Estonian soldiers Born in Ukraine, the danger of turning them into legitimate targets

According to several direct sources, the Estonian government is evaluating the opportunity to send a contingent to western Ukraine with tasks mainly to support Kiev's troops. In fact, far from the front, but with the aim of dealing with logistics, thus allowing the Ukrainian General Staff to free up resources to send to the front. National security advisor Madis Roll was the first to speak about it, specifying however that the measure, if made only by the Estonian side, would not have the broad consensus that it would achieve if it were endorsed by a NATO mission organized to “show a broader combination of strength and determination.”

Last May 10th, from the presidential palace, Roll declared: “The discussions are ongoing and we will have to evaluate all the possibilities without limiting the actions we can take”. Furthermore, the official underlined how the nations belonging to the Atlantic Alliance and currently against this type of missions could change their minds in the future. According to the constitution of Estonia, the head of the Armed Forces is the president, today Alar Karis. For Tallinn, however, the move would only be an extension and formalization of what is already happening, with a high number of Estonian volunteers already fighting in Ukraine since the spring of 2022.

The head of the defense forces, General Martin Herem, brought the issue of sending soldiers back to the news last week, when he declared that months ago there had been discussions in the military about this option but with broad assurances that Estonian Army soldiers would carry out tasks such as medical services, logistics or air defense for some Western cities. Hospitals aside, the other assignments would still turn these troops into legitimate targets for Russian forces. Moreover, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas last March seemed to have welcomed Emmanuel Macron's hypothesis for sending soldiers, justifying the words of the tenant of the Elysée, underlining that he was not specifically referring to the sending of troops in combat.

This position is also shared by Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, who recently told the Financial Times that she was willing to send Lithuanian troops to Ukraine “to train” Kiev's forces, also foreseeing Russian military escalation. The president of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Marko Mihkelson, had a different opinion, joining the declarations of Herem and Roll and already in the winter he had declared to the specialized newspaper Breaking Defense that European nations “must start thinking about a coalition of those willing to help more directly Kiev, potentially with direct combat forces.” Currently the Estonian forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) have 7,700 soldiers in service and 80,000 trained reservists of which approximately 39,000 are in a state of rapid readiness, but it has the conscription potential to enlist 216,000 men and approximately 260,500 women. The Estonian Air Force (Õhuvägi) has 1570 units and has hosted different types of aircraft operating with NATO forces in the constant air policing missions carried out in the Baltic.

This situation shows that, while Italy, Germany and other nations have firmly closed off any possibility of sending troops, it is evident that neutral and interventionist currents exist within NATO, although each member of the Alliance is free to send forces where it deems necessary for its national interests. It is also understandable that the nations bordering Russia fear an initiative from Moscow, but the question is how Article Five of the Treaty would be applied, which provides that an armed attack against a member state is considered a direct attack against all parties, each committing to assist the party or parties attacked, resorting, if necessary, to the use of armed force.

Therefore, if these hypothetical troops were attacked directly because they were still involved in operations in favor of Kiev. With this specter on the horizon, the US ambassador to Estonia, George Kent, stressed that no US soldiers will be sent to Ukraine and that the Biden administration intends to help Ukraine only by sending significant packages of supplies. The British attitude is different, whose government maintains a possibilityist position conditioned on the enlargement and success of Russian military operations.