In April, Estonia marked Veterans Day for the third time to thank and recognize men and women who have strengthened Estonian security and international credibility by serving on international military missions far from home.
This year was the 20th anniversary of the first time that Estonian Defence Forces members deployed on an international mission. On that occasion it was a UN peacekeeping mission in Croatia. Today there are close to 2,700 Defence Forces mission veterans. Their activity in various places around the world has had a particularly important role in maintaining Estonia’s high reputation in our allies’ view.
In the eyes of the Estonian public, foreign missions have become a natural part of the Defence Forces’ image. According to the most recent national defence themed public opinion poll conducted by Turu-Uuringute AS, 64 % of the Estonian population believes that the Defence Forces units should take part in international operations where they can.
Today, however, it is a new situation. Changes in the security environment, both regional and global, have resulted in a marked shift in the scope and nature of the Defence Forces role on international missions. Estonia continues to participate on various NATO, EU and UN missions, contributing staff officers, members of training teams, military observers and other specialists, but since late August 2014 when a Defence Forces infantry contingent returned from Central African Republic, Estonia has not been represented on foreign operations by Defence Forces units. This is an unusual situation, last seen in the late 1990s. Although a Defence Forces platoon will head to southern Lebanon on a UN peacekeeping operation in May, the era where it was routine for the Estonian Defence Forces – in line with NATO usability guidelines – to keep around 10% of its land forces on operations is now definitely over.
The drastic reduction in the number of missions compared to the previous decade can be seen in the case of all of our allies both in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic. One reason is that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has brought the focus back to sovereignty and territorial integrity of European countries themselves. Second, the long-running and exhausting foreign operations have led to clear fatigue in the Western armed forces and societies regarding costly intervention with questionable outcomes.
A vivid example is the fact that already when Barack Obama became US president, one of his main promises was to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011, then US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said publicly that any successor of his who recommends sending a large US ground unit to the Middle East, Asia or Africa should have his head examined. On 8 April, a US soldier was killed in Afghanistan, bringing to an end a record 116-day period when no Americans were killed due by the enemy. Compare that to the years where practically every single day brought news of American soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan!
No matter how understandable the desire to turn inward and leave solving of problems to the locals, this is not possible or a reasonable option in today’s interconnected world. The formation that calls itself the Islamic State is showing no signs of fading in Syria and Iraq, and the US-led international coalition has been forced to expand military intervention against ISIS. A tense wait is on for the consequences of the drastic jump in Taliban activity that occurs each spring in Afghanistan. Southern European countries for their part are watching the chaos unfold on the other shore of the Mediterranean, in Libya, where civil war continues and the ISIS terror network is expanding its reach. The number of refugees arriving on the Italian coast by sea from Libya is in the hundreds and thousands of people per day.
And so today US forces are back in Iraq, a country where much American blood was spilled and which the Obama administration essentially tried to forget after withdrawing its forces. The plan to bring home the last American forces from Afghanistan as well is still going ahead, but the pace of the withdrawal of the contingent in country has been reduced significantly already. The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is forcing the European Union to discuss possibilities for a mission in Libya itself.
Unlike, say, the operations to this point in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, current and possible future military missions involving international ground forces are not related directly to combat duties but are aimed at training and advising the local fighters in the mission region. This is the case with the NATO mission Resolute Support, which has supplanted the ISAF operation as well as the EU training mission in Mali and the assistance to Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters led by about a dozen mainly NATO member states in parallel to the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq. A similar trend can be discerned in Ukraine. Although the inception of a broader international military mission with a UN Security Council resolution mandate is ruled out due to Russian veto, the USA, Great Britain and Canada have already sent or are sending troops to Ukraine to train the local combatants.
Thus it is possible that in the foreseeable future, the Estonian Defence Forces will have to be prepared to take part in such international training missions. The number of personnel on such missions will of course be fewer than on military operations of years past. Development of bonds with other NATO members, strengthening Estonia’s international image and acquiring field experience for Defence Forces are all examples of reasons that Estonia should continue making a comparable contribution to international security.