Russia’s Neighbors call on NATO Partners to Reinstate Military Duty

Toivo Saabas, a new recruit, has his spectacles dripping with rain as it follows the lines of his camouflage, which consists of green and black face paint.

He lies on the wet ground, staring through the sight of his gun; the only thing that could reveal his whereabouts is the silent plume of air he exhales into the cold Estonian woodland.

Up next is the ear-piercing rallying cry for combat.

The 25-year-old gets to his feet in an instant. He and his comrades in arms form a line and dash through the forest towards the Russian border.

The mechanical engineering graduate from Southampton University is aware that this could all be real one day as he advances to the sound of enemy fire.

“We’re preparing for any potential danger,” he says.

“We are fully prepared to handle any situation that may arise in Estonia and are committed to protecting our nation.”

Toivo, hailing from the bustling city of Tallinn, is part of the latest generation of young Estonians fulfilling their military service, a responsibility that is expected of all men once they reach the age of 18. Women have the option to participate.

With the conclusion of the Cold War and the improvement of relations with post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s, conscription seemed to be a thing of the past in several European countries.

However, in Estonia, the collective pain of occupation and deportation has not faded away.

Amidst the recent events involving President Putin’s actions in Ukraine, there has been a resurgence of conscription across Europe. Countries near Russia are calling on their Nato allies, including the UK, to consider implementing similar measures.

In recent developments, Norway has made the decision to expand its conscripted soldiers, following Denmark’s previous announcement to include women in conscription and extend the length of service.

Latvia and Sweden have recently reinstated military service, while Lithuania has reintroduced it following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“It really wears you down,” says a soaked Toivo, describing how the training has been the most challenging ordeal he has ever faced.

“However, ultimately, it is about serving your country. It’s always best to be prepared for any situation rather than trying to avoid this service in a sneaky way.

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Captain Mikk Haabma (R) thinks Russia would lose an attack on Estonia

The weather quickly changed from rain to hail and eventually to snow.

Everyone is drenched from head to toe. However, as the simulation comes to a close, a sense of relief washes over the participants, giving way to lively discussions and laughter that overshadow the challenges they faced earlier.

“I can’t help but sympathize with the conscripts in Ukraine,” expresses Captain Mikk Haabma, who is overseeing proceedings.

“They are in a desperate struggle to survive.”

At a towering height of over 2 meters, this 38-year-old individual has a distinct advantage in overseeing the development of his recent recruits.

“Our country relies on reserves and these individuals are constantly filling the positions.” Additionally, they are acquiring the necessary skills to navigate through life, which greatly contributes to boosting their self-assurance. In a few weeks, these individuals will be prepared to confront their adversaries.

He is referring to Russia.

‘Ultimately, we have Nato’

Russia has never initiated aggression against any country within Nato. The collective defence pact of Nato ensures that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. Indeed, the Kremlin dismisses suggestions it might.

Several countries, including Nato members like the UK, the US, France, and Russia, possess nuclear weapons. This raises concerns about the potential for nuclear escalation in the event of a conflict.

However, in the event of an attack, it’s worth considering what they would be faced with.

“It’s a significant loss,” Captain Haabma responds.

“Certainly, they may have the numbers, but ultimately, we have Nato and a clear advantage in terms of technology.”

The transatlantic military alliance – now a club of 32 including new members Finland and Sweden – is commemorating its 75th anniversary this week.

So what is the prevailing sentiment in Estonia today?

Feeling safe as a member of a larger alliance? Or concern about what actions Vladimir Putin may take in the future?

Vladimir Putin’s potential actions worry Estonians, according to Prime Minister Kaja Kallas

“I believe it’s a combination of factors,” responds Kaja Kallas from her office as the prime minister in Tallinn.

Ensuring that Nato allies fulfill their commitment to allocate 2% of GDP to defense is of utmost importance to her.

“By 1938, the signs of an impending war were undeniable, prompting a significant increase in defense spending. However, this action proved to be futile, as it was realized too late.”

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She emphasizes the importance of taking action to protect our way of life and maintain peace in Europe.

Nevertheless, in 2024, a majority of Nato members are still falling short of their 2% funding goal, which consistently bothered US President Donald Trump during his tenure in the White House.

Ms Kallas, who has been leading Estonia since 2021, views conscription as a crucial component in bolstering defense capabilities and deterring potential aggression from Russia.

“We possess a formidable reserve army of 44,000 individuals, which would be equivalent to approximately two million people for Great Britain.” Two million individuals prepared to protect their nation and fully aware of their responsibilities.”

After she brings up Britain out of the blue, I inquire about her thoughts on recommending conscription to the UK.

“Naturally, each country has the freedom to make its own decisions, as we all value democracy. However, I highly recommend considering this option for various reasons.”

‘We have experienced a loss of independence in the past’

As Kallas reflects on the incident where the head of the British Army received a rebuke from Downing Street for his comments about training a “citizen army” prepared for future land warfare, her eyes widen in surprise.

“Well, it’s not surprising considering our diverse historical backgrounds. We cherish the value of independence and freedom, and are determined to safeguard it. One truly comprehends the value of freedom when it is absent.

The UK Ministry of Defence spokesperson assured the BBC that there are no plans for a return to conscription.

The British government has announced a significant investment of £50bn in its armed forces for 2024. This investment aims to address various threats, including the concerning issue of Russian aggression in Ukraine. The government has emphasized that one of its main focuses is to enhance recruitment and improve retention across the services.

While military service may be experiencing a resurgence, not all young Estonians are wholeheartedly embracing it.

The cozy atmosphere and lively ambiance of F-Hoone bar in the heart of the city is a stark contrast to the wet and muddy forest where the conscripts have been working hard.

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The city is getting ready for Tallinn Music Week, an annual celebration featuring live performances across various genres.

One of the acts performing will be The Boondocks, a four piece indie rock band that was originally formed in Pärnu, a coastal city in the south west of the country.

“I’m not a soldier,” croons 25-year-old Villem Sarapuu in their track Smokin’ Aces.

However, every morning for two months, he indeed wore military fatigues for his national service.

“To be honest, I wasn’t keen on doing it,” he confides.

“I doubt there are many individuals who willingly choose to go there.”

According to him, it initially had a significant impact on his mental well-being.

“Being cut off from others and the outside world can create a peculiar sense of limbo, especially when you’re in Tallinn.”

Following the initial physical training, Villem dedicated the rest of his six months to the military orchestra, culminating in a performance at the Independence Day parade.

“My friends who are involved in current events were amused by me – in a positive manner.” However, I was engaged in a similar activity: it involves showcasing your nation without necessarily being on the front lines.

Band member Hendrik Tamberg, 28, is seated beside him.

Due to his conscientious objection, he was exempted from military service and dedicated a year to providing care for vulnerable adults with mental health issues.

“I found it to be a highly fulfilling experience, although I missed the sense of companionship that comes from going on challenging hikes in the forest with others.” I did feel like I was out of the loop.”

Lead singer Villem reflects on his military training with fondness, highlighting the stark contrast to the deep collective unease felt by his generation regarding the potential threat of a Russian attack.

“If I contemplate the autonomy of individuals, compelling people to participate in conscription is not a particularly pleasant endeavor,” he ponders.

“However, for a country like Estonia, which is relatively small, it is crucial to actively seek individuals to fulfill this role.” Or this nation will cease to exist.”

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