Snap exercise sees PPA, EDF join forces in border infrastructure build-up

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A snap military exercise called earlier in the week will include strengthening of sections of Estonia's eastern border with the Russian Federation which run along a dry-bed stretch of the Narva river, ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) reported Friday night, while Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) and Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Lieutenant General Martin Herem were on the ground in Narva Saturday and received an overview of the situation.

Similar work is being done along watercourses in southeast Estonia, BNS reports.

he initiative involves the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), many of whose reservists were called up mid-week for the snap exercises, dubbed Okas ("Quill") as well as the civilian Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) and other authorities.

The two-and-a-half-kilometer stretch of the Kuivajõe river bed (Kuivajõe literally means "dry river" in Estonian - ed.) has seen illegal border crossings in the past and is scheduled to see fencing and other obstructions installed by Sunday evening, AK reported, following the surge in migratory pressure on Belarus' border with Poland and fears that the same tactics could be employed on Estonia's border with Russia.

Meremäe, Võru County, and the Pisua river bank in Põlva County are subject to similar work (see gallery), BNS reports.

PPA Eastern Prefecture chief Tarvo Kruup said the project: "Will send a message to everyone across the border and beyond, that coming here is risky, and a dry riverbed is not a suitable place to cross the border. The right place is at the official border point, and on the right grounds."

In addition, the volunteer Kaitseliit (Defense League) has just finished an exercise of its own, Põhjakonn ("Northern frog"), and some of its members have opted to go straight from it, to take part in Okas.

While much of the focus has been on bolstering Estonia's southeastern border, its only land border with Russia – the fact that one segment of the Narva river is generally dry makes it in effect a land border as well. The rest of the border is made up of water courses; the Narva river, Peipsi Järv, Lämmijärv and Pihkva järv.

The work mainly concerns plugging the gaps where border infrastructure is lacking, with temporary barriers, mainly consisting of razor wire.

Work began early Saturday morning

Urmas Elmi, head of operations at the PPA's East Prefecture, said that the Estonian-Russian border in Ida-Viru County is mostly obstructed by a natural water barrier, i.e. the Narva river and the north shore of Peipsi Järv (the river flows from Peipsi järv to the Baltic Sea – ed.).

"This means that police officers and members of the defense forces are strengthening the only dry section here in the former bed of the Narva River, where the risk of illegal border crossing is greatest," Elmi said.

"Work began this morning (i.e. Saturday – ed) at around 9 a.m. and will continue until daylight falls. The defense forces will be working on this section for two days," he went on, via a press release.

Reservists also deployed in southeastern Estonia

Meanwhile Elmi's counterpart in the PPA's Southern Prefecture, Vallo Koppel, said that his personnel were mainly tasked early Saturday morning with instructing all reservists who had answered the call-up and were moving towards the border zone.

Koppel said: "We gave them as thorough an overview as possible so that they would have confidence and knowledge of how to install the razor wire at the border so that they would not cross the border intentionally or unintentionally.

"The placement of barriers has now begun, for example, near the village of Vinski, but also around Koidula, which has been used for both illegal border crossings and smuggling. Preparations and cooperation with the defense forces have gone well so far and work is under way at the border," Koppel added.

PPA deputy chief: Useful exercise in civilian-military cooperation

Egert Belitšev, PPA deputy director general and chief of the border guard, said that the exercise provides a valuable experience for border protection and the cooperation between civilian and military authorities.

Belitšev said: "Only through real action will we know what the joint ability of the EDF and the PPA to set temporary barriers on the border is and what logistical support and human resources are needed to do so.

"At present, migration pressure has not increased in Estonia, but should it change, the rapid installation of temporary barriers will be an important component in preventing mass illegal immigration and in the entire border protection operation," Belitsev went on.

PPA maps up to 10 at-risk border sections

The PPA has mapped around 10 sections, where up to 40km of barriers can be erected with the help of reservists and the 120 kilometers of razor wire provided by the EDF.

One such mapped section is in Narva, the rest lies along the land border in southeastern Estonia.

Construction will start on the highest priority sections, those with the highest risk of illegal border crossings.

As the work takes place in border zones, where movement takes place according to specific rules, reservists and defense league members alike are accompanied by PPA border guards.

More PPA and EDF activity in border areas than usual, flight restrictions apply

EDF equipment will be moving on the roads near the border until November 25, BNS reports.

Members of the public should also account for higher numbers of PPA and EDF/Defense League personnel on the move in these areas than would normally be the case.

As reported by ERR News, flight restrictions will also apply to the eastern border, both for manned and unmanned aircraft.

Exercise Okas takes place each year in autumn, and reservists – former EDF conscripts whose names remain on reservist lists after finishing their term – are called up at short notice.

No NATO allies are currently reported as directly taking part in the exercise, though Britain's defense minister Ben Wallace has pledged around 150 Royal Engineers to help out on the Poland-Belarus border, and added that the contingent could potentially help out in the Baltic States where needed.

Estonia, unlike Latvia and Lithuania, does not share a border with Belarus, but a European Commission leak reported by German daily Die Welt just over a week ago suggested that Pskov airport – around 30km from Estonia's border – could be opened up to flights from Iraq and other middle-eastern countries in the same way that Minsk's has.

The wholesale human trafficking of vulnerable individuals from Iraq and other countries by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has been roundly condemned by Estonia's leadership, and in the west as a whole, as a cynical form of hybrid warfare and a humanitarian abuse. Individuals have reportedly been paying thousands of dollars to board flights from Iraq to Minsk, ferried by Lukashenko's security forces from there to its western borders with the EU, and goaded into crossing.

Most recently, the thousands of people attempting to cross the border into Poland have been repelled via the use of force, while the fast-approaching winter is aggravating concerns for the migrants' welfare.

This article was updated to include information on work done on Estonia's southeastern border, and quotes from Egert Belitšev, Urmas Elmi and Vallo Koppel, and to include the two galleries of photos.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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