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General: We will defend Narva just the same as Tallinn or Kuressaare

Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm.
Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

It is a principle not just for Estonia, but the whole of NATO that whoever takes so much as a single step across the border gets a bloody nose, Estonian Division commander Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm says in an interview to ERR. He remarks that Estonia's small size means that every meter of ground is precious and should not be surrendered without a fight.

Palm emphasized that a potential Russian attack would need to be met by division troops, both Estonian and NATO allies. That said, Estonia's defense cannot be concentrated solely on the border and needs sufficient depth.

When Russia launched its war against Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, it was asked in international media whether Narva would be next. The question keeps resurfacing from time to time. To analyze whether it is even a sensible thing to ask, one is tempted to look to the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF). Have you ever discussed it? Will we defend Narva?

That is a good question. However, I believe the idea was not about Narva specifically. It's simply that Narva is [a symbol] known by half of Europe and the world which can be easily found on a map. I believe the idea was to ask whether Estonia will be next. Whether the Baltics are next. Whether the next hit will come where Russia's border meets that of NATO. That is an entirely justified question and one with a clear answer. NATO has said that we will defend the alliance's territory from the first centimeter. Narva is inside that first inch or centimeter. Of course, as Estonian soldiers, we don't have a choice either way. We will defend Narva just as we will defend Tallinn, Kuressaare (the capital of the westernmost Estonian island of Saaremaa – ed.) or whichever other Estonian settlement.

Still, people can see major EDF presence and campus in Tapa. There can be no doubt the EDF is there. There is no such base or military presence in Narva. How important are these campuses really? How will we defend Narva, and why don't we have a military base there?

Campuses are indeed visible in peacetime, while they serve as training centers and logistics hubs for us. It makes no sense to spread them out evenly all over Estonia. It is also extremely expensive. We would be manufacturing other things than military capability. We would be spending more on infrastructure. It is more sensible to concentrate our efforts. Tapa is our largest campus. It makes economic sense, while it has no military significance. We will be where the fighting will be when a crisis breaks out, and it will not be at the Tapa campus. We will be long gone from there by the time a realistic military threat arises.

Let us try to imagine the situation. Even though it has been talked about at length, it feels that people still think the attack might come suddenly. What would be the scenario if Russia was massing troops on the border? What would be our first reply? Would we have our units meet them on the border to show that even a single step over it would hurt?

The whole of NATO follows the principle that even a single step would earn one a bloody nose. It's not just Estonia but the whole of NATO. What's unexpected is always a range of degrees. What to consider unexpected? If you are absolutely not ready to defend yourself militarily, even a year of warning would be too little. You won't be able to create, build an army. This is clearly not the situation in Estonia.

We have never fully trusted our neighbor, which has been the prudent approach. The only point of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) is to defend the Republic of Estonia against the Russian Federation. That is why such an unexpected attack is unthinkable. All of our intelligence agencies are keeping an eye on Russia's doings. There will be an early warning period. Whether we will be able to capitalize on it makes for another question, while I can assure you we have plans in place.

Talking about an attack, should there be a surprise offensive in the near future, the preconditions recently listed by the EDF commander would have to be met. First, the Russian Federation would need to free itself from Ukraine. It would need to free up enough military power. That takes time. Secondly, it would need to recuperate its forces both in terms of quality and quantity. That also takes time. There have been different assessments, but it will not happen in a matter of weeks. It will take months or even years. Thirdly, there would have to be a major global event to serve as a distraction – the next pandemic, a major military conflict somewhere else etc.

Fourthly, something would need to happen here too. A strong social split or something that would seriously paralyze Estonia. Then we would have a perfect storm. I believe we would pick up on that at the time. But again, what's unexpected is relative. If people who deal with it day in and day out talk about something being unexpected, we're still rather talking about weeks of warning. In that time, we will be gone from our peacetime locations and carrying out planned activities on which I will, of course, not elaborate.

But still only on the mental level. There is such a thing as a show of force. Could it be a last-resort measure to demonstrate that we mean it when we say every inch matters to have the 1st Brigade ready under Narva?

Indeed, but it will not just be us, it will be the whole of NATO. The alliance has been engaged in a show of force for the past decade. Why else have increased allied presence in Estonia. It is NATO demonstrating that it is here and that testing its resolve is not worth it. That we understand what you're planning and can oppose it. There are troops from three NATO nuclear powers – USA, France and the U.K. – in Estonia today. They're all here.

We have plans for boosting that presence further on land, in the air and at sea, but also in the cyber domain and regarding special operations. On top of that, our defense plans prescribe outpacing the enemy at every turn. We're showing that we know what you're doing and are ready to hike the price [of aggression]. It may not even be the final message, but it is among the normal, natural messages in this chain of escalation.

