Shelters in Estonia good for nothing

Nils Niitra
, reporter
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Photo: Margus Ansu

Twenty years ago, Estonia lost its Soviet time civil defence system meant to shelter communist elite and vital factories staff from weapons of mass destruction.

The Estonian state let its Soviet time civil defence shelters dilapidate, while the Finns have shelter-space for four million. Probably, Estonia isn’t even ready to evacuate civilians from cities.   

The one who best convinced me in this was Erkki Koort, vice chancellor on internal security policy at Ministry of the Interior. Asked whether we were ready to evacuate civilian population from cities, should war commence like in a week, Mr Koort said: «We have to be ready, we have no other option.»

According to Mr Koort, the government decided as early as mid-1990ies that the state would no longer be dealing with the shelters. «As we look at the dangers of today – like what is happening in Ukraine – then there is not too much reason to be dealing with the shelters, really,» said he.

According to Mr Koort, shelters date back to the world wars and cold war era. «During these wars, mass bombings of civilian population took place,» he said.

Today it’s rather the military targets that are attacked, and the vital power and communication centres are occupied. No blanket attack happens as a rule, according to Mr Koort.

Mr Koort speaks for the government and, alas, his views just serve to underline the fact that the shelters were left in disrepair and are thus not needed. Even so, independent military experts as Ants Laaneots, Urmas Roosimägi and Leo Kunnas say we do need them.

«The issue still is where the civilian population will hide, where will the children and the women go. Shelters serve to protect from bombings and missiles with ordinary warheads, and when preparing for war we should return to the issue,» said retired general Mr Laaneots. «In Switzerland, all houses were built with shelters. In Finland, there are shelters enough to hide the entire Helsinki underground. We have nothing.»

Finns build extra

Pekka Rajajärvi, working with Finnish interior ministry rescue department, is the nation’s top shelter-expert. According to him, Finland is maintaining its old shelters, and keeps building new ones.

«We have 40,000 shelters, all in all, for four million people,» said Mr Rajajärvi. «Overall, the shelters built before 1972 are in poor shape. Of the four million shelter places, three million are in good shape, and a million is in bad shape.»

Thus, a few years ago the Finnish law established that during major repairs of buildings, the shelters underneath are to be updated according to current requirements. Today, shelters are to be built underneath all new building with total area of over 1,200 square metres. Thereby, in Finland the building of shelters has been laid on real estate developers. Naturally, this makes building projects more expensive.

In my poor Finnish, I tried to ask Mr Rajajärvi what he thought of the Estonian government stand that shelters aren’t needed at all. «Does your government think there are too few of these?» the man failed to understand. «Or do they think there are enough?»

Finally, it dawned on Mr Rajajärvi that we do not have any working shelters left, as these were neglected. «Don’t let them dilapidate! That’s out of the question!» he said now. «These can’t be built afterwards, somehow, or out of scratch on an empty lot. Shelters are to be built during other construction activity, whether these be apartment buildings of offices.»

When I said even the government of Estonia has no shelter, Mr Rajajärvi greatly wondered. «Really, no shelter for the government? We have these for parliament, government, the ministries,» said he.

When asking Mr Koort where our government is going, in case of evacuation, this is understandably a secret.

«Should a situation occur when the government cannot work in its usual location, working premises will be secured someplace else,» said the vice chancellor. «It must not necessarily be an underground bunker; it may be a school gym for instance. With a definite single hiding place, the problem is that many people will know.»

While Mr Koort says the state has no money to maintain the shelters, Mr Rajajärvi says these are solid concrete structures – expensive to build, but not that costly to maintain.

Modern war talking

The Finns do not see overly convinced by the so-called modern war talk.

«We think differently – we have a long border with Russia and if missiles are shot from the Leningrad military region, these may even simply happen to explode in Finland. We may not even have a military conflict with Russia, but in case of war between Russia and NATO,  we may also become a battleground, even if unwillingly,» added Mr Rajajärvi.

«In 1980ies, NATO had mapped 32 targets in Finland that NATO would have destroyed by nuclear weapons in case of war between NATO and the Soviet Union. This was because the NATO generals thought Finland would surrender to the Soviet Union at the very beginning of a military conflict.»

According to Mr Koort, however, military conflicts do not start overnight – as a rule, there is a preliminary warning period. «If there is indeed a serious danger, inhabitants will be asked to leave cities,» he admitted. «Evacuations have been played out in exercises – the latest being major chemical and radiation related exercise Cremex, financed by EU, in Tartu. During Cremex, the evacuation of a district of Tartu was played out.»

That, actually, is the only major exercise since our regained independence.

Kalev Timberg, former chief of Rescue Board, does not desire to pass judgement, in hindsight, on the governmental decision to let the shelters go. «Every year, we have a security assessment which currently says no major war is expected; should it come, however, fur us the consequences will be heavy – you get what I mean, do you?» he asked.

At the moment, says Mr Timberg, some shelters under industrial buildings are still in working order – ones with alternative use right now. One such is the shelter under Tarmeko main building, in Tartu, used as storage facility.

But where, then, will we take the civilians of Tallinn, in a situation of war?

«I know that civilian authorities have been given no overview on how it is intended to protect Estonia – this is a big secret which the military people keep to themselves,» said Mr Timberg. «We might plan evacuation routes, but then we would need to know first what our servicemen are planning to do during war.»

Our new apartment buildings will crumble like houses of cards, once a bomb hits. Also, new homes come without the basements which, during WW2, saved lots of civilians.

Meanwhile, the nature of war remains much the same. And, according to former Defence Forces chief, Ret. Gen. Ants Laaneots, civilian casualties are still regarded as nothing. «In North Caucasus, Russian soldiers, according to some estimates, killed some 230,000 people, 42,000 of whom were children,» said he.

Run for your life!

According to Ret. Gen. Laaneots, in case of Russia it makes no sense to talk about precision bombing of military objects. «During the bombing of Georgia, guided projectiles and bombs were not used at all.»

Retired Brigadier General Urmas Roosimägi said the same. «During the Soviet time, it was civilian defence headquarters that took care of the ordinary citizens,» said he. «There were certain storages of food, diesel generators, medical equipment, gas masks etc – a whole complex of measures which is totally discarded during 20 years.»

In times of peace, an army is partially used for civilian tasks as well; when crisis hits, the army will totally focus on doing battle.

According to Ret. Brig. Gen. Roosimägi, in WW1 civilian casualties were still few in number; in WW2 they amounted to 30 percent; and in latest military conflicts the percentage comes between 70 and 80. «In a war situation, a soldier knows how to behave. A civilian does not.»

Thus, Ret. Brig. Gen. Roosimägi predicts war would mean great chaos in Estonian cities. «I do not know where people will hide, in war situation, how they will be supplied, how major fires will be put out, how medical services will run.»

So basically here’s a hint for city slickers, in case of war: spurt for the countryside, get your legs going real fast!