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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An American General in Estonia

TALLINN, Estonia -- If Russia were to attack Estonia, how much help would Estonia expect from the West?


"Today? Zero," said Major General Alexander Einseln, Estonia's commander-in-chief, holding up his hand in the shape of a zero.


That leaves Einseln, 62, with a daunting task. He must draw up a defense strategy for his 2,500-man army, on a defense budget of roughly $20 million this year -- barely enough to keep each soldier in uniform.


"We're getting all kinds of assistance from all kinds of places, and it's all very welcome," Einseln said. "You know, when you don't have anything you accept it: if somebody gives you a hat you wear their hat, if somebody gives you boots you wear their boots.


A year ago Einseln was Colonel Einseln, retired, of the U.S. Army. He had a comfortable pension and an admirable 35-year career behind him: he fought in the Korean War with the famous 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, was a Green Beret in Vietnam and later worked in NATO administration for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.


But Einseln was born in Tallinn and spent the first 12 years of his life here. In 1944, on the eve of his 13th birthday, his family fled Estonia just hours ahead of Soviet occupying forces. They emigrated to America, where Einseln became a citizen and joined the army in 1950.


He returned to Estonia in August 1991, 10 days after the failed coup in Moscow -- a timing that he said was coincidental.


"It was very emotional. It was very sad for me to see what had happened here in 50 years. Just the physical structure that had deteriorated, the buildings. But that's not the worst of it.


"The most difficult thing, the most criminal thing, is what was done to the psyche of the nation here, the people. The communist system was a totally corrupt system, in every aspect," he said. "People living in that system for 50 years, regardless of who they were, adopt those ways of doing things."


So Einseln -- a man who barks out sentences and does not like to repeat himself -- decided things would change. He accepted the job of commander-in-chief and the rank of major general -- though he refused to accept a salary and, according to his aide-de-camp, lives in a hostel.


The U.S. State Department was furious. Through Congress they stripped Einseln of his U.S. passport and pension. But Congress reversed itself in December, giving both back. "The State Department made the decision in my case not taking into account the real feelings of the American people. Americans come from different parts of the world: Scotland, Italy, Russia, China, from all over the place, and they have ties to those places," Einseln said.


Einseln has written Estonia's first army code of ethics, fired thousands of soldiers and personally taken charge of the training of junior officers.


In addition to his 2,500-man force, he has also struggled to reform Estonia's 8,000-man Home Guard, an organization of "weekend warriors" -- taxi drivers and bankers who don uniforms and guns in their spare time.


"When I first got here, in April of last year, weekly I would read in the papers of a shooting incident that involved a Home Guard person who was drunk and had a weapon, and either shot his neighbor or shot himself or shot somebody in a bar or did something stupid like that," Einseln said.


On Einseln's orders, 2,000 Home Guard soldiers "who should have never been in uniform in the first place" were fired. New volunteers are being recruited to replace them. In the past four months, there have been no alcohol-weapons incidents.


Einseln is also tackling what he calls "one of the wildest, worst, most inhuman practices in the Soviet military" -- the beatings soldiers give new recruits.


"The first four months I was here I had six investigations" of physical abuse, Einseln said. "All six proved to be true, unfortunately. I have had only one since then."


"Now I'm not stupid enough to believe the problem is solved. Anything that has gotten into the system that deeply, over 50 years, you don't change overnight. But when I do find one, I deal with it very harshly. I do not compromise on this."


Einseln has a host of other problems to solve. There is the 650-man Baltic battalion, an army made up of soldiers from all three Baltic states: the battalion, which uses English as a working language, is being trained to take part in UN peacekeeping operations.


Elsewhere, KGB spies are trying to infiltrate the military, and Soviet-style corruption still exists. NATO must be wooed, Russian troops must withdraw without incident, and Estonia must decide whether her army will be made up of professionals or manned by draftees.


"The question I'm most often asked is what do I need most," Einseln said. "The expected answer is money. Yeah, I need money, I need lots of money, but what I really need is time. I can't create new cadre overnight, I can't change peoples' ways of doing things overnight. It all takes time. But it can be done."