“Let’s rest now, while we can.” At Estonia’s NATO base, troops prepare for Putin’s next move – POLITICO

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TAPA, Estonia – At NATO’s Tapa military base in central Estonia, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rekindled the military’s sense of purpose.

On a recent weekday, despite heavy snowfall, there was plenty of activity in and around the frontline camp – just 160 km from the Russian border – as soldiers wonder what the future plans of Russian President Putin might be.

In the town of Tapa, north of the base, armed Estonian conscripts practiced street patrols, methodically checking side streets for invaders. Near the main camp, a civilian police vehicle stopped to block oncoming traffic before a convoy of eight military trucks rattled during a drill. Armored vehicles can also be seen tracking the edge of the forest further out on the off-road.

Inside the camp, Colonel Andrus Merilo, head of Estonia’s first infantry brigade holding the post of base commander, said Moscow’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of one of its neighbors they have focused everyone’s mind on the current mission here: national defense and the potential threat Russia could pose to Estonia.

“Vigilance is the most important thing,” he said. “We have to do it now, so we don’t miss any indication that the threat is heading towards Estonia.”

He said his military had long been preparing for such a scenario based on lessons from the history of Estonia – which was occupied by the Soviet Union for 48 years – and Russia’s aggression against other countries. neighbors in recent years.

“Our system was built so we had this situation in mind,” says Merilo. “Ukraine is currently being invaded by Russia, but we are prepared for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and all the Baltic Sea region to face a similar military attack.”

Indeed, Baltic leaders have flagged the danger of Russian aggression in the region since at least 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia.

Former Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, now a European commissioner, said this week that Putin would likely target the Baltic states to expand the country’s access to the Baltic Sea if he achieves his military goals. their own in Ukraine.

Baltic leaders have called for NATO troops to be permanently stationed at bases like Tapa, but for now they still use a permanent rotation system.

Outside Merilo’s office, on the edge of the parade ground, British troops could be seen launching what looked like a new batch of rocket launchers, testing out the sights and feel of the kits.

Flags of NATO, Estonia, UK, EU, France and Denmark – all with troops here – fluttered overhead.

Sense of duty

Across the parade ground, at the headquarters of the British Royal Tank Regiment’s barracks, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Worth, the commanding officer, suggested that if his men ever wondered why they had been sent to the countryside. Estonia, the new Russian attack on Ukraine was definitive. answered that question.

“Currently, the strategic landscape and the constant news feed they see means there is no necessary explanation as to why this is so important,” he said. “The sense of purpose is an amazing thing.”

In a depot from Worth’s office down a rutted road, an engine roars and a crane lifts the engine into an armored vehicle while engineers call each other instructions.

A British Challenger 2 tank is parked outside ready for the next training exercise. The tank commander in charge of it said he feels his soldiers have spent months in Estonia – his battle group arrived in Tapa last September – to good use learning how to operate the vehicle. convenient in harsher, denser forests and colder than what they were used to. arrive.

The temperature here dropped to minus 26 degrees in December, forcing the task force to quickly adapt its approach, Commanding Officer Worth said.

“Just live in it [environment] is challenging, so fighting in it is even harder,” he said.

The forerunner of the Tapa base was built by the Soviet Red Army during the occupation of Estonia, which lasted from 1940 to 1941 and again from 1944 to 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The departure of Soviet forces lasted several years and the camp commander Merilo – who enlisted in 1992 – said that his first job as a conscript was to guard an Estonian base in the school The Russian army decided to attack instead of withdraw.

Along with two other Baltic states, Estonia joined the EU and NATO in 2004, cementing its position among Western nations.

Since then, bases like Tapa and Adazi in Latvia have been modernized and expanded, but concerns about Russian forces being able to return to the Baltics have never gone away.

After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, the Baltics called on NATO to deploy troops across its eastern edges. In 2016, at a summit in Warsaw, NATO leaders decision rotation of permanent troops through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Now, Baltic leaders argue that NATO troops should be permanently stationed here with more and better equipment because they fear Putin’s ultimate goal is not beyond taking power in Ukraine.

Merilo said he believes taking Ukraine is just an “intermediate goal” for Putin and NATO needs to prepare him to go further.

Merilo says he slept well, but not because he believes trouble won’t come.

“What we’ve been preparing for for decades is happening, there’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “We should rest now, while we can.” "Let's rest now, while we can." At Estonia's NATO base, troops prepare for Putin's next move - POLITICO

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