Within the forest of Estonia, the clearing is still. A dozen green camouflaged soldiers are on a morning patrol on the outskirts of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. They march two by two, flanked by towering fir trees.

The crack of gunfire shatters the quiet morning. A soldier named Erni Metsal, who is 30 years old, drops to his knees, arches his AK-4 rifle up and returns fire. Whip-like cracks reverberated across the forest. 

Estonia, a tiny Baltic nation tucked in the corner of northeast Europe, is not at war. On that morning earlier this year, no one was actually shot. Instead, I was watching a training exercise for paramedics run by the Estonian Defence League, a voluntary paramilitary organization that operates under the Estonian Defence Forces. It is made up of regular civilians — accountants, teachers, lawyers — ready to support and lay down their lives in the defense of their country.

With a population of just over 1 million, Estonia may not seem like a critical linchpin of global security. But Estonia doesn’t only defend its own borders. Alongside its Baltic cousins, Latvia and Lithuania, it also defends NATO’s eastern flank with Russia. It’s a NATO member, meaning if it were attacked it would guarantee the intervention of its fellow members, including the United States. 

And since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there is a growing fear of a once unthinkable conflict pitting Russia against the West. With a large ethnically Russian population, its strategic location and ports on the Baltic Sea connecting to the rest of Europe, Vladimir Putin’s eyes could be set on Estonia. If so, it could dramatically heighten the stakes and global tensions over expanding war in Europe. And the Estonian people would be NATO’s first line of defense.

Estonia’s population is barely larger than Russia’s standing army, but if you think that means Estonians aren’t prepared to defend themselves, you’d be wrong. While the country only has 7,200 active army personnel during peacetime (the U.S. Army has nearly half a million), it is bolstered by some 60,000 reservists, in part due to mandatory conscription, as well as its volunteer force, the Estonian Defence League. Organized into regional units across the country, the league counted some 15,000 voluntary members at the start of 2022, plus 10,700 in its youth organizations and Women’s Defence League. Since the war in Ukraine, the organization has received roughly 4,000 new applications. 

“If you want to live in peace, you have to be prepared to protect yourself,” Estonia’s defense minister, Hanno Pevkur, tells me. Sitting in a gray chair at the red-brick Ministry of Defence building in Tallinn, Pevkur has a calm but serious face framed by neat brown hair swept to the left. He wears a navy blue suit with an Estonia/Ukraine flag on the right lapel. “We all know that our biggest threat is behind our eastern border,” he says. “We have to be ready. NATO has to be ready.” 

“If you want to live in peace, you have to be prepared to protect yourself.”

Shoring up its defenses

NATO already maintains a significant and growing presence in Estonia. Currently, this includes the deployment of multinational battalion-size battlegroups — roughly 1,500 troops from NATO member countries including the U.K., Canada and Germany — which are stationed in the country as part of the organization’s Enhanced Forward Presence initiative. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg promised more presence in June last year as the war in Ukraine waged on. “Our main responsibility is to prevent any attack on Estonia, or any other ally.”

Estonia takes its defense seriously. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the country increased its defense budget to 770.6 million euros — 2.35 percent of its gross domestic product — the third highest proportionately among NATO countries. And defense spending is now set to increase to 3 percent of GDP after Prime Minister Kaja Kallas won a landslide victory in Estonia’s general election in March. Her beaten rival, far-right party leader Martin Helme, had campaigned against further arms deliveries to Ukraine and said Estonia shouldn’t be “further escalating tensions” with Putin.

Pevkur disagrees. “This isn’t only the Ukraine War,” he says. “The Ukrainian people are also fighting for the free world.” Estonia has led international calls over the past year to send more military aid to help Ukraine fight off Russia. Its government, meanwhile, has provided assistance worth 370 million euros. At over 1 percent of GDP, it’s the biggest contribution of any country relative to the size of its economy. 

One of Pevkur’s main priorities as defense minister is to improve Estonia’s self-defense capabilities; he says the country is the most secure it’s ever been. Since the war in Ukraine, he has led his country’s efforts to modernize the armed forces. This includes acquiring new equipment — Javelin anti-tank missiles, K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers and Mistral surface-to-air missiles — with a keen eye on the war. “We have to bring all the lessons learned from Ukraine back to Estonia,” Pevkur says. Having enough ammunition is crucial, for example. “During the last year, we have acquired more ammunition than the 30 years before that combined.” 

With the increasing reliance on digital technologies in modern warfare, it’s not only about guns and tanks. Estonia has also invested heavily in cybersecurity, partly in response to the Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks launched by Russia’s security services in 2007 that severely disrupted digital networks. Now, the country has a cyber security industry that ranks fourth worldwide, according to the National Cyber Security Index.

Pevkur doesn’t believe that Estonia would be able to hold Russia off on its own indefinitely. But he is confident that his fellow Estonians would be able to hold back the Russian invaders long enough for the NATO combined forces to join them. That Estonia can hold out is contingent on one large if, though: that the Estonian people are ready and willing to defend their country if called upon. “We need to be ready to protect every meter of our land,” he tells me. “When you don’t have people who are ready and willing to protect your country, you can’t even talk about freedom.” 

