On a recent weekend in an Estonian forest, a group of new recruits in army fatigues practiced maneuvers. A sergeant major barked out instructions and the unit changed formation, sometimes crawling in the dirt between birch trees.
But these weren’t professional soldiers: They were some of the hundreds of edgy Estonians who have flocked to a volunteer army in the months since neighboring Russia annexed part of Ukraine to the south.
Recruitment in the first half of this year doubled to 600 compared with 300 in the same period last year. The Estonian Defense League, or Kaitseliit, now has around 14,500 members in its fighting units, compared with around 3,800 in the professional military.
The surge is a sign of how Russia’s newly aggressive foreign policy is rattling people across Eastern Europe. It is echoed in the rising popularity of similar paramilitary forces like the Riflemen’s Unions of Lithuania and Poland and Latvia’s home guard.
The Kaitseliit is run by the Defense Department and its members are expected to report for duty in the event of a national crisis.
“I want to defend my homeland, my family,” said Kevin Ungro, an 18-year-old student, during a break in training. “The more people who know how to handle a gun, the better our chances of defending ourselves.”
In the woods outside Tallinn, students mix with doctors, chief executives and engineers, daubing each other’s faces in green and brown camouflage paint and checking each other’s helmet straps.
“Charlie covers, Delta move out,” shouts the instructor and briefly there is a confusion—Which of the eight men belong to Charlie, which to Delta? Who has to run forward and who stays back to secure the imaginary line of battle? Who is partnered with whom? What happens if your partner is taken down in battle?
Finally it is established who is Charlie and the men and women, all equipped with rifles, try again. “Delta covers, Charlie move out,” the instructor shouts and four people jump up, move a few steps further and throw themselves back on the ground. Another group watches taking notes.
The battle training, called “fire and movement,” is conducted by senior Kaitseliit members. They are hoping that such skills will help at least slow any invasion from the east.
Moscow talks regularly of a need to defend ethnic Russian minorities in nearby states, whose interests it claims are threatened by hostile governments from Tallinn to Kiev. Officials in the Baltics worry this could be used as a pretext for military aggression against them, as happened in Ukraine.
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