Renewed: 01.06.2014, 17:32

22 May 2014 14:53

Nato must save us from Putin, warns Estonia army chief

Article appeared in The Times; May 22, 2014
By Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor, Tallinn

Britain and its Nato allies must relearn how to fight conventional wars to see off the threat posed by Russia, the head of Estonia’s armed forces said yesterday.

Major-General Riho Terras said that a major military exercise in his country was testing skills in international conflict that had grown rusty in many member states after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Similar exercises, involving tanks, artillery, air defence systems, warplanes and thousands of troops, should continue to take place to send a clear signal to President Putin that Nato remained strong and would defend all allies from any attack, the Estonian commander said.

General Terras said that he planned to ask the alliance to reconsider its ties with Russia, noting that it was all but impossible to resume co-operation and partnership with Moscow while Crimea remained annexed and with eastern Ukraine in crisis.

“The exercises are important,” General Terras said, speaking at his office at the Estonian defence forces headquarters in Tallinn, a grand building that was once used as a military hospital when Estonia was part of the then Soviet Union.

“Afghanistan was a counter-insurgency operation, so many of the nations lost their ability to plan and conduct conventional warfare because the focus was too much on combating terrorism and insurgents,” he said. “I think we should go back to our roots and start to do the military business as we have been taught for years.”

Putting the words into action, two RAF jets were scrambled on Tuesday to intercept a Russian spy plane that was flying in international airspace close to Estonia, officers in the country’s air force revealed yesterday.

The Typhoons were part of a four-jet squadron sent to an airbase in nearby Lithuania to boost a Nato air policing role over the Baltic states since the Ukraine unrest.

They caught up with the Russian Ilyushin IL-20 Coot in midair and took photographs before returning to the Siauliai airbase.

The British jets are also taking part in Exercise Steadfast Javelin, a Nato training mission that has been going on in Estonia for six days, involving 6,000 troops from nine countries, including Britain.

General Terras said that support for the exercise — which formed part of an annual Estonian training operation — and Nato’s enhanced role in policing Baltic airspace, was reassuring for Estonia, which only regained its independence from Soviet rule in 1991.

Estonia still has a large Russian minority that comprises more than a quarter of its population of 1.3 million. Such an ethnic mix made the events in Ukraine particularly troubling for Tallinn, though there has been no sign of any internal problems yet.

“We have not had alarms, no,” General Terras said. “We talk to our allies and explain to them that the world has changed and they now are starting to believe us slowly.”

He said that his country was confident that the alliance would uphold its pledge, enshrined in Article 5 of the Nato treaty, to protect any member state from attack. “The question is whether Putin believes that Article 5 works. We should not give any option of miscalculation for President Putin.”

General Terras called on Nato to reconsider the way it viewed Russia – a message that he planned to convey at a two-day meeting of defence chiefs in Brussels that ends today.

“If Russia sees Nato as a threat, Nato should not see Russia as a friendly co-operation country. That’s very clear. The threat assessment of Nato needs to fit the current realistic circumstances.”

Despite its size, Estonia holds particular sway within the alliance because of a willingness in the past to send troops to fight alongside British and American forces in Afghanistan in Iraq.

The worst outcome of the current confrontation would be if Mr Putin was allowed to retain the status quo without any consequences, General Terras said.

“As long as Crimea is occupied – that is a violation of all democratic rules that we can imagine.”

Original can be found at: 

Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces, 717 1900, mil[at], Juhkentali 58, EE15007, Tallinn, Estonia.

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