It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Tallinn. But while the city's annual festive market may be in full swing, I was interested in a different kind of presence when I arrived in the Estonian capital on a snowy December morning. Following a short notice deployment, British Royal Navy ship HMS Richmond was coming to town and, despite my patchy recent track record at sea, I'd been invited along to find out why, writes Michael Cole.
"It's a show of force," explains Ross Allen, the U.K.'s ambassador to Estonia, when I ask about the purpose of Richmond's three-week tour of the Baltic. "It's a presence in this part of the world. It's also been providing force protection for Swedish, Finnish and Estonian ships, which have been checking undersea infrastructure. So, those other ships can do the necessary checks and make sure that things are okay and they can also practice those activities."
This is the third time I've spoken to the ambassador on board a British Royal Navy vessel this year. But, as Allen points out, this ship is slightly different to HMS Mersey and HMS Albion, both of which also made visits to Estonia earlier in 2023. "It's a frigate. It's a multi-role, multi-domain ship with very high-end sonar capabilities and also very powerful radar and anti-air capabilities," he says of the Richmond.
"The reason for its deployment is under the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), which is a group of ten countries. It's the eight Nordic and Baltic countries, the U.K. and the Netherlands that make up the Joint Expeditionary Force." According to a press statement sent out prior to Richmond's arrival in Tallinn, this is the first time the JEF Response Option has been activated since its creation earlier this year. The aim being to deter and defend the region from threats, as well as establish the speed at which JEF nations are able to respond to crises.
"We activated a JEF activity mainly as a result of the damage to the interconnectors between Estonia and Finland and between Estonia and Sweden. What this ship does is provide a lot more both offensive and defensive capabilities. So it's there to protect the other ships and give them that added capability," Allen confirms.
The damage the ambassador was referring to first became apparent on October 8, when a rupture was detected in the undersea Balticconnector gas pipeline between Estonia and Finland. Around the same time, a communications cable connecting the two countries was also damaged. Soon after, a cable linking Estonia and Sweden, 50 kilometers off the coast of Hiiumaa, suffered a similar fate.
So, does that mean the situation in the region has changed a lot as a result?
"No, I don't think so," Allen says, adding that it is important to stress the investigation into what happened to those connectors in October is still ongoing. "We're obviously all waiting to see what the results of those investigations are and we're not going to take a particular view on what happened or why." Nevertheless, he adds, "it's really important to reassure our Allies that we can be here rapidly if we're needed and that we have the types of capabilities that HMS Richmond brings."
And it's certainly clear from the Estonian perspective that the British presence in the region is having the intended effect. "I am always grateful for that," says Commodore Jüri Saska, commander of the Estonian Navy (Merevägi), when I ask how he feels about hosting the Richmond and its crew in Tallinn.
"It gives us the possibility to practice and exercise in different areas of warfare that we don't possess (the capabilities for) in the Estonian Navy. Surface warfare to the extent that is done on the frigate level, as well as air defense and air warfare. We don't have those capabilities at the moment."
Cdre. Saska goes on to explain that during their joint exercises, the U.K. forces perform the role of "babysitters," a term I'm surprised to hear, but he assures me is quite well-known among the maritime community. "'Babysitter' means they are guarding our back and the air while we are doing the surveillance work under the water," he says.
"We have been exercising and practicing critical infrastructure surveillance together with the Richmond and the Richmond has been providing the surface and air picture, working together closely with the Estonian Navy but also with the Estonian Air Force," Cdre. Saska adds. "It's been a great experience, I hope for them as well, working in the cold climate."
He's certainly not wrong about the weather. Snow was falling all around me as I attempted to navigate my way through the maze that is Tallinn Harbor's A-Terminal. After somehow managing to arrive at HMS Richmond on time, I was finally welcomed aboard before being given a quick run-through of the ship's impressive specifications and submarine hunting capabilities. "Dusty cover, but slightly better content," one of the British sailors says with typical understatement, describing the impressive looking selection of radar equipment in the control room.
