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Estonia May Not Have Large Forces, But Can Still Help NATO - 2002-11-20

Estonia is one of seven countries expected to get an invitation to join NATO at the alliance's summit which gets underway Thursday in Prague.

Estonian officials readily admit that they don't have enough money or people to make large contributions to NATO. But to them, that doesn't mean they cannot make a significant contribution.

At the Paldiski military base about 50 kilometers from Tallinn, the Estonian capital, Major Artur Tiganik trains soldiers who serve in international missions in Kosovo or Bosnia. "We are not able to put a large force, the infantry, a lot of APC's (armored personnel carriers). No we are not able. And nobody is asking us for this," he said.

But Mr. Tiganik and other Estonian officials said their soldiers can carry out many important tasks, such as mine clearing, something Estonian forces are already doing in Afghanistan.

Estonia has also promised NATO that by the year 2005 it will be able to field a battalion of 750 men to serve as a rapid reaction force in NATO missions. For many NATO countries that would not be a big commitment but it is for Estonia which only has about 4,000 people on active military duty.

And being able to perform specialized missions that don't require a lot of troops may fit in well with changes going on in NATO itself. During the Prague summit, NATO leaders are expected to address ways the organization can meet new challenges outside their traditional area of interest, such as missions in Asia or Africa.

At the London-based Royal Services Institute, Kenneth Payne studies NATO expansion issues. He said the Baltics have made specialization a priority for a reason. "One of the key selling points they've been trying to offer to NATO is that they can offer niche capabilities. They can offer deployable small units, which have some relevance to the task that NATO is trying to assume," Mr. Payne said.

One thing Estonia cannot offer NATO is sophisticated military hardware, such as precision guided missiles. Like its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, which are also set to join NATO, Estonia barely was able to provide boots for its soldiers when it became independent. Most of the military equipment it has was given by neighboring countries such as Denmark or Germany.

But Mr. Payne said ultimately these drawbacks don't really matter when it comes to the new member countries. "The chief point about NATO is that it's less to do with military capabilities and more to do with the political development of Europe and the political development of NATO itself," he said.

After years of having little role in Europe and no role in NATO, Estonian officials say they are looking forward to making military as well as political contributions to Europe and NATO.