current confrontation will last decades, he added.

Pevkur said the Nord Stream pipeline rupture was evidence of Russia trying to shift the focus from Ukraine and on to EU and western countries' internal affairs, while Reinsalu said that Russia had been step-by-step escalating the situation

"What happens under the sea can also happen on the land, while in fact this has been taking place in the allies' economic zone," he said, with reference to the Nord Stream leak.

Pevkur added that any repair of the pipeline could be accompanied by Russian naval vessels attending the site – near the Danish island of Bornholm, in the southern Baltic – at the same time creating an air defense zone which would also close access to the Baltic.

The nuclear threat is also being taken seriously by the west, he added.

Väli noted that: "Putin has no plan, there is option A, B and C, and just as the situation changes, an option is taken and used exactly to fit the current situation.

"It is important to understand that yes, the 'special military operation's' combat activities are taking place within the territory of Ukraine, but the war is against the West. This is very clear. The ultimatum was also not presented to Ukraine, but to the West," he said.

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