Assigning a British brigade to the division took a lot of persuasion

Meinhard Pulk
, ajakirjanik
During Boris Johnson's tenure, there was talk of the hope of permanently bringing 2,000 British soldiers to Estonia. The reality is not quite so bold.
During Boris Johnson's tenure, there was talk of the hope of permanently bringing 2,000 British soldiers to Estonia. The reality is not quite so bold. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu
  • The Defense League has concerns regarding the division being formed with British support.
  • The legal aspects should be cleared by January.
  • The UK assigns a brigade for Estonia’s defense.

The forming of the divisional structure agreed at the summer NATO summit is at least reaching legal formalization. Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (RE) wants to enter the government in the next few weeks by changing the statutes of the defense forces. As a labor victory, it was confirmed that the United Kingdom will assign one brigade to defend Estonia.

The divisional structure created together with the United Kingdom means that Estonia's logic of warfare must be changed as well. According to deputy commander of the Defense Forces, Major General Veiko-Vello Palm, the division performs two main purposes in the military defense of Estonia: it combines the combat activities of the Defense League's territorial defense districts, the infantry brigades of the Defense Forces and other services, and forms a link between the allies and their military capabilities.

Dramatic changes rarely happen without strain and debates. This was also the case this time, when the Defense League could not immediately find a common language with the army for a long time. The disputes, which, according to recollections related to Postimees, became quite ugly at times, were largely about the issue of subordination.

It is true that there are several versions of the content of the discussions. However, according to Pevkur, the main focus of disagreement was whether or not the territorial defense would be subordinated to divisional command during the war. “According to the present understanding it will remain under the command of the commander of the defense forces."

However, Palm noted that there was never any idea of ​​subordinating the Defense League to the division. “The Defense League remains an independent voluntary organization which performs the tasks assigned to it. Military defense in Estonia is carried out by the commander of the defense forces, to whom the territorial defense districts are subordinated; and he decides about the best way of using them for the defense of the country or to whom to subordinate them.”

The commander of the Defense League, Riho Ühtegi, did not want to comment on the ongoing developments. At the same time, Tanel Rütman, the spokesperson of the Defense League, confirmed that Ühtegi has never wanted the land defense not to be subordinated to the commander of the defense forces. "On the contrary, territorial defense is also a wartime structural unit under the commander of the defense forces, based on the units trained by the Defense League, according to the current statutes of the defense forces. The commander of the Defense League wants it to stay that way,” Rütman said.

The core of the army is busy making preparations

Whatever the reason for the disagreement, in any case, Pevkur has arranged a meeting with the Board of Elders of the Defense League for November 17. “But as far as I understand, when we talked with the commander of the Defense League, we have more or less understood how it will look like in wartime in the future,” he confirmed.

According to Pevkur, the forming of the divisional structure on a broader scale is currently well on schedule and has gone without setbacks. “The legal process is in its final phase. In the coming weeks, I will go to government with an amendment to the statutes of the Defense Forces, which will provide the legal basis for the forming of the division staff and the structure. Then there will be the selection of personnel, and in January the division HQ should be ready enough that we can start making real plans together with the British and other allies.”

The British were hesitant about the brigade as well

At the end of September, the British media announcement of the UK's intention to return to the UK in December the 700 soldiers brought to Estonia in February caused a minor storm in Estonia, although British Defense Minister Ben Wallace had previously promised to increase the number of British soldiers in Estonia up to 2,000. Only the almost 900-member British battle group which was here until now will remain permanently in Estonia.

Wallace and Pevkur agreed at a meeting in London on Tuesday that the British will keep one brigade, or a 5,000-strong unit, on high alert throughout 2023. Estonia has requested this for several years. “Here, too, there were doubts whether the British are prepared to do it or not. Now we have received confirmation of this,” said Pevkur.

The brigade assigned to the Estonian division will also attend exercises here, such as Kevadtorm (Spring Storm). However, if they are not in Estonia at the moment, the speed of their arrival in Estonia in the event of a possible military aggression will depend on the agreements within NATO. “There are certain levels within NATO, and the level to which the brigade is assigned will be agreed upon separately. But as my British colleague assured me, it is on high alert,” answered Pevkur when asked about time frames.

There have been grumblings from the defense circles throughout the autumn about the speed of implementation of the decisions of the Madrid summit at the beginning of the summer. Pevkur also partially admitted it. "As Estonians, of course we would like it to happen here and now. But we have to take into account that NATO is an organization consisting of 30 countries and the implementation of all decisions needs a little more coordination. This plan which we have set – so that the regional plans would be ready in the spring and ideally could receive political approval at the Vilnius summit in July – is still in force.”

In addition, it was agreed at Tuesday's meeting that Chinook transport helicopters will arrive in Estonia in January, Apache attack helicopters will be added in March, and Typhoon fighter jets will arrive in April.

What is a division?

A division (10,000 - 30,000 soldiers) is a tactical unit of troops, usually consisting of two to six regiments (3,000 - 5,000 soldiers) or brigades (3,000 - 5,000 soldiers), usually with a few special purpose single battalions (300 - 800 soldiers), companies (80-250 soldiers) and rear units. The division has its own combat support and service capability.

Palm added that until the amendment to the statutes is approved by the government, a working group has been formed by a directive of the defense forces commander, which will be the future core of the division HQ. A description of the division's composition, tasks, structure and capabilities is currently being prepared there.

Apart from legal aspects, there are no material effects directly related to the division HQ, except of course the costs related to the reception capacity of the allies coming here. “The division headquarters – for about a hundred officers – will have their own space in the premises of the Defense Forces HQ, but there will be no direct additional expenses in this regard," said Pevkur.

Kallas: NATO agreements are broader than agreements with the UK

According to Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, NATO agreements are broader than those concluded only with the UK, and the implementation of Madrid's plans is being dealt with consistently at the military level.

“The agreements made with the UK strengthen our position regarding the ones concerning the Madrid Declaration; various steps and agreements have already been made – these transfers of additional capabilities and all that,” the premier told the Riigikogu on Wednesday.

“As for the brigade, we have had an agreement that we will develop a division-strength unit. This does not mean that the brigade is here on the ground, but that we have a unified command structure, we have unified communication, we conduct joint exercises and these soldiers are ready to come here immediately,” said Kallas.

According to her, the implementation of Madrid's plans is being dealt with consistently at the military level. "This does not only concern the agreements we have with the UK, but it concerns much more broadly the strengthening of NATO's eastern flank.” She added that Estonia, for its part, must expand the training grounds and create conditions for the presence of allied forces here. "So these consultations, plans and everything else will continue," Kallas said.