The press delegation are then brought up to speed on the details of Richmond's multi-stage journey from Devonport in the U.K. out to Tallinn. Of most interest were Richmond's two close encounters with Russian vessels along the way. The ship's Commanding Officer Lt. Cdr. Chris L'Amie later said on ETV show "Aktuaalne kaamera" that at one point the British Navy ship "sat between the Russians and a Latvian mine counter measures vessel," which it had been working alongside, "just to offer some protection and also to demonstrate this was part of the JEF."
There was no communication between the Richmond and the Russian vessels, and certainly no contact, we were told. They simply sailed by one another in the dark, "like ships that pass in the night," says the officer giving us the briefing, "literally."
Cdre. Jüri Saska also emphasized that there have been no aggressive moves coming from the other side of the country's eastern border of late. "It has not been really regular," he told me, but "it has been very much the way it has always been. There has been no significant increase in any of the capabilities that the Russian navy and government possesses," he adds, "I haven't seen anything extraordinary."
Nevertheless, the chilly conditions in the Baltic this time of year can still take a bit of getting used to, especially if you're more familiar with the milder temperatures on the English south coast. "I wasn't ready for this," says one crew member as we walk out onto the ship's deck. "Neither were we," replies a member of the Estonian press delegation as he sets up his camera to film. He appears to be only half joking.
"It's very cold for the team," Richmond's Commanding Officer Lt. Cdr. Chris L'Amie tells me. "And that presents its own challenges for us to learn how to operate in these really, really cold climates." L'Amie points out the conditions affect "everything, from how we run our engines to what greases and oils we use to make sure that our kit still works and still moves in these really, really low temperatures, says L'Amie. But that's also one of the major benefits for Richmond's crew of being right here, right now. "It's a lot easier to train here whilst we're doing it than it is to tabletop it or rehearse it. Actually, when you're here and it's minus 13 degrees, it becomes a real focus for people," says L'Amie.
"They have definitely experienced a different operating environment," says Cdre. Saska. "The Baltic Sea, as we all know, is cold most of the year. But now, at the time we are in, it is also dark," he adds. And while the scarcity of daylight in an Estonian December can often be a challenge to cope with for those of us who live here full-time, Saska points out that the near-constant darkness actually creates the perfect natural cover for the collaborative military training exercises they have been working on together with their British allies.
While the Estonian and British naval forces may be training together in the darkness, the broader relationship between the two nations appears to be brighter now than ever. Ambassador Ross Allen describes British-Estonian relations as "absolutely fantastic, and not just in the defense sphere."
Still, when it comes to defense, Allen says how pleased he was with the recent visit by Andrew Murrison MP, the U.K.'s parliamentary under-secretary of state for defense people, veterans and service families, to British troops at the military base in Tapa, two days before. "He met Hanno Pevkur (Reform), the Estonian defense minister and he was taking a particular interest in the lived experience of our soldiers in Tapa," Allen says. "Even the little things like the food, the Wi-Fi, the types of accommodation that the troops have, all of those things, to make sure that our troops are happy while they're here."
Those little things are no doubt even more important for visiting troops at this time of year, when there's no chance of simply driving home for Christmas. But, as Allen points out, the British-Estonian relationship "is not only about the troops that we have in Tapa, it's about our wider security cooperation and also what we can do on the tech front as well. Other things like on the business side, that's going really well too."
"One of the best things to do if you're a country is look at who else is doing something well and copy it. When you're a kid, copying someone else's homework is bad, but if you're a country it's quite a good idea," Allen says.
"From the U.K. side, we know that Estonia is one of the world's leading digital nations. So we want to learn in the U.K. from how Estonia is using tech in its healthcare system for example, or in its education system." he adds.
"I think we bring different things to the relationship. What we've done a lot of so far and what I want to keep going with, is really learning from each other."
Editor: Marcus Turovski