Unlike Sweden’s approach to Gotland, Estonia does not plan to bring Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) training infrastructure and troops to its major islands, relying instead on its volunteer league for defense purposes.
"The defense of the islands is of crucial importance to Estonian defense, but a peacetime training center does not need to be located on Saaremaa or Hiiumaa for this," Col. Vahur Karus, deputy director of the Defence Planning Department of the Ministry of Defence, told ERR. "For Estonia’s military defense purposes, the peacetime distribution of the EDF’s military units is not of critical importance as the defense forces’ wartime rapid response structure is in the reserves, it is mobilized as needed and deployed to the necessary area of Estonia."
According to Karus, the major Western Estonian islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa are, during crisis, peace- and wartime alike, defended first and foremost by the Estonian Defence League, which is constantly training for defense.
"For example, the EDL has also conducted Hurricane exercises of international scope for the defense of Saaremaa," recalled the colonel. "Likewise young men who are natives of Saaremaa complete [EDF] conscription as equally as others and are thus prepared to defend Estonia and their native island as reservists if needed. The islands are currently already just as well protected militarily as any other region in Estonia."
Karus decided that in determining the peacetime distribution of EDF units which are largely training centers, what is important is supporting infrastructure, particularly the availability of ample training grounds and other training conditions, the proximity of EDF central logistical support as well as accessibility for conscripts.
He noted that space has grown tight even for existing local EDL units at the islands’ current training grounds, and that infrastructure would have to be built from the ground up in order to establish EDF training centers there, including barracks, training facilities and other supporting infrastructure, which would not currently be a practical use of national defense funding.
Hanso: Southern, Eastern Estonia most critical regions
Chairman of the National Defence Committee of the Riigikogu Hannes Hanso likewise stressed that the Estonian Defence League ensures the security of Estonia’s islands during peacetime, noting that Saaremaa currently has 750 volunteer defense league members, while Hiiumaa has 200, and that brand new EDL infrastructure and a shooting range being built in Kuressaare will also help to improve the strength of regional training.
According to Hanso, in wartime, all of Estonia will be defended by the EDF and the EDL as needed. "Clearly the most critical regions for us are Estonia’s southern and eastern areas," he pointed out.
Sweden discontinued the permanent presence of troops on its Baltic Sea island of Gotland in 2005, however in March 2015, the Swedish government decided to restore military presence on the island. In the context of the threat of war with Russia, Gotland is considered a strategically located island and a weak link in ensuring the security of the Baltic Sea region.
Editor: Aili Vahtla