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Estonia: UK Troop Levels

Volume 825: debated on Monday 31 October 2022

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United Kingdom’s troop levels in Estonia.

My Lords, the UK has worked in close partnership with Estonia to ensure that our force posture is correctly calibrated for the current security climate. We will continue to collaborate with Estonia on an enduring basis to implement the commitments offered by the UK at the NATO Madrid summit, and to ensure that our troop levels are commensurate with Estonia’s NATO security needs. The implementation of our summit commitments will increase the overall capability of our forces in Estonia.

My Lords, is it not the case that the number of UK troops in Estonia is being halved? Estonia is a key NATO ally, on the front line of NATO and its border with Russia. Therefore, is it any wonder that the Estonian Government are extremely disappointed with us, with their Foreign Minister telling our media that this is an issue of existential security for Estonia? As we are a senior member of NATO, and given Estonia’s need for and call for existing UK troop levels to be maintained, is it not time for a rethink, given that Estonia’s security is our security?

The noble Lord will be aware that the second battle group currently deployed was always designed to be temporary. It was placed there at the start of the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The noble Lord will also be aware that we are enhancing the lethality of the permanent EFP battle group, so we will maintain divisional level assets in country, we will augment these with episodic deployments of battle-winning capabilities, we are enhancing our EFP HQ, which will be led by a brigadier, and we are committed to the development of Estonian national divisional C2. So the overall commitment by the UK is being enhanced and strengthened.

My Lords, it was reported last week that Russia had carried out simulated nuclear drills. Do our troops in Estonia have NBC protective clothing and equipment available to them? In the event of the use of a Russian nuclear weapon, has NATO spelled out specific retaliatory actions and do any of them involve the use of British military personnel?

The noble Lord will be aware that the attitude of NATO, and of the United Kingdom and our allies, is to invite Russia to de-escalate this rhetoric. Frankly, it will be destabilising and unhelpful if it continues to be intensified. The noble Lord will also be aware that, in connection with our overall commitments to NATO and the contribution we make not just to the enhanced forward presence but to equipment and personnel support, we will ensure that our troops are equipped appropriately for whatever task might confront them.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has a long-standing relationship in defence in that region, particularly with Norway. Will we co-operate with our Nordic and Baltic partners to make it quite clear to Russia that any incursion in any of the Baltic states is unacceptable, and that part of that must be to keep a substantial military presence in the Baltic states, which of course include Estonia, where we have a particular interest?

I reassure my noble friend that we work closely with our friends in the Baltics, not least in Norway and Sweden and with our other presence in that area. He will be aware that, with our NATO commitments, we are very much committed to having a mobile and enhanced lethality in the area. As I said to the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches, that is designed to ensure that, whatever threat confronts us, we are able to play our part in seeing it off.

My Lords, we have every reason to support Estonia, having helped it regain its independence in 1922. However, is not Estonia’s immediate, real problem that it is being bombarded every hour of every day by Russian cyberattacks and fake attacks which aim to undermine and demoralise the whole country? Can the Minister assure us that this kind of defence—which, in the modern world, is probably the most important of all—is being thoroughly reinforced by us to enable Estonia to withstand Russian undermining?

That is a indeed a very important component of the threat that we face. My noble friend will be aware that assisting countries to deal with cyberattacks is, again, part of our contribution to our UK and NATO commitments.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Britain has won a lot of credit in northern Europe by the commitment that we have made to Estonia? This is a very important part of our NATO commitment and in the modern Baltic states, in Poland and in the Nordic countries, this has been noted. Does she agree that it is not good optics for the UK to so drastically cut the level of its force commitment to Estonia? It is very positive that Sweden and Finland are joining NATO, but does she not agree that there is a risk that they may, in time, take over the lead in this area of commitment to defence?

The intention of Sweden and Finland to join NATO is very welcome. Anything that cements the co-ordination and collaboration of countries with like-minded principles and values in the Baltic area is to be welcomed. Our future force posture in Estonia currently comprises 994 UK personnel, but it will rise to 1,020 when the battle group rotates in March. That is in addition to the enhanced details of capability that I outlined to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker.

My Lords, is there not at least a case to maintain the current numbers until the NATO divisional headquarters is fully operational next year?

The noble Lord will understand that, were we to retain that second battle group in Estonia, it would require significant extra investment and additional temporary winterisation of infrastructure and storage—and, of course, it would have a detrimental operational impact on the overall flexible deployment of the Army. We have a very good relationship with Estonia, as I said earlier. We have a robust and enhanced capability that we are making available to Estonia. I think that is a matter for commendation.

My Lords, why does the UK now have the smallest Armed Forces it has had at any point since the Napoleonic wars? Is it really realistic for the UK to play a full role in confronting the threat from Putin’s Russia with Armed Forces of that size?

As the noble Lord will understand, looking back to the integrated review, what became very clear was that the review identified that it is not just numbers we have to talk about but capability, technical advancement and what we equip our Armed Forces with. That now includes sophisticated technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotic activity. There is a whole manner of ways in which we are taking forward our troop presence and the capability of the Army that goes beyond thinking simply in terms of numbers.

My Lords, my noble friend has made it clear that the doubling of the battle group in Estonia was a result of the invasion of Ukraine. Now that it has been halved, does this mean that the risk to Estonia has been reduced?

My noble friend will be aware that in the MoD we constantly assess and respond to threat as the character of that threat emerges. What we did at the inception of the illegal invasion of Ukraine was to offer support where there might have been a vulnerability. It is important now, in conjunction with NATO and our other allies in the Baltic area, to work sensibly to collaborate—but nothing in any way diminishes our commitment to support that area.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her well-deserved reappointment as Minister of State in the defence department—even though she is very good at putting me in my place when I am trying to cause trouble. Today I have a very serious question in relation to Lithuania. She will understand the problems with Kaliningrad and Belarus effectively surrounding Lithuania, and the line in between potentially creating problems. Can she tell the House what discussions the UK Government have had with other Governments about what we can do to make sure that Lithuania as well as Estonia is protected?

I thank the noble Lord for his kind comments. I sometimes feel that when he offers polite and complimentary remarks to me I should count my fingers afterwards—but I absolutely take his remarks in the spirit in which they are given, for which I thank him. It is a serious situation, and how we address the threats confronting Lithuania is all part of the overall NATO and UK approach to the Baltic area. We do not in any way seek to underestimate or diminish the threat confronting Lithuania, but I think that with the NATO summit plan that was announced back in the summer of this year, with the commitments being made by the individual NATO partners, not least the United Kingdom, we are offering up a very strong reassurance to the Baltic countries that help is to hand if they need it.