I'm reminded of the ICDS' Annual Baltic Conference on Defense (ABCD) last fall where it was asked when might British troops be ready to come to Estonia's defense. I remember you getting up and stopping the discussion from getting too far. Are there special rules for the British brigade that is attached to the Estonian Division, which you head up, or does it operate just like Estonian units do?

All NATO units will have the same use of force rules apply to them when NATO starts operating as a military organization. There is no peculiarity there. All national use of force rules will remain in place until then. There is no perceivable situation where armed forces are uncontrollable so to speak or constrained by the other side.

Talking about Narva and its near vicinity. There is a river there. Narva has historically been a fortified city. Is the position useful in the broad strokes? Is the area easy to defend?

I would say that all of Estonia is worth defending. No matter where the front line is, it will have Estonian soldiers side by side with allied troops. Northeast Estonia saw major battles during World War II and the defender had the advantage at the time. The offensive failed.

The landscape has changed by now and offers different opportunities, while it remains a favorable defensive position. But I would not concentrate too much on what's defensible and what isn't – we won't have a choice. It is our country, our Estonia. Why would we not defend Narva? That is the flip side of the question. What would be the logic of abandoning Narva? Why? It doesn't seem sensible. It is part of Estonia.

I would return to what you have suggested in the past, that we don't have much in terms of [strategic] depth here. Is every meter worth defending even if we leave patriotism out of it?

Most certainly. It will not make sense for us to fight battles where we tactically surrender territory to the enemy. Our situation is very different from that of Ukraine, which is a massive country compared to us. Allowing the enemy to advance for 100-150 kilometers – to give ourselves a battlefield advantage – would constitute having surrendered a large part of Estonia. It does not seem sensible. Rather we need to fight from the first centimeter or inch.

It might sound provocative, but it would be sensible to take the fight to their territory as soon as the enemy attacks. To hit their rear and logistical channels, command elements etc. It would make a lot of sense militarily. Again, it would not be a preemptive strike but a reaction to being attacked.

There is also something known as defense in depth. Placing some units or things further away from the border, does it not mean we plan to abandon the front line quite quickly?

Definitely not. The depth and resilience of defense will be ensured by having someone meet the enemy even if they manage a breakthrough. Someone to box them in somewhere they cannot fight comfortably where they can be destroyed and the normal defensive positions resumed. It is clear that both extremes are unacceptable.

We will not have a Great Wall of China on the border the enemy breaking through which would constitute a defeat for us. On the other hand, we will also not be going down the path of stalling tactics and surrendering most of Estonia to then try and destroy the enemy in Estonia through art of war tricks. Both extremes are misguided and the right approach is a mix of the two.

Should the Russian Federation attack us, looking at our depth, all of Estonia would immediately be at war. It would not make sense for a part of Estonia to remain untouched. The enemy has a lot of weapons that can be used to hit deep into Estonia. It also has units it can deploy in our depth while others start crossing the border. Naval and aerial landings – things like that. Considering Estonia's small size, we will all be at war, while this does not mean we will just surrender the country without a fight.

Could you explain the recent news that Estonia will be constructing bunkers on the eastern border? What is their true purpose? It seems to me that people imagine it as something similar to the Maginot Line, having large defensive structures with barrels pointed outward. Thinking back to my military service, they rather come off as concrete tents where you can sleep without having to fear getting hit by artillery fire.

A concrete squad tent is quite an apt comparison. I like it, even though it is not a tent and not meant just for a squad. They are meant for squad to platoon-size units (10 to 30 people). In truth, the Baltic defensive line pools several initiatives. We are not doing anything new, so it is evolution rather than revolution. We've just gotten to the stage of doing tangible things out in the field. Placing bunkers and other concrete infrastructure to strengthen our defenses. Reinforcing positions is a good way to counter enemy indirect fire. Infantrymen will be well-served by concrete if it saves them from artillery fire and shrapnel.

We are also exchanging knowledge with our Latvian and Lithuanian colleagues. When someone comes up with the most effective form of a structure or building, they will immediately share that information. We are looking for companies willing to manufacture concrete elements and those made from other materials quickly should Estonia find itself in a crisis. It makes no sense to fill warehouses with such elements in peacetime. We are doing that too, while a part will be made if there is a crisis.

We are also adjusting and updating our legislation to be able to install such ready-made elements where needed. We are finding companies but also locals owning tractors who could help us quickly install them in locations we have mapped out. Legislative and other activities to be able to quickly help Latvia and vice versa are being pursued. Using state or civilian land in places where we're preparing defenses. It goes beyond bunkers in the ground to a series of activities for quickly preparing Estonia, the whole of society to participate in defense.

