NARVA, Estonia On weekdays, Marju Prosin is a dental saleswoman. But this weekend, the 37 -year-old left her two children at home, pulled on snow tiredness, grabbed a rifle and headed to the frozen woods of Estonia to develop for a guerrilla war.
She joined dozens of other civilians on a snow-covered hillside here for a 36 -hour exercise called the Utria Assault, after a historic Estonian victory over Russia. A whistle blew, and she ran up the hill in the darkness, weighed down by a heavy pack of rations and ammunition. Suddenly, machine gun fire rattled out from the tree line, sending her scrambling for cover.This was a test, one of many Prosin faced over this weekend in January.
She is one of 25,000 members of the Estonian Defense League, a reserve force-out of paramilitary volunteers who are required to keep their rifles oiled and ready. Estonia is on NATOs front line with Russia. The history of the country, which has just 1.3 million citizens, is one of repeated invasion and occupation by larger and more powerful neighbours. It won its independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed. Now, with Donald Trump who has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and called NATO obsolete as U.S. president, there is a sense of a shift in the world order that has underpinned the security of Estonia and its fellow Baltic stats, Latvia and Lithuania.
Prosin was among a rush of volunteers who signed up for the EDL after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The size of the league ballooned the following year. There have been similar trends in other former Soviet nations: Lithuania has reintroduced conscription, while Poland is forming a volunteer defense force it hopes will number in the tens of thousands in a couple years. For Estonia and its neighbours, Russias aggression in Ukraine is the latest andmost worrying sign that the Kremlin is flexing its muscles beyond its borders.
We have to be ready for who wants to come and take our little country, Prosin said to The WorldPost. She stood under light snowfall in a stretching of wilderness 10 miles from the Russian perimeter, with an AK-4 slung over her shoulder. We all feel this.
The civilian volunteer force-out is part of Estonias porcupine strategy to make it as indigestible as is practicable. With memories of Soviet occupation still fresh, Estonians are ferociously dedicated to contributing to the countrys defense.A cyber unit of tech-minded volunteers protects Estonian online infrastructure, which was targeted in 2007 by a massive and sophisticated wave of assaults that the Estonian governmentaccused the Kremlin of coordinating.There are corresponding corps for women, who learn basic military training, field catering and first assistance, as well as patriotic scouting organisations for children.
The Utria Assault exert brought teams of Estonians, Germans, Pole and Finns together in a competition to test their survival abilities on the freeze Russian border.They faced challenges including build improved explosive devices, spotting foe weaponry and simply surviving the freezing night.It was all designed to prepare them for the worst.
We have to be ready for who wants to come and take our little country.
This area, where the European Union fulfills Russia, has been churned by centuries of war: Swedes against Russians; Germans against Russians; Estonians against Russians. It is a geographical choke point, bordered by the sea to the north and marshes to the south.
The landscape still shows the scars of the 20 th century. On the suburbs of towns stand the abandoned remains of Soviet industry. In the fields and woods, farmers still dig up rusted weapons that are the recognizable predecessors of the handguns carried by the volunteers today. Bodies come up too the bones of soldiers who never attained it home.
My grandparents were in war and their forefathers and so on, so this is various kinds of in the blood. Its something like inevitable, said Tonis Otstavel, a 28 -year-old instructor in the EDL. Bad things happen, and we have to be prepared for that.
Whether Russia would, in fact, invade Estonia is far from certain.Estonians themselves often react with dislikes to any suggestion that Russian troop might come thunder over the border at any moment.
We are not threatened, said Marko Mihkelson, the chairman of the Estonian Parliaments foreign affairs committee. If you are afraid, you have already lost. Still, Mihkelson is ready. He is a volunteer in the EDL and is ready to report to barracks should the signal arrive.
In a July interview, reporters from The New York Times questioned Trump about whether the U.S. would come to the aid of the Baltic countries if Russia assaulted them.Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? Trump responded. If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
Its not clear what Trump meant by obligations, but his equivocation caused alarm. Estonias then President Toomas Hendrik Ilves responded with atweet saying that Estonia was one of merely five members of NATO to meet its guidelines of spending at least 2 percent of gdp on defense. He also noted that Estonia had opposed, with no caveatsas part of NATO forces in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Since then, Trump has named Rex Tillerson, who is seen asfriendly toward Russia, to be secretary of state. Trump also doubled down on his NATO skepticism by calling it obsolete in his first interview to European media following his election.
On the record, Estonian officials are dismissive, even nonchalant, about whether Trumps statements have undermined Estonias security. Part of deterrence, after all, is verbal. Estonia and the U.S. have had a long-lasting and fruitful defense cooperation for years, Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna said. I do not foresee any change in that policy.
Yet privately, officials told The WorldPost that the government had been rattled. If the Trump administration lifts sanctions imposed on Russia, two officials said, it would be a signal to Putin that he can break international law with impunity.
And in a global order unbound by international law, the Estonian foreign ministry said, small countries are the most vulnerable.In international relations, we have to have principles. We have to have regulations. We have to abide by international law, said Paul Teesalu, the foreign ministrys acting undersecretary of political affairs. This is what is at stake. Particularly for smaller countries, like us. The big countries can do whatever they wish.
Estonian defense analysts describe small Russian aggressiveness, such as flying close to NATO airspace, as part of a strategy to test NATOs resolve and probe for weaknesses. The principal concern is that Moscow might ensure Estonia as a tool to undermine the alliance.
