Ukraine war brings NATO mission on eastern flank into sharp relief

TAPA ARMY BASE, Estonia — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought a new focus to the NATO troops stationed at this Estonian military base on the alliance’s eastern flank.

NATO soldiers have been stationed here, some 150km from the Russian border, for five years as part of the alliance’s “Enhanced Forward Presence” — its mission to protect and reassure Eastern European members worried about Russian aggression.

But Moscow’s all-out war in Ukraine has brought home just how big a threat the Baltic region may face.

“In the past, it was rather vague to explain to my family why we’re here in Estonia,” said a senior officer from Denmark, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Now all the TV news is self-explanatory.”

The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are widely considered to be among the NATO and EU members most vulnerable to a Russian attack. Their leaders — almost all of whom have memories of their liberation from Soviet rule in the 1990s — have voiced concern Vladimir Putin could set his sights on their countries after Ukraine.

Heightened fears of Russian attack have also prompted the Baltic countries’ regional neighbors, Finland and Sweden, to ditch long-standing policies of military non-alignment and throw their weight behind NATO membership.

Last week, POLITICO was among a group of international media outlets given access to the Tapa base for an event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia. The mood was sober rather than celebratory as soldiers marched in torrential rain for the anniversary commemoration.

The NATO troops here are led by the U.K.’s Royal Welsh regiment and also include members of the French Alpine Hunters and Denmark’s Viking Company. Estonian soldiers here are allowed to show their unofficial “Slava Ukraini” arm badges next to the national insignia on their uniforms.

Time, for now, is on their side. According to a senior Estonian defense officer in Tapa, citing “open source information,” the Russian military presence close to Estonia has sharply reduced due to redeployments to Ukraine. Real-time footage from the Ukrainian battlefield also provides these officers with invaluable material to prepare their own training.

Allies, meanwhile, are keen to show their solidarity. Flanked by Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the Tapa base in March and announced a doubling of the number of British troops here. Last month, France announced plans to beef up its presence in Estonia, including additional troops and extending the mission at Tapa.

But Baltic governments say they need much more support in order to deter Russia. Estonia is asking for NATO troop numbers on its soil to double to 4,000. They’re hoping for a strong signal from a summit of NATO leaders in Madrid at the end of next month.

Nightmare scenario

One scenario that keeps Baltic politicians awake at night is Russia mounting an incursion into a small area of their territory to test the resolve of the political leaders in major Western capitals. Would they live up to NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense commitment — or prefer to negotiate with Moscow?

Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s deputy prime minister and defense minister, said NATO should not be content with plans to react to any Russian attack — it should be proactive to prevent one.

“Ten years ago … there has been a kind of unified understanding among military experts that Baltic countries [are] basically extremely difficult to defend militarily, which means if Russians would hypothetically attack, we would lose some territory, and then the liberation will come later once those [allied] countries … will generate the force and liberate us,” Pabriks told the Lennart Meri Conference, a gathering of security experts and policymakers, in Estonia’s capital Tallinn last week.

“This type of thinking must end. We are sick and tired, and we are not ready anymore here to live in a situation where there is a military asymmetry,” he declared.

Jonatan Vseviov, secretary-general of the Estonian foreign ministry, echoed that view in an interview with POLITICO.

He said NATO needed a military posture that communicates to everyone that “NATO will not only defend every square meter of its territory, but that NATO is also able to defeat any sort of aggression from day one, so that not even a square meter of NATO territory is lost, not even for a week.”

Vseviov cited examples from the early weeks of Russia’s war in Ukraine, such as atrocities in Bucha and widespread devastation of infrastructure, to highlight how much damage could be done by an invasion in a short time.

“That needs to be in the back of our heads,” he said.

“As we’ve always told people here in Estonia, history does not end,” said Vseviov. “It did not end in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed; it did not end for us in 2004, when we joined NATO. And here we have a historically pivotal moment in European security — and we need to rise up to face that moment.”