The Estonian government on 17 November called almost 1,700 reserve soldiers to hold a snap defence readiness exercise; the reserve engineers will construct temporary fences in Estonia’s border areas with Russia, as the Belarus–European Union border crisis escalates.
The reservists from mainly engineer units are called to the readiness exercise, called OKAS/QUILL, from 17 to 25 November. The units will train co-operating with the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board and construct a 40-kilometre (25-mile) temporary fence, made of barbed wire, on the Estonian-Russian border.
“The main purpose of exercise OKAS/QUILL is to test the national defence chain of command, from the Estonian government’s decision down to the particular units’ combat readiness in the rapid response structure,” the Estonian government said in a statement.
Belarus’s hybrid warfare
Although the government called it a “regular exercise”, the operation comes at the time of the 2021 Belarus–European Union border crisis that affects Estonia’s close regional allies, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – the EU member states that share their borders with Belarus, ruled by the authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenka. Many in Estonia fear the country’s border with Russia may also become under pressure from illegal migration.
The crisis – described also as Belarus’s “hybrid warfare” – began in early summer of 2021, when Lukashenka, enraged by the EU sanctions against his regime, threatened to introduce human traffickers, drug smugglers and armed migrants to Europe.
Subsequently, the Belarusian authorities and state-controlled tourist enterprises, together with some airlines operating in the Middle East, started promoting tours to Belarus, giving those who bought them Belarusian visas, and offering fraudulent advice on the rules of crossing the country’s border with the EU.
Those who arrived in Belarus were then given instructions about how and where to trespass the EU border and what to tell the border guards on the other side. The migrants were often guided by the guards up until the border and were often also provided with wire cutters and axes to cut through border fences and enter the EU.
Since then, the crisis has escalated greatly and Poland, for example, currently employs 15,000 soldiers to defend the country’s border with Belarus. Across the border, on the Belarusian side, thousands of people – mainly from Iraq, Syria and Yemen – are still hoping to cross to the EU’s side.
Cover: Estonian soldiers on an exercise. The image is illustrative. Photo by the Estonian Defence Forces.