When the Cold War ended in 1991 it became fashionable, and popular, to eliminate conscription. This enforced peacetime military service had been the norm in Europe for over a century and was increasingly unpopular. For a decade country after country eliminated conscription. Between 2000 and 2010, as the Russian threat returned, conscription returned. Not everyone used the revived conscription the same way. Nations bordering Russia, most now belonging to or allied with NATO, wanted to do more than just compel young men to spend a year or two as soldiers. For these nations, conscription was not enough to deal with the Russian threat. Some creativity was needed.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (the “Baltic States” that were long part of Russia) are the easternmost members of NATO as well as the smallest. All three have adopted similar defense plans, based on the mobilization of the entire population to keep the Russians fighting for as long as possible until the rest of NATO can show up and force the Russians out. Each of the three Baltic States has a slightly different approach to dealing with the Russian threat, but together are recognized as leaders in developing innovative defense policies to deal with the Russian threat. This is important because Russia has been resourceful in developing new techniques for attacking and subduing neighbors. Russia has been doing this for centuries and the neighbors are well aware of it. The Baltic States, however, have developed defensive plans that seek to use some of the clever Russian tactics against the Russians.
Most active in this approach is Estonia, which is the easternmost NATO nation and the Baltic state that is ethnically related to Finland, not the other Slavic nations of East Europe. Estonia and Finland speak a similar language and share many cultural characteristics, which has led to some different approaches to wrangling Russians.
Until the early 20th century there were serious discussions of Estonia becoming part of Finland but that has faded. The main problem is that Estonia and Finland are separated by a narrow portion of the Baltic Sea. While still major trading partners and frequently providing welcome visitors for each other, Estonia is isolated on the south shore of the Baltic and thus more vulnerable to foreign occupation. Nevertheless, the Estonians and Finns share many of the same attitudes about national defense, which means how to keep the Russians out. The other two Baltic States have learned to watch and learn from what Estonia does in defense matters. There is also the association with Finland, the only nation to defeat a Russian invasion during World War II. Tiny Finland fought the much larger Russian army to a standstill in 1940 and persuaded the Russians to accept a peace deal.
While the Finns defeated the massive Soviet Army in 1940, they also made the Russians wary of going into Finland again. After World War II Russia decided not to attempt making Finland one of its “satellite states” as was the case in most of East Europe, including the Baltic States. Note that Russian took over these East European government not so much with military occupation but with political and media manipulation, assisted by a little violence, to get a pro-Russia government elected, after which there were no more elections. There were no Russian troops based in Finland during the Cold War and both nations left each other alone. The Russians had decided that, while they could invade and conquer Finland, it was not worth the price militarily, politically, diplomatically and so on.
Now, with membership in NATO, Estonia sees an opportunity to do the same thing; scare Russia into staying out. Estonian defense policy is based on organizing the country for total resistance to any invasion. Everyone fights and keeps fighting as long as NATO reinforcements are on the way. While military planners agree that it is possible for Russian forces to “overrun Estonia in s few days,” the Estonians point out that overrunning and defeating are two different things. Moreover, nearly half the population lives in the capital (Tallinn) which is an ancient port city and 87 kilometers to the north, across the Baltic, is its Finnish counterpart, Helsinki. The Estonians are well aware of Russian developments in EW (Electronic Warfare) and Internet hacking. That is one reason why Estonia has created one of the best Internet and communications security capabilities in Europe. Estonia may be small but they know what is important. If the Russians come their bad behavior will be captured and broadcast (one way or another) as close to 24/7 as the Estonians can manage. Russia does not like its brutal methods exposed like that because even a lot of Russians don’t approve of that sort of thing. Broadcast the lies live and the lies lose their power.
The Estonian military forces reflect the total war attitude. The voluntary Eesti Kaitseliit (Estonian Defense League) has 15,000 active members and another 10,000 inactive (in peacetime). The military is based on the same model used by Israel, Switzerland and Sweden; conscription for a short period and then decades in the trained and armed reserves. While there are only 6,500 full-time Estonian troops, there are 60,000 in the reserves. The Defense League concentrates on training for irregular warfare and spends more time at it than the average reservist. In wartime, the Defense League and reservists would work closely together to keep the invaders busy and off guard. The biggest problem facing any invader is that fact that so many Estonians live in urban areas, mainly the capital and its suburbs. The Defense League and reservists understand that Tallinn must become, for as long as needed and at whatever cost, another “Stalingrad” with the Russians being the German invaders. Stalingrad remains a big deal in Russian military history, the city on the Volga River that tied down the invading, and seemingly unstoppable Germans for months until a counterattack inflicted a major defeat in early 1943 that led to a German retreat and ended with Russian troops taking Berlin two years later.
The lesson learned in World War II was to avoid fighting inside cities as much as possible. If you can’t take a city quickly, surround it and pass it by. The Russians can’t do that with Tallinn and the Estonians are taking advantage of that. Unlike the attack on Finland in 1939-40, the Russians don't have 21 divisions to go into Estonia. Then again the Estonian forces are much smaller as well. The Estonians are also capitalizing on the “crazy Finns” reputation. In the past, the Estonians have proved a stubborn as their Finnish cousins up north but never had the numbers and territorial depth that enabled the Finns to defeat the Russians in 1940. Now, as a NATO member, Estonia has depth in the form of NATO reinforcement and time is on the side of the Estonians because, if Tallinn turns into a Stalingrad type battle, the Russians have lost. The Russians know this and discuss it openly in their military journals. If the Russians have a solution they are keeping their own troops in the dark. That usually means the Russians are stymied, as long as the Estonians maintain their determination for total war and Stalingrad on the Baltic.