The major Western Estonian islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa want to strengthen their own and, in turn, Estonian security more broadly. Saaremaa islanders want a naval base on their island, while Hiiumaa islanders have expressed interest in a coastal defense unit.
The current war in Ukraine has put the matter of the defense of Estonia's major western islands firmly back on the agenda. Sweden has significantly strengthened the defense capability of Gotland, its island located to the southwest of Saaremaa, as well. Saaremaa residents are interested in seeing a naval base built on the island, one potential location for which could be the previously suggested deepwater port of Saaremaa. Other solutions could be considered as well, however.
"Clearly there's been talk of establishing a naval base on Saaremaa first and foremost, and this has been discussed for decades already," Saaremaa Municipal Mayor Madis Kallas said. "And we're emphasizing this first and foremost as well. We're not ruling out other scenarios either, and NATO is also one possibility — some kind of NATO unit or base on Saaremaa."
Hiiumaa islanders, meanwhile, are interested in the presence of a coastal defense unit.
"We're talking primarily about coastal defense units," Hiiumaa Municipal Mayor Hergo Tasuja said. "We believe this should be in the Kõpu, Kõrgessaare, Lehtma area, i.e. the northern part of the island."
Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform) said that decisions regarding increasing the defense capability of Estonia may be made within the next half a year, but actually implementing them could take years.
"We very clearly have to spread apart our security in the sense that our defenses and fortifications are more widely distributed — that our sea is covered all the way from the north down through the south," Laanet said, referring to Estonia's Baltic Sea coast.
"We've also run some estimates at the Ministry of Defense regarding how much the conversion of Saaremaa Harbor specifically into a naval base might cost the state," the minister continued. "These numbers are big enough — last year's estimate was €90 million on average. But I also won't rule out that there could be a NATO base there as well some day, which has significantly broader resonance and a broader objective. But these are all topics of debate; we haven't made any decisions."
Hiiumaa islanders' interest in a coastal defense unit being positioned on their island will be discussed as well, Laanet added.
Editor: Aili Vahtla