Can Estonian soldiers defend their country by fighting in the middle of Africa? Last week, the European Union approved plans to send up to 1,000 troops to the Central African Republic (CAR). Perhaps surprisingly, Estonia was the first EU member to make a firm pledge of ground forces to the mission, which will reinforce existing French and African contingents. Other eastern EU members, including Poland and the Czech Republic, are also reportedly considering participating, while Britain and Germany have hung back.
This diplomatic maneuvering says more about the state of European defense cooperation than African affairs. The Estonians, Czechs and Poles have few if any direct interests in central Africa. Their decisions are surely affected by the sheer awfulness of the humanitarian situation in CAR, where sectarian killings remain rife. But they also have good reasons to prioritize military ties with France.
Although grappling with defense cuts and the stabilization operation in Mali, Paris has fostered its security relationships in historically U.S.-aligned Eastern Europe, even as Washington has downgraded its attention to the post-Soviet space and Europe in general. Last year, France dispatched 1,200 troops to participate in “Steadfast Jazz,” a NATO exercise simulating the defense of the Baltic States and Poland against a Russian attack. The U.S., Britain and Germany only played minor roles in the war game. Estonia’s commitment to an EU-deployed mission to CAR may be a “thank you” present for this show of support.