Estonian defence chief praises UK for Nato support but calls for extra troops

Kusti Salm, the permanent secretary for the Estonian Ministry of Defence, has called Russia ‘a historic-level murderer’.

14 April 2022

A high-ranking Estonian defence chief has praised the UK for its support deterring Russian aggression amid the conflict in Ukraine, but called on Western allies to double the number of troops being sent to the country’s eastern border.

Kusti Salm, permanent secretary for the Estonian Ministry of Defence, said Nato forces needed to ramp up their presence in the Baltic States to warn Russian president Vladimir Putin against further invading Europe.

Calling Russia “a historic-level murderer”, Mr Salm told journalists at a press conference in Tallinn, the country’s capital, that the threat from the Russian Federation was now “as clear as anything can be”.

He said: “There’s not enough words of thank you for Britain. Britain has definitely done a lot, so we are extremely grateful. There has been no hesitation in its commitment to the allied principles. But everyone can always do more.

“We need to make sure that the deterrent message the allied forces are sending to Russia is that they shouldn’t even have a thought about invading Nato or attacking Nato.”

Since the war in Ukraine began, Britain has doubled the number of soldiers it has based in Estonia as part of the Nato Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in the country, bringing the total to 1,650.

Mr Salm urged Nato member states to double the troops being deployed to the country, a request that if granted would see the total number of Nato soldiers rise to around 4,000.

Estonia, a country with a population of 1.3 million, has a reservist military of 25,000, but its regular military numbers 3,500 soldiers.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
The Ukrainian flag next to the Estonian Flag on a building in Freedom Square, Tallinn (Ben Birchall/PA)

“I think this is what Nato needs to do to in order to face the threat coming from Russia,” Mr Salm said.

“As the heads of states agreed in Brussels, the plan is to significantly increase the force presence of the eastern flank.

“On the eve of a war, Nato would be able to come up with a divisional level land force, air superiority and also maritime command.

“This is the credible level of war fighting at a minimum that would deter the Russians not to come.”

He added: “It would be ridiculous to state that somehow [Russia] the second biggest non-commissioned military in the world, one of the top three military forces in the world, would somehow be deterred by a lesser-manned force than a division.”

The PA news agency understands that officials in the country do not believe Estonia being a Nato country would be enough to stop Russia invading.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Deputy Commander of Estonia’s Defence forces Major General Veiko-Vello Palm (Ben Birchall/PA)

Mr Salm said: “The threat [to Estonia] from Russia is as clear as anything can be.

“Russia has revealed itself to be a historic-level murderer.

“They have made no secret about their intent to eventually dismantle Nato.”

He called Nato “the most successful military alliance in the world” and said the current situation would be its defining mission.

Amid growing tensions regarding security in the continent, on Wednesday Sweden and Finland took major steps towards joining the organisation despite Russia repeatedly warning it would see such a move as a provocation.

Asked if the threat from Russia keeps him as awake at night, Mr Salm said: “What sometimes keeps me up at night is the thought of have we done enough? Is our strategy towards Ukraine accurate and up to date? Are we doing enough?

“I think we need to do more.”

Russian invasion of Ukraine
A poster outside the Russian embassy in Tallinn (Ben Birchall/PA)

He said more severe sanctions were needed immediately particularly on Russian energy, which he said was earning the country around 800 million euros a day and financing its “war machine”.

Deputy Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces Major General Veiko-Vello Palm backed Mr Salm’s request and emphasised the need for Nato allies to be ready to deploy units quickly to the Baltic States and supply long-range missile equipment.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Els, with the Danish contingent who are in Estonia with their Viking Company battle group, said he believes Mr Putin will not dare attack a Nato country because “he knows he cannot win”.

He said: “I don’t think that Putin has the will nor the desire to engage Nato. He knows he cannot win and he knows the only outcome would be nuclear war.”

The UK’s Royal Welsh Battalion is currently leading the 1,200-strong Nato battle group – which includes French and Danish forces and is based in Tapa.

Another 800 troops from the Royal Tank Regiment have remained in the country to provide additional support.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Nato Enhanced Forward Presence commander Colonel Dai Bevan (Ben Birchall/PA)

Estonia has so far sent Ukraine 200-million-euros worth of military aid, roughly a third of the country’s defence budget last year, PA understands.

Many in the nation fear the growing likelihood of conflict with Russia, with some having already moved further west due to their unease.

Buildings and shop windows in Tallinn are now adorned with the Ukrainian flag as well as posters and graffiti in support of the besieged country, most notably in Freedom Square which has been the location of a number of anti-war protests.

Tributes to the Ukrainians and messages imploring Mr Putin to end the onslaught have been placed in front of Russian embassy.

Commander of Nato forces in Estonia, Colonel Dai Bevan, said Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian invasion had been “hugely impressive”, adding that their strategy so far had been “steadfast and effective”.

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