28 May 2024

The Estonian teenagers training for conflict and crisis

Rishi Sunak made headlines this week when he promised to bring back national service if the Conservatives win the next election.

The plan didn’t go down too well with the other parties.

But many parts of Europe have welcomed the idea, with forms of conscription in place for decades.

While Estonia has just made defence training mandatory in all secondary schools.

It’s another sign of how Russia’s war in Ukraine is forcing countries to prepare for an uncertain future.

In southern Estonia, school students are learning camouflage. It’s part of a defence course that is now mandatory across the country for under 18s, who told us:

“I’ve always been interested in military, nature.”

“I could test myself, physically, emotionally, everything and prepare myself for the future.”

“We really need the people and the training and experience to get through it if we need.”

Preparing Estonia’s youth

Estonia has had conscription for men since independence in 1991. But Russia’s war in Ukraine has made this Baltic nation bolster their defences. And the UK government has said we need to move from a post-war to a pre-war era, with Rishi Sunak announcing plans to introduce national service.

Here in Estonia, the need to prepare for the pre-war world starts young. In the past year, defence training has been made compulsory for school students. 35 hours of education, including the chance to come to a military training camp. This isn’t just about shoring up Estonia’s defences or creating a renewed sense of patriotism. This is about being realistic about the threats to their way of life.

“We are still scared because of what’s happened to Ukraine, and there is a lot of war and a lot of politics going on right now,” said one student.

We asked if they worry about the threat from Russia.

“I do a bit actually, because, well, what’s kind of stopping them, I guess,” one student told us.

Teenagers here are taught survival skills, first aid, and about a new range of emergency sirens being installed across the country.

“We think that countries like the UK should have conscription, because it lets everybody know what to do in case of war, in case something else goes wrong, in case of a crisis,” said one youth.

“If we create interest in the youth parts, it’s more likely that they’re going to be interested in doing it later on as well.”

“I have learned so much that I haven’t even heard about, and I think I even want to go to the military,” said another.

We asked one youth if this will make them want to join the army.

“I hope so,” she replied.

And will you be ready to fight for Estonia?

“Yes, but sleeping in a tent? No.”

Spending on defence

There are key differences with the UK, mainly Estonia’s history and geography. The nation was once part of the Soviet Union, and with Russia just on the other side of the border. The need to prepare is always present.

The Estonian Defence Team is a group that ensures reservists and volunteers are up to date with their training and know their terrain when.

“When the duty calls. I’m not afraid of it,” said one member of the Estonian Defence Team.

While the UK does not have to worry about Russia on its doorstep, there is a sense here that Nato allies are not taking the Moscow threat seriously, and not sending enough aid to Ukraine.

“It’s taken too much time, for me personally, to understand what we must do, what we all must do collectively to end this thing,” he said.

That need for Nato to prepare is echoed not just out here in the field, but in the capital, Tallinn. Estonia’s government will spend more than 3% of its GDP on defence this year. One of the alliance’s biggest spenders, despite being one of the least populated nations.

‘It would deter the aggressor’

We spoke to Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, as there has been talk about conscription being needed in other Nato countries and asked if it is something she would recommend.

“I highly recommend it. You learn a lot. You also develop physically there in the conscription. But I think it’s more like the skills that they acquire there in terms of crisis management,” she said.

Kallas is the prime minister first and foremost, but also a parent, and we asked how discussion go with her children about the future, especially with the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“It should hit home everywhere. If we are not able to help Ukraine militarily enough. Then Russia might move further. That’s why we have to invest in defence. That’s why we have to train. We have to do all this. That it would deter the aggressor,” she said.

Estonia sees national service as vital to its security. The question, then, is whether Rishi Sunak’s plan is purely politics, or if there is a genuine need for us to prepare the next generation for whatever may come next.

Produced by Nina Hodgson, filmed and edited by Matthew Lucas.