As Russia's actions in Ukraine rattle its neighbors, the Maryland National Guard is affirming its decades-long partnership with Estonia.
Maryland has helped to train Estonian troops since shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Now it's preparing to send A-10 pilots and liaison officers to Saber Strike, an annual U.S.-led security exercise that focuses on Estonia and its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania.
The commander of the Maryland Guard traveled to Estonia last week for meetings with Northern European defense ministers and U.S. military leaders. Officials from the Estonian Embassy in Washington recently visited two Estonian pilots now serving alongside Marylanders in the Guard at Edgewood. And a long range reconnaissance and surveillance team from Maryland has just returned from participating in Estonia's largest annual military exercises — which this year included the most troops ever, and the largest foreign contingent.
Much of the activity was planned before Russia annexed Crimea and began moving troops near the border with eastern Ukraine. But Maj. Gen. James Adkins, commander of the Maryland National Guard, said leaders have discussed Russia's actions "in great detail."
"Obviously, our allies are paying close attention," he said from Tallinn, the Estonian capital. "The emphasis was that we live in uncertain times, and potentially dangerous times. …
"This is the exact situation that we've worked for for all these years, to be prepared to partner to ensure stability and democracy in that area of the world."
The contacts and cooperation reflect a broader effort by NATO and the West to demonstrate a unified front in the face of Russian actions in and around Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union "a major geopolitical disaster;" Western leaders accuse him of using Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms and others to stir unrest in the largest independent former Soviet republic.
"NATO is in a critical crossroads … given the aggressiveness of Russia, so its eastern flank must be reconsidered," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said last month before the Atlantic Council in Washington. While the Pentagon has "a very clear picture" of Russia's military capabilities, Dempsey said, its will and intent "remain elusive."
At West Point last week, President Barack Obama said, "Russia's recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe."
Such concerns are felt keenly in Estonia. The independent former Soviet republic of 1.3 million remains home to hundreds of thousands who identify as Russians — the people Putin said he was protecting before Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and again this year when it annexed Crimea. Estonia shares a border with Russia, and Tallinn is only 540 miles from Moscow — about the distance between Richmond, Va., and Boston.
Unlike Ukraine or Georgia, Estonia is a member of NATO. Amid the rising tension around Ukraine, NATO leaders have stressed their commitment to collective defense, in which an attack on one member is considered an attack an all.
Col. Aivar Salekesin, the defense attache at the Estonian Embassy in Washington, says his country's relationship with the Maryland Guard helped make its admission to NATO in 2004 possible.
The Pentagon started the State Partnership Program in 1993, soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union, to help the former Soviet republics develop modern militaries and to foster democracy and free markets. Maryland, home to a modest Estonian community, was paired with the newly independent Baltic state.
At the time, Soviet troops were withdrawing from their bases in Estonia, leaving the fledgling nation to build its own defense forces "from scratch," Salekesin said during his visit to Edgewood last month.
The Maryland Guard has trained Estonian troops and participated alongside them in exercises. Maryland also has worked closely with the Estonian Defense Forces on cybersecurity — the country was subjected in 2007 to cyberattacks that Estonian officials blamed on Moscow — and on clearing unexploded mines and ordnance.
Estonian soldiers have deployed to Afghanistan with the state Guard.
They include Capt. Martin Noorsalu, one of a dozen helicopter pilots in the Estonian Air Force, who flew medical evacuation missions in Afghanistan in 2012 with the 1st General Support Aviation Battalion of the 169th Aviation Regiment.
Noorsalu says there is no other way he could have gained that experience. The Estonian Air Force numbers about 400 personnel; their aircraft is limited to four helicopters.
"What we take home is the real experience," he said. "We gained real military operational exercise experience. We have the knowledge of how to operate a helicopter in a military environment."
Maryland National Guard Maj. T.J. Sullins, the bilateral affairs officer for defense cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, describes Estonia as an enthusiastic contributor to NATO. It's one the few members that commits the required 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product to defense. It has completed 17 six-month rotations in Afghanistan and also sent troops to Iraq and Kosovo.
"They don't want to be seen as consumers," Sullins said. "They want to be seen as contributors to NATO. … They want the rest of NATO to realize how serious they take these types of possible threats."
Sullins described one threat: "Estonia clearly has the biggest dog sitting in its front yard."
Estonian officials have been guarded in their public comments about Russia.
Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, meeting in Washington last week with Secretary of State John Kerry, said his country "really and strongly appreciates the very quick reaction of the United States to change the security circumstances and security environment in Europe. …
"Of course, we both at the moment like to see the quick and clear de-escalation of the situation in Ukraine."
At Edgewood last month, Tanel Sepp, the deputy chief of mission at the Estonian Embassy in Washington, said his nation values the partnership with Maryland.
"At the moment, we appreciate any forms of cooperation with the U.S.," he said. "During times like right now, this is all very much appreciated."
Adkins, the Guard commander, first traveled to Estonia as a lieutenant colonel in 1993. He accompanied Estonian officials as they visited the General Assembly in Annapolis to see democracy in action. The delegation included at least two future generals.
The result, he said, is a cohort of officers in the United States and Estonia that have risen in parallel to senior positions in their countries' armed forces — and know each other on a first-name basis.
"As you learn in life, when you have those longterm personal relationships, it means a lot."
Adkins studies history. He spoke of the 100th anniversary this month of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — the fuse that lit World War I, the deadliest conflict Europe had ever seen.
"With the uncertainty in the world, I think it's a great time to understand that while we've for the most part in Europe had a period of peace and prosperity, people can make decisions or miscalculate the outcome of what they're doing, and you never know what the future will hold," he said. "The world can quickly turn into a very dangerous place."