Interview: NATO commander on challenges of role in Estonia

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Having already interviewed some of the personnel from the 1 YORKS battle group, the third such battle group to form, together with its NATO allies, the core of the alliance’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), it made sense to catch up with the commander of the eFP, Col Giles Harris, formerly of the Welsh Guards. I was very privileged to be able to do just that, at the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) HQ in Tallinn, providing a great opportunity to colour-in further the picture of what the British-led eFP does here, its aspirations and its day-to-day activities.
There was plenty to talk about, as I sat at the base cafe sipping a beer (not a regular occurrence!) but it made sense to start of with Col Harris’ background.

”I joined the army from university, and went straight into the Welsh Guards from Sandhurst [Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is the principal British Army officer military training centre-ed.], so I’m an infantryman by trade. I joined on a regular commission, and was a ‘lifer’ from the get go”.

When officers get promoted to the rank of Colonel, in the British Army, they generally move to a staff role and leave their original regiment.

But it is the nature of professional soldiers to keep moving forwards and not take their foot off the pedal as we civilians sometimes do; coming to Estonia all happened quite quickly too – Col Harris had just six weeks to turn things around from first knowing Tallinn would be his next destination. That might be no sweat for an individual, but he has a family, so they had to be catered to as well.

The arrival of the eFP could hardly have come at a more portentous time, either – just the year before the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence. The links with Britain go back to the War of Independence which followed Estonia’s birth as a nation state and upheaval in neighbouring Russia as the Tsar was overthrown by a provisional government, which in turn was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. Britain played an important role in the war, providing naval support and shielding Estonia’s northern coast from Bolshevik naval forces.

In one of those quirks of history, a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate, the HMS St Albans, as the Colonel points out, arrived at precisely the hour on the 100th anniversary that an earlier HMS St Albans had done in, November 1918.

”One of the principal things about the current cooperation is that it is not so much a new beginning as another chapter of an ongoing story of cooperation over the past 100 years. That was what was so nice about last year, you felt you could rightfully claim a part of what has been a very interesting story,” he says.

Life in Estonia

But what about Estonia today, did the Colonel have much to go on prior to arriving here in 2017?

”Yes, I had actually met some Estonian soldiers back in 2006 in Helmand, Afghanistan. So it was great to actually come in person and get to know the country. I like the nature here, I can get out and about and visit beaches, go bog walking, swim in the Baltic and so on. I’m a keen fisherman, too, so it’s a great location from that perspective”.

”But I definitely didn’t envisage a few years ago, that I’d be here – nor that the kids would be going to school in -18C, which happened once! They’re aged seven and five now, so it’s all been an adventure for them and it’s definitely put Estonia on the map. It will be the first place my son will be able to remember, which is nice too”.

Speaking of winter, the eFP has to operate in all conditions, and the cold weather experience must have been highly beneficial.

”This winter has been a bit more like it, compared with the last one, which was a bit mild. We’re operating with heavy armour [including Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks, MBTs, which weigh between 62 and 75 tonnes depending on ammunition etc. being carried. To put it into perspective, an average-sized SUV weighs between one and two tonnes-ed.]. This isn’t something we’ve done that much of in recent years, so it’s been a challenge, but also with the terrain, operating in forested areas with vehicles that will sink! However, like all good soldiers, the morale in the eFP rises when things get tougher. The soliders are happier when they’re challenged, and the guys going back to the UK will be able to wear their cold weather training like a badge of honour, which is all definitely win-win as well”.

One question I could not leave out, something we all get asked from time to time, is about the Estonian language. Has the Colonel had time to pick any of it up?

”We learn a few please and thankyous and basic phrases, which obviously helps with communication. But you’d have to be something of a ninja to start speaking it fluently within six months – the average time most of the eFP’s personnel are here. It’s an extremely beautiful language, and lovely to listen to, but it’s famously difficult to speak. The other matter is that everyone here is so fluent in English, which has been fantastic in terms of inter-operability both with the EDF troops and our NATO partners. In fact, it’s often the case that Estonian troops will struggle more with a Welsh, or Yorkshire, or Scottish soldier, for instance, speaking rapidly on the radio, than they will with, say, a Danish solider speaking English.

UK-Estonia relations

The exchange, in whatever language, has borne other fruit as well, and is likely to continue to do so in future.

”As for the UK troops, while we recruited quite a few people off the back of Afghanistan, when it was at its peak, which captured the imagination of a lot of people’s warrior spirit. We’re not engaged in that scale of operations now, however.

”As for the UK troops, while we recruited quite a few people off the back of Afghanistan, when it was at its peak, which captured the imagination of a lot of people’s warrior spirit. We’re not engaged in that scale of operations now, however.

But what about differences with the position of the military in Estonia, as against at home. Is there kind of a compartmentalising in British society, along various lines and including a civilian/military divide, which is not the case so much in Estonia?

