UK daily: Britain halving number of troops in Estonia by year-end

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British soldiers at Tapa ahead of Exercise Spring Storm 2021.
British soldiers at Tapa ahead of Exercise Spring Storm 2021. Source:

Hundreds of British military personnel currently based in Estonia are to be home by Christmas, UK daily The Times reports, roughly halving Britain's military presence in the region. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said that an additional battlegroup sent to Estonia earlier in the year was always intended to be temporary, at least so far as the deployment on the ground goes.

A source told The Times that "many European nations" feel that the British Army has over-stretched itself with the NATO eastern flank commitment, while another source told the 'paper that those troops would still be earmarked to constitute a brigade-sized force and heading to Estonia where needed, rather than being based in-country.

The Times reports that some countries have also concluded that Russia has been weakened in the seven-month-long war in Ukraine, to the extent that there is no threat of an invasion of Estonia or the other two Baltic States, though sources in all three of these countries state that Putin does not and has not followed western-style logic to date, while setbacks in Ukraine might lead to a lashing-out in other directions, it is argued.

A 700-strong battalion based in Estonia since February is returning to the UK in December, with no plans to replace it, sources familiar with the situation told the Times.

Ben Wallace said: "The additional battle group was always a temporary deployment. Our commitment to NATO in response to Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine is total," The Times reports.

The NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup based at Tapa, around an hour's drive from Tallinn, has been in place since early 2017 and is UK-led, with Danish and French components regularly contributing to rotations.

The core unit recently saw an exchange, with the outgoing Royal Welsh handing over to the incoming King's Royal Hussars (KRH), an armored regiment which has been on rotation in Tapa in the past.

This eFP was joined by the Agile Task Force, formed around infantry unit 2nd Battalion The Rifles, whose Royal Colonel, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, visited last week, while the Royal Tank Regiment extended its original tour, which had started in 2021.

The Estonian government had previously hoped that around 2,000 British troops would have remained in-country indefinitely, augmented by "a few hundred" more personnel, The Times said.

Britain's Defense Minister, Ben Wallace, reinstalled to the post following the change in UK prime minister earlier this month, had previously pledged to boost the number of British soldiers in Estonia to up to 2,000, as part of broader NATO plans to increase its presence in Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of Russian aggression, while pledges of a doubling in the pre-invasion total had already been made, days before February 24 when the current phase of Russia's war on Ukraine began.

This also entail large movements of vehicles and material, such as the 65-tonne Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks, transported by sea to the Port of Paldiski.

From the new year, as things stand only the roughly 900-strong KRH-led Battlegroup will remain, from the UK contingent.

The Times reports that tensions between Russia and the west have risen in recent days, with threats of nuclear retaliation coming from the Kremlin, while a source told the 'paper that troop withdrawal at this point sends the wrong message to the Russian leadership.

Britain's army is set to shrink to around 72,500 people, which The Times said is the smallest since the Napoleonic era – when the country was primarily a naval power, a status it retained well into the 20th century.

At the same time, Prime Minister Liz Truss says defense spend will rise to 3 percent of GDP by the end of the decade; Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, himself a former Captain in the Scots Guards, has been particularly vocal over the need to increase spending and military size following decades of cuts, hitting out at previous Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak for dismissing Wallace's call for an integrated review, ie. rise in defense spend.

The original Times piece is here.

UK official: The additional battlegroup was always intended as a temporary deployment

A UK official said Wednesday afternoon that: "The additional battle group was always a temporary deployment. At the NATO Summit in Madrid, we committed to assigning the balance of a brigade in the UK at high readiness to the Baltic region. We are also reinforcing the current eFP Headquarters, which will be led by a UK brigadier from 2023. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced in June that the lethality of our battlegroup would be enhanced with advanced capabilities including helicopters and artillery systems, as part of an increased UK contribution to NATO."

"That is exactly what we are doing. There is no change," the official added.

"Our commitment to NATO in response to Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine is total. As well as temporarily doubling our deployment to Estonia this spring and extending that by a further six months in June, we committed a comprehensive package at the NATO Summit which also includes expanding our headquarters in Estonia and planning brigade-level exercises there next year," the statement concluded.

A planned NATO divisional HQ in Estonia is due to become a reality next year; this would not mean that an entire NATO division would be based in-country at all times, but instead, agile units would deploy where needed and inter-operate with those elements already in Estonia. Estonia's own defense forces are formed around two heavy infantry brigades.

The NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission based at Ämari is a separate entity.

This article was updated to include comment from a UK official on the additional battlegroup and Britain's plans regarding Estonia and NATO more broadly.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: The Times

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