Defense minister explains why British battlegroup is leaving Estonia

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform).
Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

While a new British battlegroup won't be deployed to replace the one slated to leave Estonia next month, Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) says that the defense agreement signed with the U.K. on Tuesday still exceeds what was agreed upon at NATO's Madrid summit this June. Minister of the Interior and coalition partner Lauri Läänemets (SDE), however, said that the Reform Party cannot provide the security assurances it promised this spring.

According to Tuesday's defense agreement, a 700-strong battlegroup deployed to Estonia in February will return home to the U.K. in December.

Both Pevkur and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said at the end of September that they hoped to reach an agreement with their British colleagues that would nonetheless extend the British troops' presence. Pevkur now explained that there are two reasons why the battlegroup in question is leaving.

"The first is that, from the start, we had actually wanted a long-term solution and even larger unit readiness, i.e. brigade readiness, for Estonia's defense," the defense minister told ERR.

"And the other is that the Brits themselves also requested the return of this battlegroup in order to carry out its own internal reforms," he continued. "That was also the deal from the start already, that they sent it to Estonia temporarily. Because the main battlegroup assigned to Estonia is in Estonia and will remain in Estonia, and that much I was assured several times over, that there's no question about that [one]."

Pevkur stressed that according to the Madrid agreement, the U.K. was supposed to allocate a brigade to Estonia.

"We concluded that agreement yesterday, and parts of that brigade are going to start attending training here," he said. "And this brigade will be subordinate in the wartime structure to an Estonian-controlled division."

Spring Storm participants to come from Estonian-assigned brigade

Pevkur said that the British battlegroup slated to participate in Estonia's Spring Storm defense exercise will be coming from the British-based brigade assigned to Estonian defense.

"The battlegroup will most likely be similar in size to that currently in Estonia, i.e. 700-900 troops," he added.

The minister noted that whether and how many more exercises beyond Spring Storm are being planned where units from the brigade assigned to Estonian defense will take part is up to the two countries' respective militaries to agree upon. "This is the goal, this will fall under the normal training rhythm, and the details thereof will be agreed upon by the militaries' headquarters," he said.

"This was of greater value and necessity to us than a battlegroup temporarily deployed to Estonia, which may not be part of the brigade assigned to us, maybe staying [here] for a few more months," he added.

ERR asked Pevkur whether a new British battlegroup is coming to Estonia to stay to replace the one leaving in December.

"The logic remains that the battlegroup assigned to Estonia is and will remain in Estonia," he replied. "The remaining troop increases are listed in our announcement from yesterday and our agreement — which are air force, naval as well as army units. In terms of the army, various units from the brigade will start coming to Estonia in accordance with exercises as well as what the military has agreed. But what's important is that the brigade that is being assigned to Estonia is in high readiness. The establishment of the division structure and division headquarters will get underway as well. These are all in the name of the operation of Estonia's defense plan as a whole and the units being assigned to us here being able to train together with our units."

"British military presence in Estonia is going to be bigger next year, and I daresay those Madrid agreements will even be exceeded," he added.

According to the minister, the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) and Stormer air defense systems to remain in Estonia are on top of what was agreed in madrid.

Chinook and Apache helicopters are slated to arrive in the country in January and March, respectively, as well, he added.

"The U.K. will tell us the exact number soon, as we'll have to ensure our reception capacity for them," he explained. "They typically come in pairs, fours, sixes."

Terras: Estonia needs another battlegroup

Isamaa MEP and former commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) retired Gen. Riho Terras told ERR that in his opinion, it's not good that the number of army personnel in Estonia is being reduced, but not also increased, following the Madrid summit.

"I am convinced that it's essential for Estonia to receive at least one additional battlegroup — to show that decisions were made at the Madrid summit that are real and realistic," Terras said. "Sticking some kind of a sign on a brigade on British soil doesn't strengthen Estonian defense."

Of course MLRS, air defense and helicopters being located in Estonia strengthens Estonian defense, he continued. "If [these] helicopters, MLRS and air defense aren't temporarily, but rather permanently in Estonia, then that is strengthening implemented," he said. "The question is, what will become of that brigade."

Läänemets: Reform can't provide us security

Social Democratic Party (SDE) chairman and Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets said that the matter of units permanently based in Estonia remains unresolved.

"It's quite a shame that this objective hasn't been achieved," Läänemets said. "Ultimately I know that the Ministry of Defense together with the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) is preparing the establishment of a division in Estonia. That needs one brigade — and it's not possible without it. Two-brigade divisions aren't what actually work. The assurances that the Reform Party promised us this spring — right now they can't provide those assurances."

That is a concern, he said, adding that this needs to be worked on.

The SDE chair said that he has discussed the matter with Keir Starmer, chair of the U.K.'s opposition Labor Party.

"They're likewise very firmly of the position that this military unit should deploy from the U.K. to Estonia," he said. "This promise has been given and plans made. And the British have always been a security guarantee for Estonia, alongside the Americans. But the fact that they are instead scaling back, in the midst of an ongoing war and in the midst of danger, that is not a good sign."

NATO presence in Estonia currently consists of a British battlegroup of 993 troops, a 217-troop Danish unit and a 219-troop French unit.

Following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the U.K. decided to temporarily bolster its presence in Estonia, deploying an additional 700-troop battlegroup. The latter is slated to return to the U.K. in December.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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