”I think nationally we are probably a bit more distant form defence in the UK. For Estonians, in my experience of living here, they have a very real personal connection to national defence. The whole society and defence system they have here is enviable, impressive and effective, and I know our soldiers have been quite wide-eyed at just how much commitment and investment the nation puts into its defence. In comparison, British soldiers can tend to get deployed somewhere far away from home, and the danger there is that we miss the opportunity to bring home the real purpose of being in that country”.

”There are undoubtedly different issues to deal with in the UK; it’s important for us to be very professional with what we do here, to learn from the Estonians, who have been living in this environment for so long, and we’re unapologetic about doing this – it’s a very important approach to soldiering. Last year’s spy scandal [where a serving EDF Major was arrested after having sent classified information to secret services from the Russian Federation over a period of years-ed.] demonstrated that this is a very real threat, and a very real situation”.

”To reiterate, while there are many things about a smaller country that could be viewed as negatives, Estonia has an extraordinary identity, an enviable sense of purpose and common pride, and a common buy-in to national security. This is not 100% – it wouldn’t be anywhere – but if you look at the statistics for the support for the military in this country, it’s something you can work with. We are well aware of it, and it gives us great confidence that we have a proper, meaningful ally”.

Military cooperation with Estonia and NATO

No doubt, however, there are some differences in the way the two countries’ armed forces work which can cause obstacles or hitches?

”Well of course there is different equipment and differing systems, but the human integration is the most important aspect. If you get that sorted, the rest will follow. One unit might have a better bit of kit than we do, but we might have a better tactic or way of doing something than they do. In terms of technical inter-operability, it’s always a challenge, but something you just have to keep working at. There are certainly no show-stoppers in that sense. Key integration just gets stronger and stronger”.

”The nature of warfare in places like eastern Ukraine has furthermore shown how things are very different from the Cold War days. Estonia is by no means a parallel to Ukraine of course, but we’re still taking on board what has been happening there and in other parts of the world”.

”Don’t forget, we represent the NATO 29 [ie. the 29 nations currently part of the alliance – ed.] we’re one battle group, albeit a very credible part of an Estonian brigade that itself is part of a national defence, responsible for many thousands of Estonian troops”.

”Of course we have our fellow NATO troops which are an integral part of things too; so we don’t really need to show off how much combat power we have at our disposal,” the Colonel says, getting on to the crux of the eFP and NATO’s role and position in Estonia – what they are actually doing there, something I was keen to bring out in this interview as well. Making a firm statement without causing a major drama seems to have been key here, as well as training solidly for a deterrent role.

”We had a very clear, well-executed but modest signal from Warsaw [the 2016 Warsaw Summit, which made the commitment to strengthening the alliance’s military presence on its eastern flank in the Baltic States and Poland-ed.] and it is absolutely the responsibility of NATO to do things in moderation.

”I think the eFP’s a really good example of a firm, modest, sensible signal, backed up by some real internet. And you see that play out the way we train – we have a multi-national, joint enabled, combined arms, armoured battle group training week in, week out with the Estonian brigade, to defend Estonia, full stop. There’s no sugar coating things, we’re trained to fight and defend sovereign territory, but with no desire or intention to actually have to do that. That’s it really, there’s no sense that we’re going to have to do in actuality, what we train for continually, any time soon”.

”It’s not a case of ‘plugging gaps’ with the eFP. It complements the existing EDF and other Estonian capabilities. We bring MBTs to Estonia, but the Estonians already have very capable mechanised infantry, with armoured personnel carriers, a capable air defence and artillery. So we complement that”.

One question I had wanted to ask was whether there was a precedent for the eFP. Britain’s post-war deployments are well-known, truly global, and multi-faceted, from the Malayan emergency, via the Korean War, the Suez crisis, Cyprus, Aden and through to Northern Ireland, the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, the list goes on. Large numbers of British troops (in the tens of thousands) made up the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) at its peak during the Cold War.

But it was not just its size that makes it different from the situation we have in Estonia – here, we have a situation where the NATO forces are in a place which had previously been occupied by a neighbouring power. The BAOR was stationed in territory which had never been so occupied. In short, isn’t this a big difference?

Precedent for the eFP

”Well it is new in itself. We talk about modern deterrents, but at the same time recognising threats and responding in proportion with deterrents is a very old practice. In this case, it’s been done in a new way. The threats have changed over time, so we have to be slightly more aware of that. Certainly, as I said, I couldn’t couldn’t have envisaged it even a few years ago. After the Warsaw Summit in 2016 there was a very impressive turnaround by NATO, meaning that in under a year the first battle group operating within the Estonian brigade, with another allied partner, France, was up and running operation, and engaged in Exercise Spring Storm in 2017”.

I was also keen to bring home to our readers the very fact of the eFP as well as its role.

”We’re very unapologetic, quite rightly, about what we’re doing here. It’s important business. We are a deterrent, so yes we undoubtedly need as many people to understand why we’re here as possible, and to understand the way we’re going about our business”.