Still, we're not speaking of large guns. There will be room for maneuvers and other things. It is not a large, static line, which would probably fall victim to modern weapons today?

Indeed. There is no sense to build something like the Maginot Line these days. If it did make sense, you would have to defend that line against precision munitions. Building something imposing and static, it will immediately show up on Google Maps. Then it's just a matter of how many shells you need if you know exactly where it is. You can just keep firing until you destroy it.

The aim of these structures is to serve as the spine of defense for lack of a better word around which mobile defensive solutions can be set up. Those squad bunkers lying some distance from the first line, where soldiers can come to swap out equipment and rest before going on the counteroffensive or to prepare another location. We're getting very technical now, while we will try to be prepared for 360 degree defense in every pocket of resistance. Try to make sure these defensive positions remain strong even if the enemy breaks through somewhere. It circles back to what we were talking about before in terms of defense in depth.

You mentioned history. How much war history do you read, how often do you recall the battles that have taken place here? The 20th century was quite painful for Estonia and a lot of things happened. Are there any clues to be found for how we might defend ourselves in the future or could we find ourselves in the trap of preparing for the previous war?

It's always a combination of the two. It would be foolish not to read up on past experience. That's the honest answer, but does that mean we should mirror it – probably not. The geography has not changed in many places. If we look at major bogs or rivers in Estonia, there are limited places where they can be crossed, which is largely what the fighting has been over in the past, not just during WWII but also earlier.

If someone wants to think back to the defense of the Blue Hills and suggest that is where our defenses should be concentrated... Is that really the case?

It is not the case in simple terms, no. Some of the geography has changed, the main roads have changed. There are new sites like the Baltic Power Plant etc. It's just interesting to read descriptions and documents about major battles sometimes. Let us say the conduct of Soviet troops, their cast of mind was very similar to what Russia is doing in Ukraine today. Where they stop caring for the lives of their soldiers at some point and just try to break through where someone has drawn an arrow on a map no matter the cost. They stop looking at losses at one point, and even if they do get through, there's always the question of whether it was worth it. It's interesting to read about such things. It teaches you the enemy's way of thinking, teaches you to understand them on the level of basic instincts – whether they will go around the tree from the left or the right.

Let's go back to Narva. We've previously talked about how territorial defense (largely resting on the shoulders of Defense League volunteers – ed.) provides a safety net which partly protects against landings and other operations to try and circumvent the front line. Will it cover all of Estonia? How strong is it in Narva? It is no secret that looking east, people's position and views are not always quite as patriotic there as they are elsewhere. How strong is public support for the EDF in Narva and how strong is territorial defense in Narva?

We have never complained in terms of our support rating in different parts of Estonia. Pro-Russia sentiment does not always run along linguistic lines. We have quite a lot of people who are pro-Estonia despite not speaking Estonian and those who speak Estonian but are rather pro-Russia. We can see quite a lot of it in the press and social media. We have not seen support for us decrease. Coming more specifically to Narva, territorial defense is not the only element in charge of defending the area, defending Northeast Estonia. Territorial defense has its tasks, while our conventional troops – the 1st and 2nd brigades and the allied brigade – will be manning the centers of gravity. If military activity will be concentrated in the northeast, that is where the brigades will operate, with support from territorial defense.

Looking at the latter, there are two main components therein. One is the part manned with Defense League volunteers. Those who contribute so much of their personal time and resources to learn how to defend the country in the best possible way. The other part is reservists. To simplify the difference, Defense League units are nearest to where people live. Because most people in Estonia live in Harju County and Tallinn, that is where the Defense League is biggest. There are fewer people and, inevitably, fewer Defense League members in the periphery, whether we're talking about Hiiumaa or Narva. The reserve units (based on the Ussisõnad training exercise – ed.) are based on the opposite logic. They are thickest where we perceive the greatest threat.

Coming back to Narva and Northeast Estonia, territorial defense is stronger there than in some other areas because we have designated more reservists for the area. They are mostly people who have a link to the area as you know how to fight better near where you live. I would say territorial defense is strong there and the mentality good.

When did you last visit Narva and how often does the EDF train there?

I visited Narva last year and haven't gotten the chance yet this year. We are exercising there all the time. I know the Narva River, Vasknarva, Narva-Jõesuu, Narva, Soldina and all those other places well from my time as brigade commander from years ago. Just as I knew Southeast Estonia, while I know the northeast better. All other brigade commanders are training there regularly too. Perhaps not with major units and right up to the border, but smaller landscape and situational awareness exercises and cooperation with the PPA and the Rescue Board is practiced regularly.

Maj. Gen. Palm is among those defense experts have suggested might succeed EDF Commander Gen. Martin Herem in the near future.

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Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Marcus Turovski

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