US military personnel based in Estonia now number around 600

US military personnel.
US military personnel. Source: EDF headquarters.

The United States now has a military presence in Estonia of around 600 personnel, that country's ambassador to Estonia says. This increase is largely the result of a pledge by President Joe Biden to boost his country's military presence in the region, and in Europe more broadly.

Speaking to Diplomaatia magazine, published by the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS), U.S. Ambassador to Estonia George P. Kent said: "First of all, as a result of President Biden's commitment in Madrid, the U.S. has deployed a significantly new number of troops along the eastern flank and that includes here, in Estonia. So, if there was fairly minimal persistent presence in Estonia, now — this week — we have over 600 troops," Ambassador Kent told Diplomaatia, noting also the current presence of a U.S. M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) battery located Tapa base in Lääne-Viru County and personnel from the famed 101st Airborne Division in Võru County at this time.

 As to the rationale behind the presence, the ambassador said: "The U.S. has continued to build up its presence here — it is not waiting for a Russian attack. Again, this was our commitment in Madrid. It's not a matter of just deploying the U.S. forces — they're here," referring to the NATO summit held in the Spanish capital in the summer of 2022.

"I think that was Secretary Austin signaling to reassure Estonians of our commitment," the ambassador went on. In September of 2022, Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform) met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, at the Ramstein Air Force base in Germany, at which Austin reiterated a U.S. commitment to increase its consistent rotations of units and exercises in Estonia.

Diplomaatia reports that the HIMARS unit, plus a U.S. Army infantry company, arrived in Estonia at the end of last year, with more personnel following in Võru, in May this year.

With the HIMARS, Estonia gets to test how long-range missile launchers can be put to use in the conditions to be found in this country, which in turn speeds up the planning process, the ambassador said, noting that Estonia had requested HIMARS support prior to the February 2022 invasion by Russia of Ukraine.

Not only Madrid but also this summer's NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, paved the way for America's contribution to regional defense to a new level, the ambassador went on.

Ambassador: Commitment demonstrated in actions as well as words

The ambassador noted that his country had contributed to Estonia's defense, and that of other allies, in deed, by sending personnel and materiel, and not just in word.

Fears over a shifting emphasis on the part of the U.S. to other parts of the world, including in East Asia, can be allayed, the ambassador went on, noting that this was not an either-or choice, and has not been for 70 years – since the signing of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in Manila in 1954 (the Washington Treaty, which laid the foundations of the alliance, was inked in 1949, meaning the 75th anniversary will be marked next year).

As for plans, these have been done in increments – in the case of Ukraine this is in part behind some of the criticisms heard about the leisurely pace of training and supplying that country's military.

Ukraine support commitment measurable in decades

"The timeline when we say we are committed to Ukraine: It is not just this month; it is not just this year. We are committed to Ukraine, and that is a long-term, multiyear, multidecade process." the ambassador continued.

The ambassador also noted that, when speaking at this year's Paide opinion festival on a panel with Estonia's former ambassador to Ukraine Kaimo Kuusk, it was noted that US$18 billion in military aid had been provided to Ukraine in a 43-month period, a sum which would have been hard to imagine even 18 months earlier.

This not only related to the cost, but also simply the practicalities in terms of, for instance, logistics channels.

Further developments include a US$200 million weapons support package unveiled last week, with HIMARS and Patriot munitions among the contents.

As for this region, the ambassador would not and could not be drawn on detail, but noted that commander of United States European Command Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli had been tasked with this, in partnership with others, including the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), Gen. Martin Herem.

"Gen. Cavoli said to me that it was very collaborative and that he was very pleased with the interaction with Estonian defense leaders. I've heard from both military and civilian Estonians that they are very pleased with both the process and the end result," Ambassador Kent went on.

Another interesting point raised in the Diplomaatia piece was the fact that, while in the West, particularly in a Russian context, we talk about hybrid warfare, a blending of conventional military activity with cyber warfare, misinformation and other dimensions, Russian military doctrine itself lacks this term. It has always referred to "active measures," as evidenced by the actual abduction of Eston Kohver in 2014, or by the 2007 large scale Denial of Service attacks which accompanied orchestrated on-street rioting and disruption in central Tallinn.

An important way-stage for regional defense comes next year, with the next NATO summit, this time in Washington, birthplace of the alliance.

"I think it is too early to talk about actual outcomes. We are still only a month beyond the Vilnius Summit, which also made great progress in a number of areas, including the regional defense plans. On the various different tracks, there will be continued work on the details of how we would implement the regional defense plans, which really are at a level of detail that the alliance has not had for over 30 years," the ambassador said.

This not wishing to predict too many things includes the status of Ukraine as a potential NATO member, though what is clear is that Ukraine will have an important place in the talks.

The full Diplomaatia piece is here.

U.S. military personnel have been on rotation in Estonia in significant numbers at least as far back as 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea and began an insurgency war in Donbas.

More recent activity includes a large scale airborne drop exercise over Järva County, and visits by U.S. Navy vessels.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: Diplomaatia

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