”Indeed, being in a vacuum would allow those who would seek to do us down to tell another, very different story. So we would always want more understanding of what we’re doing, and that we’re very proud of what we’re doing. The battle group is, professionally, hugely proud of what they’ve achieved here. So I think the purpose and the stakes of what your doing are paramount, as well as the fact that allowing, by osmosis as it were, that pride to permeate through to the regiments, our families and beyond, is equally important”.

Isn’t this also a plus point of democracies, that they can be more open in what their militaries are doing, not to mention more flexible and, when the need arises, more self-critical?

” Without wanting to go into too much political discussion of dictatorship versus democracy etc., it’s the resolve and the capability and the will to do things in the eFP which ironed out the creases in this organisation when push came to shove. We’ve proven that many times in the past. The more stakeholders you have in an enterprise, the more complexities there will be, there’s no doubt about that, and that’s why if you have a rotation system like we have, then there will be more inter-operability, especially with the amount of exercise we do every year. Our principle partners right now are Denmark, France and Belgium, and we get better and better as weeks and months go by.

Will the eFP have a shelf-life?

I turn to another question I had already put to some of the eFP personnel at the Tapa base, that of personal security, given Estonia’s location and the current geo-political climate.

”We take the same precautions that we would in other places really. Given where we are geographically, we’re a bit more aware than possibly would be the case in some other locations, but things like managing your IT, what you say or talk about, obviously avoiding any criminal activity, are in any case all part and parcel of what we do, so there isn’t a huge sense of special treatment here. That said, it would be foolish to think that we aren’t in a competition on some level, so we pay very close attention to how disinformation, vulnerability on line etc. might play out and be a threat, and thus how we deal with it and educate our troops, but it’s not really specific to here in Estonia”.

”There are fires burning round the world, but they’re not burning here for us – we’re a defensive, de-escalatory presence here, so we don’t want to over-communicate and make a bigger deal out of something than what is actually a relatively comfortable status quo. I think the real message is a firm but modest reminder of the alliance and its resolve as I’ve said, but we don’t really need to say much more than that”.

Does this mean that the eFP has a shelf-life, though, or is it here to stay, even to grow?

”We’re clear in saying we’ll be here as long as necessary, so we’re not aiming for some sort of exit strategy – we’re with a fellow NATO member. The size and shape of what we have here may evolve, but not in a hugely dramatic way, and if did that would all be based on anything that changed in the international security situation. In the meantime, we’re focussed on implementing what we’ve got right now, and getting progressively stronger in the quality of our integration. I would say that’s not just within the battle group, but also reflected in the rest of the chain of command, and the wider regional plan. In two years this has seen a huge increase in growth in the coherence and integration across NATO. So bringing the battle groups here, following the NATO integration, the meshing together of the NATO nations has come on apace. Of course at the same time Estonia’s defence program is likely to fill in some of the areas of competence that we complement, too”.

Community activities

There are other aspects to the eFP’s mandate too. Getting involved in local community activities, including last September’s World Cleanup Day (which began in Estonia as Teeme ära), visits to schools, engagement with the public at events, has all been a big part of the vision too.

”This is essential really, and goes back to question of whether people in the UK and elsewhere know what we’re doing. We’re engaged in an essentially human business, and what we’re preparing for in the extremely unlikely, but worst case scenario, is equally a very human business. It doesn’t make sense to lock yourself in the barracks. We’re here to become part of the fabric of the defence of this country, and you can’t do that without getting to know the people. There’s a balance to strike and we need to understand we’re here to lead and command troops, but we need to get out and enjoy ourselves too, it’s such a cool country.

”At the same time, there’s plenty of scope for misunderstanding – we can’t just think that everyone thinks we’re great, simply because we’re here, and in a pretty active media space. As I said, we’re principally a de-escalatory force, and our soldiers are the best ambassadors. They make mistakes like we all do, but we pride ourselves in the UK having the finest soldiers in the world, plus we get to talk to people, present ourselves in schools etc., and in all these situations the soldiers are the best communicators”.

Col Harris and his family are coming to the end of their stint in Estonia soon, so what are some of his primary take-homes?

”I don’t know when or where we’ll next deploy after that. The last couple of years have gone by in a heartbeat, and every rotation has got the message of getting Estonia on the map as a cool place to come. I Genuinely think this is a good news story to tell: Obviously I think this personally, since I’ve been so close to it for last two years. But we’re not naïve, we’re in a serious business and there’s no doubt about why we’re here as a serious engagement. It’s been a great experience and very different from the usual places that soldiers of my generation would have been (eg. Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan). At the same time, you’re learning too, you’ve got the time to learn in fact. We have worked with our NATO friends from Denmark, France and Belgium, and it’s great for us to reconnect with NATO operations as well”.

”It’s been a great opportunity and experience, and everyone’s pretty chuffed, I know Estonia is too, very rightly, and we’re very pleased we’ve what we’ve all achieved. However, you can’t rest on your laurels for too long, we need to make sure we keep developing and integrating our capability here for the foreseeable future too, and I’m confident we have laid the groundwork for that”.

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