How Estonian Civilians Are Preparing for a Russian Attack

THe ambushed him at dawn. Moments before, the only sound in the frigid forest of Klooga, 40 km west of the Estonian capital Tallinn, had been light snoring coming from beneath a handful of camouflaged tarps. After machine gun fire had broken their sleep, several fighters emerged from their shelters and started rekindling the fire. Flashes from their rifles illuminated the still dark woods, while blue smoke poured from a bomb intended to obscure the enemy’s path.

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The battle was won in less than a minute. Kaia was a mother of a baby and an accountant. Although they couldn’t defeat the opposition force, Kaia was satisfied with the entire exercise. “They did pretty well,” she said of the volunteers in the Estonian Defense League (EDL) she was helping instruct. “They stayed calm, and they held their ground.”

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and other Baltic nations have been working to make this happen. All three countries joined NATO after gaining independence in 1990. They share a border with Russia and have a long history of Soviet occupation. This included the imprisonment and deportation of many thousands of people. They have also adopted a society-wide defense approach that has been especially useful in recent years as Russia increased its propaganda efforts. Estonia has 15,000 citizens who spend weekends every year learning guerrilla warfare through the EDL. And since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, heightened fears that the Baltics could be the Kremlin’s next target have spurred thousands more to sign up.

“We are not conscripts. We are not regular army,” said Henri, 20, a participant in the Klooga “ambush” who works in sales. TIME spoke with most members who did not want to reveal their names for security reasons. “We are ordinary Estonian men and women ready to put our blood on the line for every inch a possible occupier would want to gain of our land.”

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Estonia is serious about protecting its 1.3 million inhabitants. Its defense budget is proportionately the third highest among NATO countries, and while there are only 7,000 active–duty soldiers in its military, it bulks up its defense and deterrence capabilities with reservists and with the EDL, which is the region’s largest volunteer force. At the start of 2022, it counted some 15,000 members, plus 10,700 in its youth organizations and Women’s Defense League, which provides support to the fighting units. This is nearly 2% of Ukraine’s population. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 24, approximately 2,000 people have applied for membership.

The Ministry of Defense provides weapons and training for most of its members, but they are often unpaid. “I truly believe that Estonians will grab a weapon or a tool against the Russian invaders,” says Lauri Abel, the ministry’s Under Secretary for Defense Readiness. A former commander of the Tallinn EDL, Abel sees the corps’ civilian status as crucial to its success. “They’re the link between the armed forces and society. They can be found working at different companies. They carry the defense spirit to society.”

Even before the war in Ukraine, a full 57% of Estonians said they would be willing to participate in their country’s defense; some 80% approve of the EDL. Katlin, 36, who is a financial worker, was inspired to learn how to make stretchers from scratch to transport wounded soldiers out of the woods. “I wear heels five days a week. So this,” she says, gesturing to her heavy flak jacket and boots, “is a big difference. But I want the knowledge, and I want to be prepared.”

League preparation is the core of its mission. Eight weekends of basic training are required for new recruits. They learn how to clean and fire weapons and handle explosives. They are permitted to keep the weapons they have been issued by their state after passing a final exam. “I don’t know many countries in the world where the state entrusts its citizens to have combat weapons at their homes, just in case,” said one veteran member. “If we are suddenly attacked, I don’t need to go to a certain point to get my gear. I can just step out of my front door, walk 20 feet into the bushes, and then I’m dangerous.”

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Against a conventional army with its large battalions and rigid formations, the EDL’s small, local units are intended to be much more agile. “One of our original principles is that you fight in the area you are from,” says Major Rene Toomse, who oversees the EDL’s training programs. “The point is that during peacetime you have time to learn all the terrain: you know where you can hide, where you can produce good ambushes—it’s your turf. It’s amazing how much leverage you have against an enemy invading your territory. They have no idea where to go, and you know every inch.”

The EDL hasn’t yet had to test its abilities in a real conflict, but it collaborates with the Estonian military and with other NATO forces in war games and joint exercises, and is a major reason why researchers at the Rand organization consider Estonia’s total defense capabilities to be among “the most developed” of the Baltic states.

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This serves to provide reassurance for a nation where many think that Ukraine will fall. After sitting in on the Klooga unit’s practice ambush, Major Toomse drove to a target range where a different unit was spending its Sunday learning to fire two-person antitank weapons called Carl-Gustavs. “If Russia thinks it can reoccupy Estonia or any Baltic country,” Toomse said, “it’s going to be a disaster for them.”

Simmone Shah/New York reporting

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