Interview: What is Estonia asking for at NATO's Madrid summit?

NATOA and Estonia flags.
NATOA and Estonia flags. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The NATO Madrid summit will be held at the end of the month and "historic" decisions for the defense of the Baltic states are expected. But what does Estonia want and how is regional security expected to develop in the coming years? ERR News spoke to the Ministry of Defense's Madis Roll to find out.

"Our main priority at the summit is that NATO is strong. We want a strong NATO. Especially, in this new security environment, we would like to see NATO adapt and take the necessary steps," said Roll, head of the ministry's NATO and EU department, in an interview on June 14.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have submitted a joint proposal to NATO to request a permanent command structure capable of leading a division-sized unit in each country. It is not yet known how many people will be needed to staff the command structure.

A division is the smallest possible unit that can guarantee the interoperability of all types of forces – land, sea and air, the Ministry of Defense told ERR News.

The proposal also asks for pre-positioned arms and supplies to be stationed here. This is so Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have the necessary equipment should reinforcements need to be called-up quickly.

Russia's full-scale war on Ukraine means the trio are no longer talking about deterrence, only "forward defense." They have also moved past "deterrence by punishment" to "deterrence by denial," the idea that Russia believes its losses would be too great to think about starting an altercation.

Ministry of Defense head of NATO and EU department Madis Roll. Source: ERR/ Helen Wright

"There is a need to be better prepared for war. To be in a better state of readiness," Roll said, describing the situation.

Each country is also asking for an international brigade, between 3,000-5,000 troops, from NATO to be assigned to each country. Estonia currently hosts 2,000 NATO troops and has said two-thirds of a future division (up to 15,000 troops) would be made up of its own forces.

The number of boots on the ground needs to be increased from its current "symbolic" number, often referred to as a "trip wire," to one "capable of independent operations" with the ability to fight in a conflict.

However, Roll said, all the international troops would not have to be stationed in the region during peacetime and can rotate in and out, but they do need to be able to get here quickly if needed.

The focus of the proposal is the division command structures rather than the number of NATO troops sent to the region. Without the structures, they cannot work together when needed.

"We want all the structures and establishments to be prepared before a war," Roll said. "The numbers [of troops] are one thing, the structure is another. We want all the commands to be present, the divisional command structure so that they can work as a force."

Belgium hands off NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission to France in ceremony at Ämari Air Base. March 31, 2022. Source: v-srs Siim Verner Teder/

Encouraging other countries to agree may still take some work. Roll said Estonia has made its views clear to other alliance members and will continue to do so until the summit on June 28.

Roll said the discussions so far have been positive: "We are hopeful."

"And we are also seeing encouraging signs from the UK which is our closest defense partner. Our prime ministers also met last week and agreed on some ideas. We need to continue that work, but the signs are encouraging." 

Germany becoming 'leader' in NATO

On the afternoon of June 14, several hours after this interview had taken place, it was reported that although Germany pledged a division of 3,500 additional troops to Lithuania, most of them will stay in Germany and will mobilize quickly if needed.

While this was met with outrage from the media and viewed as the country backtracking on its commitments, it did not come as a surprise to Estonia. This is what they asked for in their proposal. Something subsequently confirmed by Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Lt. Gen. Martin Herem and first discussed in April.

Estonia and Germany are allies, so criticism is not to be expected from Ministry of Defense officials, but during ERR News' interview, Roll went as far as to say that Germany has emerged "as a leader" in NATO in recent months.

NATO's Eastern Flank (June 2022). Source: NATO

The country was the first to publicly say it would pledge a brigade to the Baltics last week during a visit to Vilnius, he said. This is something the UK or Canada, leaders of the other battlegroups, has not yet done.

Roll said: "Germany has very well emerged as a leader here and shown that the way we used to do [things] is not the way we should do them in the future. /.../ Germany has taken the lead in NATO in strengthening the forward presence, offering initiative and ideas."

Estonia supports Finland and Sweden's bid

Finland and Sweden's NATO membership bids will also be discussed at the summit and Turkey's opposition to them. Roll said it is not known how long it will take them to join and negotiations with Turkey are expected to take some time.

"We are happy to support Finland and Sweden in any way we can, and Turkey, in the discussions but ultimately that is between them," he said.

Estonia fully supports both countries' applications as it will strengthen regional security, turning the Baltic Sea, in the words of former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, into a "NATO lake."

It also sends a "very good political message to Russia: that they have done something wrong by attacking Ukraine," Roll said.

NATO personnel involved in Spring Storm 2020. Source:

Despite making threats toward the countries before they applied for membership, Russia's response so far has been muted. But Roll believes more is still to come.

"We have not seen everything yet," he said. "They have already said that they will need to establish a new division in the St. Petersburg region because Finland and Sweden are joining NATO."

Cannot discount that Russia will attack NATO

Asked how Estonia expects regional security to develop over the next five years, Roll reiterated that the "security situation has changed dramatically" since February 24.

"This conflict shows the regime is willing to launch an attack against a foreign country, openly and boldly, with its conventional forces and that the Russian regime is not deterred by diplomatic engagement from the West's side. Neither from the direct threat of economic sanctions.

"Russia is even more willing than before to launch a military attack against another country. We also see that, in the Russian narrative, the war in Ukraine has evolved from a direct Ukrainian-related issue to a broader conflict with NATO. That is what the Russian narrative is," he said.

"So, the view from Tallinn is that we can no longer discount the possibility that Russia will attack NATO. We need to be prepared for Russia to be able to attack NATO within the coming years."

Spring Storm (Kevadtorm) 2021 Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

It is expected that Russian troops usually stationed close to the Estonian border, who are currently in Ukraine, will also be moved back to the region in the future.

"We also [expect to] see that Russia will increase its military posture and presence near our borders, in the future," he said, referencing Finland joining NATO.

Additionally, it is assumed Russia will beef up its Baltic fleet and increase its military presence in Belarus. Asked what is expected from Belarus, Roll said it is hard to say exactly.

"We work with the assumption that Russia was not happy with how Belarus partnered [with them] in the attack on Ukraine. So we expect that Russia will, in the future, need to increase its presence and get a better hold on Belarusian society and the state. That means a permanent force in Belarus a permanent deployment, perhaps. That's the assumption we work with," he said.

eFP made NATO credible

This year marked the fifth anniversary of NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups (eFP) arriving in the Baltics. Alliance members agreed in 2015 to send the units after Russia invaded Ukraine and they arrived in 2017. Estonia's battalion is led by the UK, with additional contingents from France and Denmark.

The UK's 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh took over as lead unit of Estonia's NATO eFP battlegroup on March 18, 2022. Source: Ministry of Defense

Until December, the number of troops stationed here was around 1,000 but it quickly doubled after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine to show the unity and strength of the member states. NATO warships were also sent to the Baltic Sea and extra planes have bolstered the ranks of the air policing mission.

Roll said the eFP has done its job and also allowed Estonia to improve its interoperability with the international forces, but this is no longer enough.

"They have made NATO more credible. /.../. But now we need to upgrade that." 

Despite being one of the smallest members of the alliance, Estonia has surpassed NATO's goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense for many years and it will reach 2.6 percent this year. The country is more than willing to share the burden if new troops are sent to the region, Roll said.

If its request for a division command structure is answered, it would be made up of two brigades from Estonia and one of allied NATO members. Approximately 15,000 troops in total.

The country is also trying to be a supportive ally in other areas, especially cyber, Roll said: "We are trying to be helpful in areas where size doesn't always matter."


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Editor: Helen Wright

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