The United Kingdom will pull half of its forces out of Estonia by Christmas, despite pledges by its ministers to strengthen NATO defences in the face of Russian aggression.
The Estonian government had been expecting as many as 2,000 UK troops to remain, plus a few hundred more arriving to make up a brigade-sized force ready to defend the country in the event of an attack.
However, two sources familiar with the situation told The Times newspaper that a 700-strong battalion that has been stationed in Estonia since February was returning in December with no plans to replace it.
“The return will mean the number of British boots on the ground in Estonia will almost halve at a time of soaring tensions and fears that President Putin could become more dangerous as Russia fails to make gains on the battleground in Ukraine,” The Times reported.
One source told the newspaper that it was the belief of many European nations that the “British army is now too small and doesn’t have enough soldiers to spare”.
Pevkur: allied presence in Estonia is constant
The British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said only in June that the UK would commit an extra 2,000 troops to Estonia under NATO plans to defend the alliance’s eastern flank against a possible Russian attack.
As it turns out, from January 2023 onwards, only one 900-strong battlegroup will be stationed in Estonia.
The Times says that the British army will shrink to just 72,500 troops – “the smallest since the Napoleonic era”. However, it’s not clear if this plan will be reversed as the new British prime minister, Liz Truss, has promised to boost defence spending to three per cent of the UK’s GDP by 2030.
The Estonian defence minister, Hanno Pevkur, said that it was important to emphasise that the allied presence in Estonia is constant. The UK and Estonia are in the process of developing a long-term solution and putting in place the details of implementing the Madrid Summit decisions, according to a statement released by the defence ministry.
Increase the allied footprint in Estonia
“At the last NATO summit, the allies took a clear position – the eastern flank of NATO, including the defence of Estonia, will be strengthened. First and foremost, that means the assignment of an additional brigade from the UK to Estonia, creating a division-level structure based on Estonian and British brigades, and the renewal of NATO’s regional plans, which also include the plans for defending Estonia,” Pevkur said.
According to him, Estonia’s objective is to increase the footprint of the allies in Estonia.
“Today, the British-led main contingent in Tapa will remain. It includes about 900 men and heavy equipment. French and Danish units are also here, with the latter having arrived this month with a new unit and Leopard tanks. At the Ämari Air Base, the Baltic Air Policing mission will continue, and the rotation there was just recently assumed by the Germans. So we can say already now that there has never been as much allied firepower in Estonia as there is now.”
“Of course, understandably our interest is in increasing the footprint of the allies even faster, which is why in addition to the bigger NATO plans, we are also holding bilateral talks with various allies, so the Estonian people can rest assured, knowing that Estonia is defended,” Pevkur added.