“This isn’t only the Ukraine War. The Ukrainian people are also fighting for the free world.”

A painful history with Russia

At the training exercise in the Männiku forest, two uniformed soldiers drag Erni Metsal to a safe zone after he is shot in the leg. The “Russians” have retreated after a short firefight, but the remaining soldiers are still closing in as Estonian paramedics get to work. 

One of the instructors sprays fake blood over Metsal’s leg to signal heavy bleeding. A paramedic ties a tourniquet around Metsal’s lower leg while the squad leader radios for an army ambulance. It only takes 10 minutes before Metsal is loaded on a stretcher and hauled away, but a fellow soldier tells me if the exercise had been real Metsal may have lost too much blood to survive. 

Metsal signed up for the Estonian Defence League in 2014 shortly after Russia occupied and annexed Crimea, a majority Russian-speaking peninsula in the Black Sea that was previously part of Ukraine. Given that roughly 25 percent of the country’s population is ethnically Russian, Metsal honestly thought Estonia could be next. “I joined out of fear the past would repeat itself,” he tells me. 

Estonia has a long and painful history with Russia, dating back centuries. It’s also a history of successive occupations. Metsal remembers hearing about it in school. He was taught that Estonia was first conquered by Danish crusaders in 1219. During the Livonian War in 1561, it submitted to Swedish control. Then, it was taken over by the Russian Empire in 1719.

In 1918, Estonia declared independence from Russia following the collapse of the Russian Empire after World War I. However, this independence was short-lived, as the Soviet Union invaded Estonia in 1940 and annexed it as part of the USSR. It was then occupied by the Nazis during World War II before returning to the Soviet Union.

During the following decades, many Estonians — particularly members of the political or social elite — were deported to gulag prison camps in Siberia and other remote regions of the USSR. Thousands more were killed or imprisoned by the Soviet secret police, and the country’s culture and language were suppressed. Estonia regained its independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that time, it had lost an estimated fifth of its population. 

“My family tree was bled dry,” Metsal tells me. “My family line is the only one that survived.” He explains that his grandfather on his father’s side lost all his brothers. They were mostly executed. This painful legacy touches upon many Estonians, not just Metsal. It forms a large part of Estonia’s national memory and goes a long way in explaining why its people are so wary of their eastern neighbor, and why it’s seen as crucial that the country can defend itself from Russian aggression. It’s not just geopolitically shrewd. In Estonia, it feels deeply personal. 

That’s certainly the case for 27-year-old Martin Reisner, the director of the newly created defense resolve department within the Estonian Ministry of Defence. Born in 1995 in Tallinn, both of his grandfathers were deported to camps in Siberia. He remembers growing up with a poster on his wall with a man pointing down, a bit like Uncle Sam, saying that Estonia wants you to defend the country. From a young age, he would play war games in the garden with his neighbors. And he continues to do so, to a certain extent, as a member of the Estonian Defence League today. 

“When you don’t have people who are ready and willing to protect your country, you can’t even talk about freedom.” 

“The U.K., the U.S. and other countries, they’re not in a situation where they have to actively defend themselves. They’re more in a situation where they fight for their interests and values across the world,” Reisner says. “In Estonia, we’re not planning on doing any conquests. We’re only looking to protect ourselves.” 

According to the latest survey conducted shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 81 percent of the population believe that armed resistance is necessary in the event of an attack on their country, an increase of 9 percent compared to 2021. Additionally, two-thirds of respondents expressed their willingness to participate in defensive activities themselves, which is a 10 percent increase from 2021. The will is certainly there but, if push comes to shove, there are some concerns. That same poll indicated that only one-third of Estonians would know what to do in case of an attack by a hostile state. And just over 30 percent said they’d try to leave if the country were attacked.

“You really need the support from fit and healthy men and women who are ready to take up arms and have a meaningful impact on the battlefield,” Reisner says, “so now we’re looking at how we can motivate the younger part of the population.”

One solution is to make national defense courses, an optional scout-like program with some military undertones, mandatory in all Estonian schools for grades 11 and 12. “Some people might say this is propaganda. That we are militarizing society,” Reisner says. He sees, to an extent, where they are coming from. “But the other perspective could be that this is just a practical calculation of living in Estonia. You have to prepare for the worst.”

Getting as many people as possible engaged and participating in defense efforts is also necessary given Estonia’s size, Reisner says. “It’s different with big countries like the United States or Germany. We can’t really afford the luxury of having 50 percent of the population not participating in Estonian security and defense. We need pretty much everyone.”

‘I will do my duty’

Metsal was lying down in his stretcher in the back of the ambulance as it set off toward the field hospital. Or, in reality, a couple laps around a parking lot. Despite “dying” in the exercise, he was happy with how the exercise went. 

Joining the EDL is a commitment that has impacted Metsal’s life and relationships. He had a long-term girlfriend but training exercises up to two weekends a month put a serious strain on their relationship. 

Sometimes, his mind wanders to the seriousness of it all. If Russia did invade, many of his squad would likely die. He tries not to think about it; it’s too depressing. And of course, he could be killed too. “I don’t want to die,” Metsal tells me, “but I’m not a coward. I will do my duty.”   

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.