About a quarter of Estonias population are ethnic Russians. They are far from a cohesive group, with differing sentiments, household backgrounds and levels of affection for Estonia. But they often watch Russian television, rather than Estonian, and listen to Russian news. This means, as one analyst described it, that Estonias Russians live in different information spaces.
Estonians and Russiansalso have different interpretations of history. They diverge on whether Soviet forces in World War II are heroes who defeated the Nazis or invaders who began an occupation of Estonia that would last almost five decades.
Such changes have been a source of upheaval in the past. In 2007, outraged ethnic Russians rioted over a decision to move a Soviet war memorial in the capital Tallinn known as the Bronze Soldier a emblem of World War II heroism to them and of occupation to Estonians. One human was killed, scores injured and hundreds arrested in the chaos. Amid the unrest, a wave of debilitating cyberattackstargeted Estonian banks, government institutions and news organizations.
Estonia considers this to have been an early exam of what are often called Russias hybrid war techniques, including disinformation campaigns, funding for sympathetic political motions and cyberattacks. Long before Russia was accused of using these methods to interfere in the U.S. general elections, it was putting them to use in Estonia and other former Soviet states.
For the finale of the Utria Assault, the Estonian Defense League mounted a machine gun on the battlement of a castle, loaded it with blanks and fired it off toward Russia. The Narva River, NATOs semi-frozen perimeter with Russia, was just a few yards away. From each coast, ancient stone castles face one another. The Russian tricolor hung over the one on the eastern bank, and Estonias blue, black and white flew over the one on the west. Visually, the scene was amirror image of events from World War II, when German and Russian soldiers faced off across the river.
It proves our neighbors that we are here and that we are doing something, said Karri Kaas, the editor of the EDLs magazine, as he watched Utria Assault participants scale the palace walls as their final challenge. It is also for the local people of Narva, to show that we are present here, and we care about it. As he spoke, some locals appeared on, askance.
Narva is perhaps the closest the EU has to a Russian city. Over 90 percent of its inhabitants are native Russian speakers.The WorldPost spoke to locals who, though happy to chat in English, acknowledged their Estonian was rusty. Less than half of Narvas population of 58,000 has Estonian citizenship. Many, who fell through the crackings when the border was depict, have so-called grey passports, meaning they are stateless and cannot vote.
Here, it is common to have family on both sides. When the border was draw, many felt cut off. The crossing is physically obtrusive: large metal barriers in the center of town. Sanctions have made Narvas trade with its biggest urban and economic hub, St. Petersburg, which is 100 miles away and has almost four times the population of the whole of Estonia. The vast Kreenholm textile factory, which now stands empty, once helped Narva become a hub of Soviet manufacturing. With the decline of the towns once-mighty industry, Soviet times have taken on the light of nostalgia for some.
When it comes to escalating tensions in the region, both NATO and Russia blame each other. NATOaccuses Russia of a destabilizing pattern of military activities and aggressive rhetoric, pointing to large-scale military exercises by Russia on its border and to the 300,000 troops itestimates Moscow keeps in its Western Military District. Moscow have all along seen NATO as a basically threatening confederation. The Kremlindescribed the few thousand U.S. troopsdeployed in January to Poland and the Baltic nations, in a final gesture by President obama outgoing administration, as a threat to our own interest and security.
Narva is a place where the Russian standpoint holds sway. It is not hard to find ardent fans of Putin. Putin is the greatest leader, Igor Lobin, the 48 -year-old owner of a Narva car shop, said to The WorldPost. He added that he was prepared to defend the Russian leader if necessary.
‘For me, World War II is not over yet.
Boris Abramov, a 51 -year-old businessman who, like his father before him, served in the Soviet Army, expressed exasperation at what he described as NATO fueling tensions by placingU.S. soldiers and multinational us air force unitson Estonian soil. I only want them to leave, Abramov said. His voice grew impassioned as he spoke of the scale of Soviet loss in World War II. I dont know how to explain it, but for me, the war is not over yet, he said.
Narva used to be the sister city of Donetsk in Ukraine.The relationship was put on ice in 2014 when pro-Russian separatists declared that Donetsk was breaking away from Kiev. Soon after, some flags of the freshly extol Donetsk Peoples Republic were flying in solidarityin Narva, according to the citys vice mayor, Vyacheslav Konovalov.
That was also the year that Stanislav Maksimov chose he had to paint the tank. It stood on the outskirts of town, on the edge of the river. It was an old piece of Soviet weaponry that had been erected as a monument. In recent years, the tank had rusted, and the ground around it became overgrown. For Maksimov, a 38 -year-old ethnic Russian who is between jobs, the decline of the tank was a emblem. He felt the Russian side of history, his history, was being written over.
For us, its an undividable part of its own history. People have to remember what happened and why it happened. People looking at the tank have to remember how big the sacrifice was, he said.
Maksimov banded along with other volunteers and restored the tank and a series of other monuments along the river. As they excavate roots from the ground, they discovered six bodies. Likely Germans, Maskimov said. The local authority took the remains away.
Some of Narvas residents are old enough to remember the war that put the bodies in the ground.This weekend, the voice of machine guns had returned to the city, even if they were only firing blanks. The exhausted teams reached Narva at the end of their trek through frozen forests and wilderness along Estonias border. They jogged through a city park with their rifles and supplying packs to reach the finish line. Three of the 27 teams had dropped out, defeated by the test of endurance. Watched over by an imposing Soviet statue of Lenin, they packed up their belongings and prepared to return to ordinary lives and office employment opportunities in towns and cities across Estonia. They would take the experience and skills of the Utria Assault with them. Prosin said if the day came, she would be ready.