Baltic volunteers guard against threat of Russian stealth invasion
Summit will ramp up Nato's response to the Kremlin’s moves in eastern Europe
Estonian military major Tanel Rutman stands with businessman Rasmus Lahtvee and student Kaidi Peterkop, members of the 25,000-strong volunteer Estonian Defence League, outside its headquarters in Tallinn. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Nato leaders are poised to send troops to the Baltic states to deter any threat from a belligerent Russia, but Estonian major Tanel Rutman knows that thousands of fiercely determined defenders are already hiding in plain sight.
In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, units of civilian volunteers would be among the first to react to an invasion, and they are seen as a patriotic shield against any repeat of the Kremlin’s stealthy “hybrid” war in Ukraine.
The Nato summit starting in Warsaw today will confirm the deployment of 1,000-strong battalions of foreign soldiers to each of the Baltic states and Poland, sharply escalating the alliance’s response to rising tension with Russia.
But professional western troops are no replacement for the Baltic states’ territorial defence forces, whose growing ranks are filled by volunteers from all walks of life, united by a readiness to fight any threat to their nation’s freedom.
“We will make a difference if needed,” said Rutman, a major in the Estonian military and spokesman for the country’s volunteer Defence League (EDL). “The league is literally everywhere. It has members in every village. They know each other and have trained together, and there are members of all ages. Put it this way – every Estonian grandmother is a potential threat to an aggressor.”
The EDL and affiliated groups have 25,000 members among an Estonian population of 1.3 million, and they train in everything from sharpshooting to cyber security, with a particular focus on how to wage guerrilla war in the event of invasion.
Far from fanciful
The EDL was formed in 1918 when Estonia first won independence, and was liquidated by the Soviets in 1940. Its members were persecuted, but many of those who escaped deportation to Siberia fought in guerrilla units called the “Forest Brothers” during and after the second World War.
“Many of us had grandparents in this organisation – it’s in our blood,” said Rutman, in the historic headquarters of the EDL in central Tallinn, beside the Occupation Museum that tells how Estonia’s sovereignty was won, lost and regained.
The origins of territorial defence units in Latvia and Lithuania are similar, and Poland’s legendary second World War resistance movement will serve as inspiration for a new 35,000-strong volunteer force being formed. A “whole society” approach to defence makes sense in the Baltic states – small nations with tiny standing armies and a recent history of occupation – and trained and licensed EDL members can keep an automatic rifle and ammunition at home.
“Our borders are basically guarded by police, so in terms of crisis response and border protection, we are heavily dependent on the Defence League,” said Dmitri Teperik, EDL member and chief executive of a leading regional think tank, the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS).
“The key strength is networking. You know your friends and colleagues and where to find help in different areas – medicine, logistics, cyber and so on.”
Poland and the Baltic states are counting on foreign friends, however, to provide some military balance in a region that has become a flashpoint following a Russian-backed insurgency in Ukraine that has killed almost 10,000 people.
Behind the Nato battalions will stand a “spearhead force” of some 5,000 troops, who can be deployed within 48 hours and use equipment being pre-positioned in the region.
Tomas Jermalavicius, a research fellow at ICDS, said the Nato battalions would be something more substantial than a “tripwire” triggering the alliance’s mutual defence clause.
“They couldn’t defend the Baltic states, considering what’s on the [Russian] side of the border, but they could delay an incursion. And they send a clear signal to Moscow that this is where the red line is.”
Russia insists it has no designs on the Baltic states, and accuses the US and Nato of ratcheting up tension with deployments and plans for a missile defence system in Romania and Poland. But Russia does maintain powerful forces near the Baltic states, including assault units that have fought covertly in Ukraine, and its Kaliningrad enclave between Lithuania and Poland is heavily militarised.
Even with Nato troops, “we would be outnumbered here [by Russian troops] about three-to-one,” said Jermalavicius. “Looking regionally, we see a severe imbalance of forces.”
Distrust of Moscow
The Nato deployment “is good and necessary,” said Rasmus Lahtvee (35), a businessman, activist, and squad leader and sharpshooter with the EDL. “Ukraine was the last straw for many people who had waited and wondered whether to join the Defence League . . . We see from our history that one of our neighbours doesn’t respond well to weakness – we have to be, and to look, strong,” he explained.
Rutman said interest in joining the EDL had more than doubled in the two years since Ukraine’s crisis began, and that the volunteers looked forward to co-operating with the UK-led Nato battalion earmarked for duty in Estonia. “We can’t go through the experience of the 1940s again,” he said.
“History shows we don’t give up,” Lahtvee added. “Estonia is and will be free.”