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Wake up to Russian threat, Estonia’s weekend warriors tell UK

Citizen soldiers on an Estonian island are dubbed “the SAS” because they train with weapons and war paint on Saturdays and Sundays.

The volunteers – many of them middle-aged dads and the odd mum – said British civilians should also consider getting off their sofas and learning how to fight as the threat from Russia grows.

It echoes a rallying cry last month from the outgoing head of the British army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, who said civilians need to be trained to fight a future war – an idea immediately dismissed by Rishi Sunak’s government.

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“You know, we love our freedom,” said Major Tanel Kapper, who commands the Estonian Defence League forces on the island of Hiiuma.

He was speaking as his troops weaved between a huddle of tall, skinny pine trees, then dropped to one knee, before taking aim with their rifles and opening fire.

“We lost it [freedom] once already, so we don’t want to lose it another time. It’s wrong to think that somebody else is coming to fight your war if you are not ready to defend yourself.”

Civilians in Estonia are preparing
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Civilians in Estonia are preparing

Estonia, which shares a 180-mile border with Russia and only won back its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, understands the danger from Moscow all too well.

It is why Estonian military chiefs doubled the size of their territorial defence force – the people who would support the much smaller professional army in a crisis – to 20,000 personnel following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost exactly two years ago.

That number comprises about 10,000 Defence League volunteers and the new addition of some 10,000 former conscript soldiers who are part of the military reserve.

Deborah Haynes
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At the ‘friendship bridge’, on the Russian border

Major-General Ilmar Tamm, the head of the Defence League, said the main role of his troops is to deter an attack by President Vladimir Putin’s forces.

Linking NATO security to what happens in Ukraine though, he warned that the chance of such an act of aggression would grow if Russia’s forces prevail in their fight against Kyiv.

“How seriously [do] we take the support to Ukraine?” Major General Tamm said in an interview at his headquarters in the capital, Tallinn.

“If we give up in Ukraine, so are we giving up also our own defence? So… it’s quite critical and should be not separated,” he said.

A ferry trip from the mainland through chunks of icy sea, the island of Hiiuma is a densely forested beauty spot off Estonia’s west coast that is home to about 9,000 residents and becomes a popular holiday destination in the summer.

On board the ferry to Hiiuma
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On board the ferry to Hiiuma

But it could also become a key target for Russia in any future confrontation with NATO.

Pointing to a map, Major Kapper said Moscow could use the island’s vantage point in the Baltic Sea to cut off access to the Baltic States via the vital waterway.

It is perhaps one reason why British soldiers, based in Estonia as part of a NATO mission to deter Russian threats, visit the island on occasion for training exercises.

Sky News was invited at the weekend to watch around 20 Defence League volunteers practise how to attack an enemy inside a frozen patch of forestland – a challenge that is made much harder when trying to shoot through lots of spindly trees.

The men and one woman loaded their rifles with live ammunition and took it in turn to practise an ambush.

Training over, they drove back to their makeshift barracks, fitted with a sauna – common in all Estonian military quarters – which is used to warm up freezing limbs after hours spent running around in sub-zero temperatures.

Last Sunday afternoon, there was no time to thaw in comfort as the volunteers had to dismantle and clean their rifles before heading back to their civilian lives.

A soldier during practice
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A soldier during practice

Polishing part of his gun, Taavi, a father of two, with his face painted green, said he decided to join the Defence League along without about 14 friends last year in part as a response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The construction worker said he did not want conflict, but was ready for combat if Russia invades.

“I have to take the weapon and try to protect my family, my home,” he said.

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Asked why defending his island was so important to him, Taavi said: It’s my home. It’s easy… it’s a good place.”

With the volunteers one of the only lines of defence on the island, Major Kapper said the tempo of training had been doubled to two weekends a month.

He had a warning for President Putin if he tried to attack: “It will be a bloody mess if you come here. We will definitely kill as many of you as possible.”

As for whether he had a message to other NATO countries like the UK that maybe are not doing as much to bolster their defences, the officer said: “To wake up. It won’t stop in Ukraine. If we don’t stop them, then they will come further and further.”

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