Hundreds of British soldiers will be pulled out of Estonia by Christmas — halving the UK’s presence in the region — despite pledges by ministers to beef up Nato defences in the face of Russian aggression.
The Estonian government had been expecting as many as 2,000 UK troops to remain, plus a few hundred more arriving to make up a brigade-sized force ready to defend the country in the event of an attack.
However, two sources familiar with the situation told The Times that a 700-strong battalion that has been stationed in Estonia since February was returning in December with no plans to replace it.
The return will mean the number of British boots on the ground in Estonia will almost halve at a time of soaring tensions and fears that President Putin could become more dangerous as Russia fails to make gains on the battleground in Ukraine.
One source said that it was the belief of many European nations that the “British army is now too small and doesn’t have enough soldiers to spare”.
Tensions have increased in recent days between Russia and the West, with Putin threatening nuclear retaliation and Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, warning of “catastrophic consequences” if Russia uses a nuclear weapon on Ukraine.
“Getting troops out when Putin threatens to wipe half of Europe sends a bad message,” the source added.
Days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, Britain announced it was doubling its force in Estonia by about 1,000 troops as part of a wider Nato uplift across eastern Europe. Troops, tanks and armoured fighting vehicles were moved to the Baltic state.
In June Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said that Britain would commit an extra 2,000 troops to Estonia under Nato plans to defend eastern Europe against a Russian attack. That number included the continuation of the temporary deployment of up to 1,000 troops sent in February, plus another 1,000 troops at Nato’s disposal.
However, only one 900-strong battlegroup from the King’s Royal Hussars, which took over from The Royal Welsh last week, will be stationed in the country from January. It will be there as part of Nato’s enhanced forward presence, a force formed in 2017 to deter Russia. The second battlegroup — of 700 personnel — will return.
A defence source said the remaining troops would be on standby to head to Estonia to make up a brigade-sized force, rather than being based in country.
Some countries in Nato believe that Russia has been weakened so much by its war in Ukraine that the Baltic states need not worry about Putin invading.
However, the Baltic states believe they need to be properly prepared given that Putin has not followed the logic the West understands so far.
The British army is to shrink to 72,500 troops, the smallest since the Napoleonic era. It is unclear whether the plans will be reversed, as Liz Truss promised to boost defence spending to 3 per cent of national income by 2030. Wallace said last week that the military was “going to grow” for the first time since the end of the Cold War as a result.
The UK Ministry of Defence said: “The additional battle group was always a temporary deployment. Our commitment to Nato in response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is total.”