British troops wargaming in the Estonian forests to fend off a potential invasion by Russia have proved to Vladimir Putin “you can’t win here”, its Prime Minister has said.
It comes as 1,500 British troops across all three forces descended into Camp Tapa as part of the biggest Nato exercise ever held in Estonia to warn the Russian president not to invade countries on Russia’s border.
Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, told The Daily Telegraph that troops have gotten to know Estonia’s scenery and forests, as well as how its army, air defence and heavy weaponry works so that they can operate together.
“It means people understand that if they are stationed in Yorkshire or Manchester but know that if the call comes, they are coming and know what is here. What I hear from the military, it’s getting better and better everyday.”
She added: “For me, it is important that we are able to defend our country from the first minute. Therefore Nato’s plans need to work in practice. I see that this could function. If our adversary also knows this, it takes down the will to attack us because you can’t win here.”
Speaking to The Telegraph at Stenbock House, the official Government building in Tallinn, Ms Kallas revealed how over dinner at last year’s Munich Security Conference her fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine were dismissed by “the head of an intelligence service of an important ally”.
“He said, ‘Russia will not attack Ukraine’. I said, ‘I hope you are right because we see it differently and we prepare for this’.”
‘Freedom is something you fight for’
Estonia, which shares a 183-mile border with Russia, was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and only liberated in 1991. It is precisely because of this occupation that Ms Kallas is adamant British troops and other Nato allies need to be exercising in her country in order to demonstrate to Russia that any attempt to invade will be crushed.
“Our history has taught us very clearly, what is right and what is wrong. They say you can only understand freedom when it’s taken from you. I come from the generation that was born without freedom, and now we have it. I don’t take it for granted. I understand freedom is something you have to fight for.”
She added: “For 50 years when we were occupied, it seems to me that the other side of the Iron Curtain did not know what was happening on our side.”
Ms Kallas spoke of the human atrocities committed on Estonian soil during this period, from the killing of elites and suppression of language and culture to mass deportations of civilians that have been largely unknown.
“That’s why it is so clear to us what is happening in Ukraine and what we have to do to stop this,” she said. “You only understand freedom when it is taken from you, but I don’t think the way to learn this is to lose freedom, but maybe the way to learn is to listen to those who have lost it.”
As part of the Spring Storm exercise, the UK-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) Battlegroup has been increased to brigade-size strength for the first time. In total, 14,000 personnel from different Nato allies have been exercising together in a “critical situation” to enact how they would respond to a Russian invasion. In the UK, troops are held at “high readiness” in order to move within hours of any aggressive behaviour. It is a situation Ms Kallas is content with, because “it’s not very hard to move troops”.
Ms Kallas warned that it would be naive to think the world was safe because of how depleted Russia’s army currently is, with soaring casualty rates and plunging morale.
“All this talk that Russia and its army has suffered a lot of losses, is weak and doesn’t have the strength, I think it’s making people sleepy,” she said. “You lose your focus. If they have some kind of pause, a peace treaty, it only serves the Kremlin’s interest. They have a vast country, with masses of people, it’s not soldiers, it’s cannon fodder. It’s not a democracy. We shouldn’t lose our guard, we are in this for the long haul and we have to do everything to prepare ourselves and our defence so that Russia does not think in any other direction.”
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