Estonia will withdraw its troops serving in Mali if the local government decides to begin working with Russian private military company Wagner Group and allows its mercenaries to enter the country, said Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform). The minister also believes Estonia will have the capacity to monitor the regional situation in the context of mid-range air defense in five years.
"I am certainly of the belief that if there is a cooperation agreement made with Wagner Group and Wagner's private army will begin operating in Mali, the Estonian contingency will leave," Laanet told Vikerraadio's news show "Uudis+" on Wednesday.
Reuters reported last week a deal is afoot that would allow Wagner mercenaries into Mali, extending Russian influence over security affairs in West Africa. A European source who tracks West Africa and a security source in the region said at least 1,000 mercenaries could be involved.
Approximately 100 members of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) are participating in three peace operations in Mali as part of the French-led Operation Barkhane.
In response to France's plans to reduce its mission capacity in Mali, the military junta in power announced plans to hire Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group to train its soldiers and protect high state officials. Over the previous year, there have been two coup d'etats in Mali.
Laanet said it is up to Paris to decide on the possible cooperation of Russian mercenaries and French troops, but Estonia does not want to work with Wagner Group soldiers.
"It is up to the French to decide if they can work side by side with a Russian security company, but Estonians certainly cannot do so and our greatest danger is still from the East - Russia. NATO's greatest danger is still from that direction and since France is a member of NATO, it is completely logical that it is not possible to cooperate with our greatest enemy or where the greatest military risks stem from," the defense minister told ERR.
Laanet said France and its allies have asked the Malian government to organize democratic elections next year to allow for a civil government to return to power.
"I completely understand those currently in power in Mali - why should they voluntarily give away their power? And they think they have been clever enough and have turned their sights toward Russia instead and will allow Wagner to help in bringing peace to Mali," Laanet explained.
"It is in the Russians' interest to gain access to African resources and it is in the Malians' interest to put pressure on the international community - France and other allies - so they would not demand democratic elections and would back off," the minister said.
Operation Barkhane is a French-led anti-insurgency mission, which aims to support the governments of the Sahel region countries Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad in their fight against Islamic terrorists.
Operation Barkhane also supports UN's MINUSMA mission and EU's training mission EUTM Mali in ensuring stability in the African country. Both of the aforementioned missions also consist of some dozen Estonian troops each.
Estonia to monitor Baltic Sea region's air defenses in five years
Laanet also spoke about defense spending and noted Estonia should have the capacity to monitor the situation in the context of mid-range air defenses in the Baltic Sea region in five years' time.
"I would not dare to say that we can develop air defenses in the Baltic region by some date, but we can improve our awareness on the Baltic Sea, arrange for all kinds of management equipment. Meaning, we will start developing this capability step by step and I believe it can be at some level in the next five years," the minister said.
Responding to a question about air defenses meaning anti-aircraft missiles, Laanet said he mainly considers awareness the most important thing. "And secondly, we would then have anti-aircraft control systems in place. I believe actually launching rockets will take some time."
He pointed out an agreement will soon be reached for the purchase of €46 million worth of anti-ship missiles. In addition, the EDF intends to acquire large caliber ammunition, which will cost approximately €25 million. A similar amount will be allocated to improve the readiness of vehicles, another €15 million will be invested in acquiring additional mobile cannons, another €15 million will be used to reconstruct CV-90 combat vehicles and an emergency medicine center will be developed at Raadi airfield.
Speaking about the Estonian Navy's possible move from Tallinn's Mine Harbor, Laanet said he supports a move, but no decisions have been made. First, it must be decided if the navy and the Police and Border Guard Board's navy can merge.
"That analysis has reached a point where it should reach the government's table at the start of October and the government can then make a decision only if merging is realistic or not," Laanet said. "If that decision is made, we can look forward and think where the main harbor can go. No need to rush things before that."
He said he personally thinks the Mine Harbor in Tallinn is not the best place for a naval base, but specialists must assess the situation and politicians must discuss the best available option.
Speaking about Estonia's borders in light of the Belarusian migrant crisis, Laanet said the EDF could place barbed wire barriers on Estonia's borders in a couple of days if migration from the East calls for it.
"I am more than convinced that our troops from the defense forces and Defense League can get those barriers up faster than on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border," Laanet said.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste