Russia’s neighbours urge Nato allies to bring back military service

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Private Toivo Saabas

Rain drips down the glasses of new recruit Toivo Saabas, tracing the contours of the green and black face paint that completes his camouflage.

Lying on the saturated ground, and peering through the sight of his gun, the only frailty that threatens to give away his position is the plume of air he breathes out silently into the icy Estonian forest.

Then comes the deafening call to attack.

The 25-year-old springs to his feet. Forming a line with his brothers in arms, he bounds through the trees towards the Russian border.

As he advances to the clatter of enemy fire, the Southampton University mechanical engineering graduate knows that one day this could all be for real.

“We’re practicing for any threat,” he says.

“We’re ready for anything that comes to Estonia and we’re ready to defend the country.”

Toivo, from the capital Tallinn, is among the current crop of young Estonians undergoing their military service – a duty all men over 18 are asked to carry out. For women, it’s voluntary.

As the Cold War ended, and relations with post-Soviet Russia warmed in the 1990s, conscription appeared consigned to history in many parts of Europe.

But not in Estonia, where it would have been impossible for the collective pain of occupation and deportation to have faded away.

And now, following President Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, conscription is being rebooted and expanded across Europe, with those living on Russia’s doorstep urging their Nato allies further afield, including the UK, to follow suit.

This week Norway announced it was increasing the number of conscripted soldiers after Denmark said last month it intends to extend conscription to women and increase the duration of service.

Latvia and Sweden recently restarted military service and Lithuania brought it back after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“It takes a toll on you,” says a drenched Toivo, explaining that the training has been the toughest experience of his life.

“But in the end, it’s service for your country. Being prepared for anything is better than kind of sneaking off and trying to evade this service.”

Captain Mikk Haabma (R) believes Russia would face defeat if it ever attacked Estonia

Rain has turned to hail and then to snow in a matter of minutes.

Everyone is soaked to their skin. But as the simulation ends, relief quickly leads to animated conversation and laughter eclipsing the hardship of the previous hours.

“It’s the conscripts in Ukraine I feel sorry for,” says Captain Mikk Haabma who is overseeing proceedings.

“They are fighting for their lives.”

Standing more than 2m tall, the 38-year-old has a natural advantage when it comes to surveying the progress of his new intake.

“Our country is based on reserves and these guys are filling the slots all the time. But also, they’re getting the skills to get by in life – especially building their confidence. In a few weeks from now, these guys will be ready to fight the enemy.”

He means Russia.

‘In the end we have Nato’

Russia has never attacked a country within Nato, whose collective defence pact means that an attack on one member constitutes an attack on all. Indeed, the Kremlin ridicules suggestions it might.

Three Nato countries – the UK, the US and France – each have nuclear weapons, as does Russia, so there would be concerns over the risk of nuclear escalation as a result of such a conflict.

However, if the Russians did attack, I ask, what would they be confronted with?

“A massive defeat,” Captain Haabma replies.

“Of course, they have the numbers, but in the end on a strategic level we have Nato and the technical superiority.”

The transatlantic military alliance – now a club of 32 including new members Finland and Sweden – is celebrating its 75th anniversary this week.

So what is the overwhelming feeling in Estonia today?

A sense of security being part of an large alliance? Or fear about what Vladimir Putin may do next?

Estonian PM Kaja Kallas

“I think it’s both,” replies Kaja Kallas in her prime ministerial office in Tallinn.

For her, Nato allies keeping their promise to spend 2% of GDP on defence is what’s crucial.

“In 1938, it was clear that the war was coming so the defence expenditure was increased by 100% but it was already too late.”

She continues, “This is what we have to do now in order to preserve our way of living, in order to preserve peace in Europe.”

However, in 2024, fewer than two thirds of Nato members are on course to reach their 2% funding goal, a shortfall that perpetually irked US President Donald Trump during his time in the White House.

Ms Kallas, who’s led Estonia since 2021, sees conscription as another integral part of both providing a deterrence to Russia but also stronger defence if it does attack.

“We have a reserve army of 44,000 people that would equal, for Great Britain, around two million people. Two million people who are ready to defend their country and know what they have to do.”

After she mentions Britain unprompted, I ask whether she would in fact recommend conscription to the UK.

“Of course, every country decides for themselves, we are all democracies, but I recommend this in many aspects.”

‘We lost our independence once before’

When I recall that the head of the British Army was rebuked by Downing Street after saying Britain should train a “citizen army” ready to fight a war on land in the future, Kallas widens her eyes.

“Well it doesn’t surprise me because we have different historical backgrounds. We have lost our independence and freedom once and we don’t want to lose it again. They say that you only understand freedom and what it means when you don’t have it.”

A UK Ministry of Defence spokesperson told the BBC there is “absolutely no suggestion of a return to conscription”.

The British government says £50bn is being invested in its armed forces in 2024 to tackle multiple threats, including Russian aggression in Ukraine, and that “increasing recruitment and improving retention across the services is a top priority”.

Musicians Villem Sarapuu and Hendrik Tamberg from band The Boondocks

Military service may well be going through a renaissance, but that doesn’t mean all young Estonians are filled with unbridled enthusiasm for it.

The warmth and buzz of F-Hoone bar in the centre of the capital is a far cry from the rain-soaked forest where the conscripts have been toiling away.

The capital is gearing up for Tallinn Music Week, an annual celebration with live performances embracing a range of genres.

Among those taking the stage will be The Boondocks – a four piece indie rock band originally formed in Pärnu, the coastal city in the south west of the country.

“I’m not a soldier” sings 25-year-old Villem Sarapuu in their track Smokin’ Aces.

But every morning for two months he did in fact pull on military fatigues for his national service.

“To begin with, I really didn’t want to do it,” he confides.

“I don’t think there are many people who are voluntarily going there.”

He says at first it took a considerable mental toll.

“You’re isolated from everyone and the wider world, but you’re still in Tallinn so it’s like a weird limbo.”

After the initial physical training, Villem spent his remaining six months with the military orchestra ultimately performing at the Independence Day parade.

“My friends doing the real service were laughing at me – in a positive way. But I was doing the same thing: it’s representing your country, you don’t have to be in the trenches.

Sitting next to him is band member Hendrik Tamberg, 28.

As a conscientious objector, he was spared military service and instead spent a year caring for vulnerable adults with mental health problems.

“I found it incredibly rewarding but I didn’t have the camaraderie of people going through the tough forest hikes. I did feel that I missed out on something.”

As for lead singer Villem, he says he now looks back at his military training with happy memories and says it’s a stark contrast to a deep collective unease his generation feels at the prospect that Russia may attack.

“If I think about the free will of people, conscription isn’t a very nice thing to force people to do,” he muses.

“But when it comes to a country such as Estonia, pretty small, it’s absolutely necessary to recruit people to do this. Or this country won’t exist any more.”

Additional reporting by Bruno Boelpaep and Maarten Willems.

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