A proposed tripling in size of an Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) military training zone in South Estonia falls way short of the ideal expansion, the army's deputy commander says.
Appearing on ETV politics head-to-head show "Esimene stuudio" Tuesday evening, Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm, who is the EDF's second-in-command, said that the Nursipalu training area would better serve the military if it were expanded from its current size of roughly 3,000ha, to as large as 20,000ha.
Current plans would see the zone expanded to 9,000ha in area, in order to accommodate both EDF and NATO allied personnel and materiel, with property owners within the area earmarked compensated either financially or with substitute land elsewhere
Rationalizing his claim, Maj. Gen. Palm said: "Our [training area] needs have been greater than what has been realized up to now."
"Our goals have not been met. The training opportunities in southeastern Estonia have improved considerably, but the goals we have set still have not been fully met. Roughly – ideally, for us, in fact – this area would be 20 km by 10km in area, or 20,000ha.
Palm acknowledged that this would be "an insanely large area", adding that it would be impossible to make any expansion without harming anyone else's interests whatsoever.
Palm took a somewhat utilitarian approach to this reality.
"Estonian national defense needs the expansion of the Nursipalu training area. If there are private properties in the way of that, then, ultimately, we have to consider wherein lies the greater interest."
The need is accentuated by the EDF outgrowing the other "southern" training area, namely the Adaži training ground in neighboring Latvia, which he said was now "oversubscribed and fully booked."
Latvia is also a NATO member and hosts a multi-national enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup, which is Canadian-led and analagous to the British-led battlegroup based at Tapa, in northern Estonia.
The EDF's central training area (keskpolügoon) in Harju County, furthermore, cannot be expanded and is at full capacity already, Palm went on.
He said: "We use the central training ground more than 300 days a year. We carry out live-firing exercises there, exercises using explosives more than 200 days a year, and we can't squeeze more out of the area. /.../ We already experience problems in training larger units."
"We also have a problem with providing training areas to our allies /.../ The central training area cannot be expanded in any direction, as it is surrounded by wetlands. We are not interested in doing that, and Estonia's natural environment is not interested in it either," he went on.
Palm called local residents in Nursipalu's concern "understandable", though rejected comparisons made between the forced sale of around 21 properties in the earmarked zone and the Soviet-era mass deportations of Estonians in the 1940s.
Both the Ministry of Defense and the National Center for Defense Investment (RKK) have, Palm said, been engaged in drafting work, but such a large-scale expansion into areas where there are also residential buildings would have led to negative responses come what may.
"I don't think it's a battle that can be won in any way," he said, adding that greater outreach work ahead of the plans, or a referendum on the matter, would have made no difference – based on the experience of disputes with landowners relating to the central training area, some of which have lasted more than two decades.
Some local residents near Nursipalu, whose expansion affects Antsla, Rõuge and to a lesser extent Võru rural municipalities, have criticized the manner in which the plans were unveiled to the public, which they say was done in opaque way.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming
Source: Esimene stuudio, interviewer: Andres Kuusk.