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Estonians are embracing national service

“I have learned so much, I think I even want to go into the military.”

“Ready to fight for Estonia?”

“Yes…. but sleeping in a tent, no.”

Liisa Tobreluts’s face is hidden behind stripes of green and brown; camouflage she has just painted on for the first time. An Estonian school student, Liisa, 17, is at a military training camp. Why? Because this Baltic nation recently made defence education compulsory in secondary schools.

Some already had it in place, but now all schools must ensure 35 hours of first aid, survival skills, the lot. That’s roughly 6,000 students every year in more than 100 schools. Most of the course is taught in the classroom. This out-in-the-field segment is voluntary, but many take it up, with more than 400 pupils at this camp.

Estonia national service/ conscription Matthew Lucas/Channel 4 News
More than 400 pupils are taking part in a field segment of their defence education (Photo: Matthew Lucas/Channel 4 News)

With Rishi Sunak offering a form of national service for young people in Britain, what do students here make of it?

“I think that countries like the UK should have conscription,” says 17-year-old Alide Kristine Alba. “It lets everybody know what to do in case of war, in case of a crisis.”

Estonia is not necessarily preparing teenagers for battle, rather readying them for any emergency, such as teaching them about a new set of sirens being installed across the country.

Estonia national service/ conscription Matthew Lucas/Channel 4 News
Conscription is a part of high school for teens in the country, where it has been the law since 1991 (Photo: Matthew Lucas/Channel 4 News)

“I wouldn’t say we’re moving towards a militarised society, but it’s vital for everyone to know what to do when something goes wrong,” Martin Melnitšuk tells me, who is leading part of the training exercises. He says the war in Ukraine has had an impact, with a slight uptick in women taking more interest in defence.

When I ask another student, Neleri Grossberg, 17, whether she worries about the threat from Russia, she replies: “I do a bit actually, because, well, what’s kind of stopping them?”

Alide is more upfront. “I am scared if Russia takes over Estonia. We are not like [the] Russian times anymore. I am Estonian, I am not Russian. I speak Estonian and think Estonian, but Russia does not understand that.”

That nod to the country’s history is an important difference between Estonia and the UK when it comes to national service. The defence course here includes learning about Estonia’s past in relation to its neighbours, because these students are too young to remember the Cold War.

Estonia national service/ conscription Matthew Lucas/Channel 4 News
Margit Kirss, who teaches the defence course, believes that the Ukraine war has revealed the extent of the danger to Estonia and elsewhere (Photo: Matthew Lucas/Channel 4 News)

Estonia declared independence on 24 February, 1918, the same date that, 104 years later, Russia would invade Ukraine. During the Second World War, Estonia was occupied first by the Soviet Union in 1940 following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, then invaded by the Nazis, before being taken back by the Soviets and subsumed into the USSR.

Moscow tried to Russify “the Soviet West”. In the early years, many from the Baltic states were deported to gulags or forcibly resettled in Siberia. With the policies of Perestroika and Glasnost in the 1980s, Estonia’s independence movement was reborn and sovereignty returned in 1991. Since then, it has prospered as a member of the European Union and Nato since 2004.

At a school in Olustvere in central Estonia, I talk to Margit Kirss, who is teaching the defence course. “This is the generation that has lived in a free country,” she says. I ask her whether perhaps they took that for granted. “Yes. I think this Ukrainian war shows very vividly the danger. Anything can happen in this world.”

Neleri Grossberg, 17, left
Neleri Grossberg, 17, left, says she worries about the threat posed by Russia (Photo: Matthew Lucas/Channel 4 News)

While General Sir Patrick Sanders, Britain’s outgoing Chief of the General Staff, recently said the UK was not ready for war and has spoken of the need for a “citizen army”, national service is not be the only solution. Estonia will spend 3.2 per cent of its GDP on defence this year. The UK says it will reach 2.5 per cent by 2030.

But this Baltic nation knows it could be next in Moscow’s sights. Russia is just over the border, a nation whose standing army alone is almost as big as Estonia’s entire population. While Nato allies would come to their aid, Estonia’s soldiers would still be the first line of defence. Before the Ukraine war, Nato’s plan for a Baltic invasion had been to let Russia occupy the country before pushing them back.

I sat down with the Estonian Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas. She also recommended conscription in the UK, something Estonia has had for men since independence. Since 2013, women have been able to join the conscription service on a voluntary basis.

Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas arrives to attend the EU-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit at the European Council headquarters in Brussels on December 14, 2022. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP) (Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images)
The Prime Minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, said she could not rule out sending Estonian troops to train Ukrainian soldiers in Ukraine (Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

“Weakness is provoking the aggressor, not strength, that’s why we have to invest in defence,” Ms Kallas says, who has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies. “If we do enough for our own defence, Russia will see that we are strong. If we are not doing this, then Russia might test Nato.”

I ask her if she would send Estonian troops to train Ukrainian soldiers in Ukraine. “I wouldn’t rule out anything at this moment.” Including sending troops to fight? “Including all the steps, because if we are ruling out anything, then we are only giving signals to Russia,” she says.

When I press her on whether it’s frustrating that many allies do not spend as much on defence and have to be convinced to send more aid to Ukraine, she says: “The price goes up with every hesitation. But I understand that we are all different countries with different historical backgrounds, and also with different neighbours.”

Estonia is simply preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. As Martin Melnitšuk told me at the camp, “It’s better to be a warrior in the garden, than a gardener in a war”.

Whether the youth of England’s green and pleasant lands are ready to become warrior gardeners, who knows. Yet the message from the east is clear: be ready.

Kiran Moodley is a correspondent at Channel 4 News

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