Hanno Pevkur: Nursipalu expansion only possible working with locals

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

Considering the time it will take to expand the training area and the international security situation, work at Nursipalu needs to start immediately. The Ministry of Defense will soon reveal its area of interest and launch negotiations with locals, Hanno Pevkur writes.

Expanding the Nursipalu Training Area cannot be avoided, but as defense minister, I deem it important we do it transparently and by involving local communities. More patience is needed before we come to the details as folk wisdom tells us to measure nine times and cut once. Because we are talking about nothing less than the security of the whole country.

When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, it suddenly became very clear that the world was no longer the same. Our neighbor's aggression could have ended the Ukrainian state and the recent foundations of the European security architecture in one fell swoop. But the Ukrainian people have demonstrated incredible bravery and toughness in pushing the invaders back.

Even though the attacking army has the upper hand in terms of personnel, weaponry and ammunition, the fact that Ukrainian troops have superior training and have quickly learned to use Western arms aid has proved crucial.

Still, we should not forget another fact – that the Ukrainian people have and continue to pay a heavy price day in, day out.

It is the ultimate goal of the Ministry of Defense, Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) and other institutions in charge of military national defense to make sure this fate never befalls Estonia. That is why Estonia's defensive capacity has developed rapidly in recent years, while the international security situation means we need to pick up the pace even more.

Estonia's national defense budget will hit €1 billion for the first time in history in 2023 and exceed the 3 percent of GDP level in 2024. This demonstrates that we take national defense seriously.

We are completely aware of the involved obligation of making sure every singe euro the taxpayer puts toward national defense is used to maximum effect. That is why Estonia is investing in newer and much improved weapons systems, equipment and ammunition. Artillery and multiple rocket launchers have proved key in Ukraine, managing to hurt both the enemy's front lines and rear.

The defense of southern Estonia depends on the 2nd Infantry Brigade being given armored personnel carriers and additional K9 Thunder mobile artillery systems. Estonia's wartime defense structure will soon be 36,000 strong, while territorial defense will be doubled to 20,000 personnel. We are gradually increasing the number of conscripts.

Estonia does a lot for military national defense, considering our size. However, this small size means that it is crucial for us to have many strong allies. That is why Estonia has been a NATO member since 2004. Allied units have been stationed in Estonia since Russia occupied Ukrainian Crimea and a part of Donbas in 2014.

The alliance decided to further strengthen the defenses of its eastern flank at this summer's Madrid summit. Estonia's defensive shield will get an additional oaken layer as we will create a division structure in cooperation with allies. On November 8, my British colleague and I signed an agreement to hike the United Kingdom's contribution to defending Estonia.

Our allies are prepared to come to Estonia, while this requires us to be good hosts and offer quality accommodation, service and training areas. Allied soldiers need to be able to train side by side with Estonian Defense Forces members to get to know our landscape and circumstances down to the minutest details.

Our current training areas no longer meet Estonia's needs. The EDF and our allies in Estonia can only practice tactical and fire exercises of major units, including armored maneuver and artillery, in a single location. Unfortunately, the capacity of the EDF Central Polygon has been all but exhausted. Free time slots are almost impossible to come by.

The central training area is occupied almost year-round. Having the best units and modern equipment but no training is like cutting an athlete off from the gym. That is why EDF units must constantly be training during peacetime. Conscripts must also be given the best possible conditions for honing their skills, which can later be tempered in the course of reserve trainings.

We have come to a situation where our "gyms" are no longer big enough. Estonia's national defense needs another training area. Somewhere our infantry fighting vehicles could practice maneuvers and carry out live fire exercises. We also want to be able to practice additional combat support elements to hone complicated fire coordination.

Two factors have been of key importance when looking for a suitable location for the training area. First, there is no training area of sufficient size near the city of Võru. Secondly, we have always prioritized making sure the area would be as inobtrusive for people and the environment as possible.

Looking at the map, we quickly realized that expanding the Nursipalu Training Area is the only realistic solution. The possibility of using existing defense infrastructure is one of its advantages: the Tsiatsungõlmaa training grounds and Sänna warehouses. By merging these and other largely forested and boggy state plots, we can create a single property complete with danger zones in a way to disturb the life of local residents as little as possible. The danger zones are a very important calculation therein.

Transparency matters to me. Once we had completed our initial analysis, I met with the heads of Antsla, Rõuge and Võru municipalities in October to notify them of the potential expansion. We agreed that experts will map out the exact area of interest that will then be run by local governments. Had we disclosed half-finished plans right away, it would only have added to the confusion for the locals.

We are working toward the expansion impacting private plots and buildings as little as possible and to maximize the use of state land. That is why we are asking for a little more patience.

We have agreed to introduce our plans to the Antsla, Rõuge and Võru municipality councils on November 21 after which we will contact landowners whose properties are in the area of interest. It is also important to understand that introducing plans is just the beginning of the process that will be followed by negotiations for land appropriation in which we will find solutions to suit everyone. Nothing will happen overnight.

How many homes, farms or summer houses the expansion will affect will become clear once plans are concretized. But it is clear that no major project can be executed completely without disturbing local life.

We completely understand locals who have developed their father's farm or tended to fields and forests in the area for generations. We cannot compensate for the emotional value of the oak tree in front of those house or apple trees people have themselves planted. It is immeasurable. But we can do everything in our power to make sure the people feel they have been given a fair settlement.

There is rule of law in Estonia and things are done by the book. It is clear today that local people and families who are willing to give up their property in the name of national defense have made a priceless contribution. The Estonian state is extremely grateful. Because the Nursipalu expansion is necessary to ensure Estonia's independence and national security.

We cannot leave anyone to their own devices. We must work with landowners to find a solution that differs from the current situation as little as possible. Inconvenience caused by the nearness of the training area can be offset through benefits for the community. The Ministry of Defense has paid local governments the territories of which host training areas compensation, which has helped realize local projects. This compensation will continue.

Municipalities have also been given investment support for reconstructing roads around training areas. The Tapa Campus serves as proof that EDF presence helps liven up the local economy.

Considering the time it will take to expand the training area and the international security situation, the Nursipalu expansion needs to begin right now. The Ministry of Defense will soon come up with the exact area of interest and engage locals in talks to find the best possible solutions. In the end, it is not a matter of narrow interests of the EDF or our allies but the longevity of the Estonian state – so we would never have to pay the kind of price the Ukrainian people are.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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