Estonia has built strong defence policy and military ties especially with US, UK, France, and Denmark, as well as Germany, by participating actively alongside these allies in operations in Kosovo (KFOR, since 1999), Afghanistan (ISAF, March 2003 to December 2014, and Resolute Support, since January 2015), Iraq (Iraqi Freedom, June 2003 to end 2009, and NATO Training Mission, February 2005 to November 2011), Somalia / Indian Ocean (EUNAVFOR Atalanta, December 2010 to May 2013), Mali (EU Training Mission, since March 2013, and MINUSMA, since September 2013), and in the Central African Republic (EUFOR RCA, May to August 2014).
Consequently, it is entirely natural that UK, France, and Denmark chose to deploy their contingents to Estonia. Since April/May 2017 their contributions have formed a rotational Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) with the UK acting as the lead-nation further complemented by 300 French troops or a Danish company.
The first French eFP rotation in Estonia was followed by the arrival of the Danish troops and equipment in early January 2018. The French contingent at Tapa Garrison, manned partly by hardy personnel from the Légion étrangère, was commanded by Colonel Olivier Waché. It gained valuable training experience in Estonia’s particular weather conditions and geography. Most importantly, the French military was able to further cement friendly relations and joint operational skills together with their Estonian and British camarades d’armes. In 2018, the French contingent will continue its eFP duty in Lithuania, where Germany, another main European defence cooperation partner of France, is the lead-nation.
On January 18, 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May and President Emmanuel Macron agreed to continue Franco-British cooperation in combatting terrorism in Africa (three RAF Chinook helicopters will provide logistical support to French troops in Mali) as well as contributing to NATO’s deterrence mission in Estonia (France committed troops to the British-led BTG in 2019). These announcements were made in a very timely fashion, as Estonia expressed its desire for a French comeback to the 2017 format, and is contemplating the deployment of a platoon-size contingent to Mali, to participate – upon invitation by Malian Government – in operation Barkhane.
There was a time, at the very beginning of the 2000s, when Estonian political leaders and military commanders could not anticipate that the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) would soon participate in large-scale operations in the deserts of the Middle East and the mountains of Afghanistan. A decade later, it became evident that EDF had to prepare to expand its operational geography through the Indian Ocean, around the Horn of Africa, to Western and Central Africa, a vast and diverse region of strategic interest to France.
The French-Estonian defence cooperation, which has developed rapidly since 2008 (when France decided to reintegrate into NATO’s military structure), has boomed since Estonia decided to deploy instructors and troops to Mali, and thereafter to the Central African Republic. In the case of the latter, Estonia was the first ally to volunteer following a request from France.
In the early part of this decade, the Estonian public did not question the expansion of EDF’s operational geography to Saharan and even sub-Saharan Africa. The implicit relationship between joint participation in out-of-area operations and collective defence efforts, on grounds of shared interests and mutual contribution to security, is very well understood. The deployment of a new Estonian contingent to Mali, to be decided soon by the Estonian Government, and thereafter by Riigikogu (parliament), would also enjoy the full support of EDF, given the previous positive experience of cooperation with France in Africa.
France is a nuclear power and one of Estonia’s most important NATO and EU allies. The positive momentum achieved in Franco-Estonian defence relations since 2008, from which both sides have clearly benefited, should be maintained. In 2018, France will participate, once again, in the Baltic Air Policing mission, but for the first time at Ämari Air Base. France and Estonia cooperate also in many other areas, including cyber defence, but the French eFP contingent is the crown jewel. The eFP will probably continue on the agreed basis as long as the security situation has not improved significantly and decisively. Therefore, Estonia expects with confidence the return of the French troops in 2019.